I remember a time when, as a child, I was going through the ‘abey-yaar‘,’sunn-na‘, much to the chagrin of my parents, mainly my mother. Sometimes it would just slip out of my mouth during dinner time, and she would give me a smelly eye or confront me saying, ‘Your parents are not your’.yaar‘. “
It was something that, like many other children, I had learned in school. In the early 2000s, these words were pretty much underlined and written as ‘slang’, and in my Bengali speaking house, they just weren’t entertained. Even today I stop before I let my tongue throw a ‘yaar‘ or one ‘abbe‘, for fear of being reprimanded by my mother again.
But the only thing that surprises me in hindsight is how quickly my little mind would vanish and erase the vocabulary of such phrases in the presence of adults, at family reunions, at festivals. , etc. It was like an unwritten rule. Even though she was worried, my mother never had to deal with the embarrassment of having to see me ‘disrespecting’ my face. mashi and the pishis calling them my ‘yaar‘.
And Durga Puja, more than anything else, played a huge role in it. Although it is a festival, it was the cord that tied me to my culture and my roots. It almost seemed strange how an annual four day festival helped me better understand what it means to be a Bengali and to ‘belong’ somewhere and everywhere.
For us, North Indians, who grew up in a mixed culture with a medley of languages (in my case, English at school, Hindi with friends and Bengali at home), the reverent Durga Puja was an occasion that allowed us to shamelessly wear our ‘Bong-ness’. Although far from the chaotic madness of Kolkata’s crowded lanes pujas, it was always a hopeful frenzy to come together and find a reason to celebrate the tradition.
It was almost as if in the swollen sea of howls, I was going to soak the words “slang”. In the green room where I would urgently change my costumes – one sari has a ghagra, To dhoti and one sari again – before a dance performance or the third act of a play, I would forget about the world a bit and focus on worshiping, spotlighting and calming the audience.
Even though my stomach was growling, I fasted – taking determined steps towards the goddess through the crowd of adults twice my size for pushpanjali/aarti, holding more flowers than my fists could hold, and throwing them away as he pleased.
Other perks, of course, included wearing new clothes, deciding which to wear when – Navami was invariably reserved for the most stunning outfit – stuffing me with chops, buns, ice cream and pakoras, and just feel good about myself for a few days.
I remember a few years ago, during my graduate studies, when I had an argument with a fellow lot, who challenged me by saying that Durga Puja “does not arrive” in his town anymore.
“It happens in every Indian city,” I replied like a guardian of culture, feeling furious that a non-Bong thinks so little of us Bengalis. “We are like bacteria that grow everywhere; you’ll find a Durga Puja even if it’s just a family playing it in a remote corner of the world, ”I barked.
Over time, as I developed clarity of thought about my stance towards religion and my connection with God, I realized that Durga Puja was more of a cultural thread than a religious one. It was the only investment of my time and energy that I had made over the years. I had hoped it would continue, for posterity.
The pandemic was a brutal shock. The Bengalis are so protective of their culture that it is inconceivable that Durga Puja could ever be reduced. We are so confident to celebrate the festival year after year and so strong is the mourning to have to watch Maa Durga ‘leaving’ after four days we even have the adage, ‘Aashche bochhor aabar hobey‘(come next year, we will celebrate again). It’s a self-comforting saying; something that gives us hope for a new year, a new but usual celebration.
It makes me sad that we can never step up the festivities again. As I write this in 2021, the nostalgia is hitting hard. Suddenly I’m a powdery-faced kid looking backstage to gauge the mood of the audience before my dance performance. I’m a teenager with raging hormones sitting with a group of friends and teasing and laughing loudly. I’m the kid roaming the stage, feverishly coloring the sky blue in the art contest, and I’m also desperately trying to remember the last four lines of a poem by Tagore before the recitation contest.
As I write this in 2021, I’m a detached woman in her twenties worried if this year’s celebration will become a super-broadcaster. I am annoyed by the recklessness of people who take off their masks. I wonder if the pandemic killed my enthusiasm, I wonder if it stole the essence of my favorite festival and made me anxious – paranoid even.
But, as I look at the idol of Goddess Durga, a serene smile appears on her face. She seems to understand my situation. She seems to be articulating something… wait… she says, “Don’t worry, yaar. I – “The screams choke the rest of the sentence.
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