It’s that time of the year again! The pleasant, slightly chilly winter mornings with a breeze that makes you stop and inhale the scent of the freshly blossoming “shiuli phool” and feel the air of festivities around you. I sit down with my diary on the sofa at Kailash Bhawan in an effort to encapsulate the essence of Kali Puja…
God. This is difficult. Trying to express the aura central to one culture in the language of another can be as daunting a task as translating a piece of work from one language to another. There is always the fear of losing certain moments in the process of translation. I am pulled out of my reverie as I hear my aunt calling out someone’s name from the 4th floor of the 5 storeyed house and I smile. Things are not just lost. They are gained as well.
Normally, I’m a resident of the small town of Jamshedpur but every year during Kali Puja, the whole family gets together in Kolkata to celebrate the Puja by inviting the Deity to our house and then after the ceremonies bidding her goodbye at the Ghat of the Ganges. Today is one such time when I get to experience the vibrance and beauty of the festival in its all its glory for the coming three days and the reason, dear diary, for me wanting to record these miniscule details is that I’m not sure for how long this tradition of ours will be upheld successfully.
The five storeyed quadrangle of the house basked in the glory of the decorations that it had been festooned with. Nieces, nephews, cousins, siblings, uncles, aunts, grandparents, on the whole, four generations of the same family were calling out from one floor to the other (I remember my Grandpa joking about it being a 4G family) in the hope of trying to call the attention of the one they needed, over the din of utensils, the motor of the pump and the occasional “dhak” that came floating in from the outside. I know what you are thinking. It is a big family with at least 60-70 people gathering for one event and is it even possible to know each other’s names. The answer? Well, truth be told, we don’t. It is not like we don’t know each other. Oh boy. If we were to guess a person every time someone mimicked them, it would be plain sailing. No. The problem laid in the fact that everyone knew each other by different names. The concept of “daak naam” or pet names was a confusing one because the same person was referred to by different people differently and everyone ended up locating the person by explaining their physical features to them!
The elders enter into the living room to sort out the expenses of the puja and I quietly slip out to the “Gari Baronda” (terrace) to appreciate the aesthetics of the place. The rays of the sun playfully part the leaves to fall on the floor of the extended balcony to make patterns with shadows and light and at that moment I close my eyes to hear the “whoosh” of the wind kiss past my ear, th sound of tea being poured into a glass from the pan, by the vendor on the footpath, the usual honking of the cars and the bustling downstairs, the “tring tring” of the bell on the rickshaw..wait not rickshaw, that’s the phone. My eyes fly open. I can already feel a slight emptiness in my stomach. Must be the “nirjala” fast that we take up after having one sweet and a glass of water at four in the morning, so that we can take part in the puja preparations. I think I hear someone calling out my name, should go now, will come back to you later!
Its evening now. The deity has been set and there is a plethora of different sweets and bhog accompanying the usual paraphernalia that is needed for the ritual. While some family members go into their rooms to dress up in all their splendour others stay back near the site to hold down the fort. The “dhaki” has arrived and plays a rhythmic beat at intervals to add to the atmosphere of the puja as the conch’s sound resonates through everybody’s minds and the smell of “dhuno” fills the air. The youngsters gleefully eye the crackers that are kept aside while those of us who are suffering from hunger pangs every now and then, eye the sweets. The toughest part, honestly, had been serving food at lunch to the ones who were eating today…
…Its 11:00 in the night and the ceremony has started and the chants of the purohit echo in the quadrangle occasionally asking for this and that while the dhaki in full, ecstatic spirit plays on climbing to a crescendo, ultimately letting the beats follow one another so fast that it becomes impossible to distinguish one beat from the next..
By the time its 2:00 everyone has mellowed down a little and some members have retired to bed. While the ceremony goes on, our generation ranging from 5 year olds to 30year olds, bring down a single blanket and snuggle into it to talk and catch up. Food and sleep remain the top thoughts in our minds but we try and divert our senses to other productive and less torturous ideas to while the time away. This hour is the most difficult hour to pass as the hunger pangs are at their highest but we all know that in 2-3 more hours we will be able to break the fast and none of us want to lose the glory of having been able to complete the 24hr abstinence (such is the enthusiasm of a young mind)
Finally, it’s 5:00, and after finishing the last of the rituals, all the “uposhis” (the people who have fasted) sit down at the table for the bhog and God! That cold khichdi is ambrosia to our lips. We hungrily gulp down the last of it and with our hunger sated, we make our way to the beds so that we can wake up as fresh as a morning daisy after a few hour’s sleep.
As the day of the visarjan arrives we pack into two trucks and a few cars (I’m not exaggerating), and bear the idol away to the Ganges to bid the Goddess goodbye. Tapping to the tunes of the dhaki, the youth stand at the sides of the truck with the younger ones and the elders sitting in the middle, some stand regardless of the warnings and can only be persuaded (or reprimanded, in case of the younger one’s, after they have had a fall or two within the truck!) As we reach the ghat, the younger men carry out the idol to the river and the whole of the family follows dancing and applying colours to each other to witness the spectacle and take their final bows to Godess Kali. As she is lowered down into the water everybody is filled with a bittersweet sense of longing to relive the past few days and seeing the deity being submerged a tight knot forms at the back of our throat and it is now that a worry creeps into our minds. Observing the Kali puja in all its resplendence is a beautiful practice that has been followed but how much longer will we be able to do it? With the new generation going off to different parts of the world and families becoming more and more nuclear how much longer will this be possible?
..Back in Kailash Bhawan..it is evening now and the possibility of these celebrations coming to a stop breaks my heart. Just then I notice, my 6 year old niece coming out to sit with me and I ask her instinctively, “Would you continue to come here for years after?” and her reply brings a smile to my lips as she quizzically says, “Of course! Why wouldn’t I? It’s a part of me, isn’t it?”
The next morning when I board the train, I have nostalgia reverberating through my veins…the gari baranda, the constant typical sounds of traffic, the rhythm of the “dhak” that makes you feel exhilarated.. friendships rekindled, new bonds formed, 43 Vivekananda Girish Park stands as a reminder of all of this and much more! It is a place where even when you are meeting people for the first time, you feel a strange sense of belonging and oneness. Truly it is a part of me. Finally as the train moves out of the platform I find my conflict resolving, and with my mind’s eye think of the old yet beautiful red façade while I say softly to myself, “Ashche bochor Aabar Hobe!” (We’ll welcome you again next year)