When I was about to leave the pandal, Debi Kakima said ‘ebaro likhbi to (hope you will write this time too)’.
How can I not :)
As one hovers somewhere in the skies, in a flight heading from Kolkata to Mumbai, the perennial question comes back to me.
Did I just leave home? Or am I heading home?
If one does the math then, leaving small blips in England and Iran aside, I have now almost spent an equal number of years in Kolkata and Mumbai. I wasn’t born in Kolkata. Nor were my parents. No one in our family was born there, come to think of it, except my brother and sister in law. I have family in both cities. Mumbai is where I live. My address. And I am not just talking of pin codes here.
Kolkata perhaps by default, is considered ‘home’ by many Bengalis across all the world just as Jerusalem would be to many Jews.
And I made it to Jerusalem for Christmas. Or, in Bengali terms, I was home for a few days of the Pujos. Durga Puja to the uninitiated.
Like a test match the Durga Pujas are a five day affair and I tried to split them between Kolkata and Mumbai. The former is the city of my friends whom I grew up with. None of whom lives there anymore. The latter the city of my new friends. Many of whom said that they would miss me if I wasn’t there for the Pujos.
And that’s what the pujos are all about for me. Food, friends and family. You choose the order.
This time I drove into Debjan, where I used to live in Kolkata, just as the protima had been brought in. I jumped out of the car to meet her even before I went up home. I suddenly felt three decades younger. The excitement still the same. The only difference being that in the first pujos at Debjan I would use my Dad’s SLR. Now I used my DSLR to take the goddess’ photographs.
The next few days passed of in a blur of work, meeting up with friends, family outings, last minute gift shopping and some frenetic eating. I didn’t get to spend much time in the building pujo.
I did stop at the Pujo for a bit on Soptomi evening. The evening ‘programme’ was going one. A lady was singing on stage just as years back we would get up and do little skits and dramas and poetry recitals up there.
As always the uncles and aunties were sitting separately. Just as I noticed in the morning too. Two naturally formed distinct whorls.
There was something missing though.
A third high energy, joyous, mischievous cluster. There were no kids. No one playing with cap pistols, carrom boards, cards…no laughter, no five day long bubble gum romances, no showing off ones notun jama, no slightly grown up kids bossing over the younger ones. Hurtling towards my 40s I was still one of the younger ones around. Still one of the ‘bachchas’. I was surrounded by people who had seen me grow.
The folks I grew up with were on facebook at the most.
The evening ‘anushthon’ is always a good time to catch up with folks and my eyes would light up each time I would see a face from the past. Just as their’s would when they saw me.
On the one hand there was the joy of meeting again and then there was the wistfulness in comments such as ‘Debjan is like an old age home’, ‘we are empty nesters’, ‘you must come for the pujos next year….but I can’t guarantee I will be around…I am 80 now’.
I headed out for a walk to clear my head. Ambling down lanes paved with memories. Down Surjyonagar past Shibanalay Tailors where I used to get my Pujo clothes stitched. A stop at the police quarter pujos. Sugato used to live there and we often used to hang around there in school. A stop at the phuchka guy outside my school. AG Tolly. He had motor and not chhola in his phuchka mix. A fact that would reassure a couple of Bong tigresses I knew who were outraged by the chhola in the phuchkas.
‘That’s for Meros’ they say.
I walked on. Picked biryani and chaap after finishing a roll in the new Rahamania counter.
Yes, I was eating for Mumbai that evening!
I walked back down the Netaji Nagar Pujo lane. It’s the biggest pujo in the area and I saw the queue of people to get in. I stopped for a breather and saw a guy selling balloons. Memories of a puja evening came back to me when three of us in high school walked down the lane with a balloon each trying to see which would bust first in the crowds. We were starved for entertainment in the 80s. I then headed back down quiet lanes looking at the Chandragore lights on the streets that hypnotised as when we were kids.
I stopped at one sweet new pujo. Saw the kids playing by the Pujo arena comparing mobile sim card plans. I snapped out of my reverie when one little volunteer came to me and said ‘aankel odiki’ (that side uncle).
Yes Calcutta is my Cinema Paradiso.
This morning was different as the melancholiness of the dusk gave way to the bright sun of Ashtami morning. Folks were coming down to the Pujo in their Pujo best for Anjali. Then prasad or a holy breakfast of fruits and payesh followed.
It was soon time for the bhog to start. The reason why I had waited instead of taking a morning flight back. More chatter and banter followed with the building jethis and jethimas as we took our seats. Didu joined us too and we formed our little corner with my mom, brother and sister in law. The two of them had managed to return for the Pujos too. I spotted a young girl who turned out to be very good with the camera and made her our designated ‘photographer.
The food that followed was really good. Better than I remembered it to be. And I say this in absolute terms and not just aided by a seasoning of nostalgia. Yes, melamine plates versus banana or saal leaves plates seemed weird. As did caterers serving the food versus folks from the building. But over the years I have learnt that it is better to savour the moment rather than be caught in the myopia of a purist.
The menu? Crisp tantalising beguni and alur bora. Bhoger khichudi which had the magic touch of generous quantities of food simmering in a cauldron, held together by liberal doses of ghee. Singed your fingers when you took your first bite but when, as instructed by your mother, you spread the khichudi using the beguni as a spoon, it cooled down so that you could eat it.
Then there was laabra, the special squishy mixed vegetable dish and alu badhakopi (cabbage). Yes, it was a rare vegetarian day in the life of Bengalis.
Palate cleanser of chutney an papad followed by a kachagolla for dessert and the gala feast blessed by the Goddess came to an end.
Not quite. For when we went back to our apartment, Didu quietly took out some incredibly soft and tasty nadu’ made with coconuts from her garden.
What a beautiful send off from one home to another.
(Written on board the indigo fight to Mumbai. Love writing these posts on flight. The extra leg space helped)