Rebel all you want — but life has a way of pulling you back to the basics
This Durga Puja, which got over just two days ago, I went pandal-hopping with gusto even though the festival is celebrated in barely five locations in the whole of Chennai. Which meant shaking hands with hitherto-unknown Bengali men who, like me, are also living in the city; admiring the beautiful Bengali women who made you wonder why you don't ever run into them during the rest of the year; savouring the artery-choking Mughlai parathas and cutlets sold at the stalls; admiring the beautiful face of the goddess as the priest waved burning incense at her to the beats of the dhaak – the sound of Bengal.
Each time I stood in front of the goddess, transfixed, as the incense was being waved at her, I could see my mind racing thirty years back in time to a city called Kanpur, where I, as a ten-year-old, stood watching a similar spectacle.
Back then, Durga Puja meant at least three sets of new clothes, each to be worn on saptami, ashtami and navami. The cloth would be purchased and given to the tailor more than a month in advance. During those three days, you would be granted immunity against homework. Also during those three days, you discovered the joys of eating out – the biggest joy, and sense of achievement, being derived from the eating of the bhog, or the community feast, consisting of khichuri and labra.
Khichuri (a soggy preparation of rice and lentils) and labra (a mix of crudely-chopped vegetables) can only count as the humblest of dishes one can think of, but when eaten collectively out of leaf-plates at the puja pandal, the khichuri-labra combo becomes a delicacy in itself. The smell of khichuri is something that gets embedded in the nostrils of a Bengali child right from the formative years.
Then, one day, youth intervenes. You rebel against the practices you've followed as a child; you find it uncool to waste a day at the puja pandal; you find it horrifying that people should queue up for the khichuri and labra as if they were beggars. You want to do your own thing, much to the disappointment of your parents who want you to come along for the puja just like you did in your childhood. Then comes the stage where you are too busy making a career to be thinking of festivals. Who has the time to go back to Kanpur to attend, of all things, Durga Puja? Years pass.
Finally, one day, you miss the smell of khichuri. You suddenly crave it. You want to take the train back to childhood but it is simply too late. So guided by your nostrils, you scour the streets of Chennai and eventually come across a puja pandal, where scenes from your childhood are being played out. You meekly join the queue with a leaf-plate to have some khichuri and labra scooped on to it. Over the meal, you make new friends and perhaps meet your future wife. And then you start coming to the same place, year after year. You've become a part of Chennai's Durga Puja celebrations.
But just when you are beginning to relive your childhood, you realise that your child is no longer a child but a young man – a rebel – who would rather have lunch at Bay Leaf with his friends than sweat it out with fellow Bengalis over a boring meal of khichuri and labra. But when he takes up a job in the U.S., and once he gets as old as you, he too will crave the familiar smell someday. He will scour the alien streets of his city and eventually come across a pandal crowded with Bengalis speaking English with an American – and not Bengali – accent. He will become a part of the New Jersey Durga Puja celebrations.
Someday, many decades down the line, his grandson will tell himself that he has had enough of the American way of the puja, and that in order to enjoy the festival in its truest sense, he must return to Kanpur. So he will be standing there, on the invisible footprints of a ten-year-old, watching the priest wave burning incense at the goddess. Life would have come full circle.
Published in The Hindu MetroPlus, October 8, 2011.