Chennai: Growing up in Madhya Pradesh, I am not a stranger to the feeling of celebrating Durga Puja away from Kolkata but the feeling of celebrating it away from loved ones is definitely a new experience for me.
Since childhood, the definition of Durga Puja has never been a fixed one for me. For the first 11 years of my life in Madhya Pradesh, Durga Puja or Dasara celebrations meant getting long leave from studies and homework. ‘Pujo’ for me began with Birendra Kishore Bhadra’s recital of Mahishasura Mardini, a collection of shlokas and songs broadcast by All India Radio Kolkata at 4:00 a.m on mahalaya. In the next five years that I resided in Madhya Pradesh, the entire family travelled to Kolkata to spend the holidays with grandparents and pandal hopping commenced.
Eventually, we shifted to Kolkata and Durga Puja transformed into the most awaited time of the year. The ritual of listening to Mahishasura Mardini shifted from the confinement of the tape recorder at my home to microphones in our neighbourhood.
People could be seen sitting in their balconies and getting in the mood to welcome the goddess while listening to the ‘chandi paath.’ Yellow taxis could be seen lining up in front of most houses and families reuniting at the peak of celebrations. Pujo for me, has always been accompanied by pandal hopping, varieties of street food and spending time with friends and family. It has always been that time of the year when the entire city gets decked up with colourful lights and decorations. No amount of heat, sweat or tiredness has the power of destroying people’s enthusiasm.
Things tend to change with time and so did the Pujo rituals change for me since 2018. No more phucka or egg rolls on the streets of Kolkata or checking out the most amazing pandals of the year. For the first time last year, I spent Durga Puja away from my loved ones. My ship sailed to the southern part of India and everything changed, except for the ritual of mahalaya which has now shifted to YouTube. Nothing made me feel worse than attending lectures on panchami and watching Kolkata’s pandals through WhatsApp and Instagram updates or video calls. Once I shifted to Chennai it has almost became impossible for me to get back home for any celebration including Pujo.
It was difficult for me to feel the happiness of Durga Maa’s agomoni (welcoming of the goddess) or the sadness of Bijoya dashami (the day of immersion). Instead of waking up the sound of the dhak (musical instrument), I woke up to the noise of my alarm clock. Not meeting friends and sitting in a pandal with complete strangers has become a new reality. One thing that has kept me sane over the last couple of years is the sense of belonging that I get from people visiting the pandals in Chennai.
The happiness of being able to converse in my mother tongue while enjoying a piece of fish fry knows no bounds. Cities might have changed but certain rituals such as Ashtami’s khichdi bhog, have not changed.
Others feel the same way. Trinetra Paul, a journalist in the making, said, “Well, at first I was apprehensive. But my Bengali friends gathered and we went out; that was amazing. Both on panchami and Shoshti. Overall it was a fun time, even in Chennai. Hunting down food places for the festive days and pandals to go...”
For Aritra, an analyst by profession, it wasn’t the first time away from home. “This is my first time in Chennai spending Durga puja outside the home. Unlike every time, I spent Durga puja going to the office and working. But I was getting the Durga puja vibes virtually, thanks to my friends and family who kept on sending photos and videos of the craze back at home. Never did I feel I was away from home. The short visit to one of the Durga Puja pandals at the Bengal Association in T. Nagar definitely led me to feel I was at home. I realized that Bengalis can enjoy puja happily even outside Kolkata.”
The emotions remain the same for Bengalis who are unable to get back home during the festive season but they never fail to make Durga Puja a success, irrespective of the state or country they are residing in.
Watching women complete the rituals of Bijoya Dashami in Chennai, including sindoor khela (Bengali tradition where women smear vermilion on each other’s face as part of Vijayadashami) made me realise that no matter which part of the world I am in, I will always miss home at this time of the year. For me, Durga Puja is not just a festival but an emotion....