People have often asked me what I have got out of blogging.
How does sitting on a shaky plastic chair…. payesh or rice pudding dribbling down my red Panjabi (Bengali traditional tunic)… sweating heavily…getting mildly drenched… eating…chatting…. smiling…sound to you?
I first came to Bandra’s Notun Polli Durga Puja in 1997. It was my first Durga Puja away from home. I was on training at Mumbai. My plan the was to avoid the Pujo Pandals here. Denial seemed to be a good way to cope with the misery of being away from home during the Pujas.
Except that I couldn’t stay away. I went to the Bandra Pujo, which I read about in the papers, after work on Saptami. I was alone.
I walked in. Saw Usha Uthup performing. Who, before I moved into the residence of the Khans, was the biggest ‘star’ I had ever seen. Then I went to the pandal. Saw the pratima (image) of the Goddess Durga and her children. It then hit me as to how far away I was from home. I went bawling in search of a long distance phone to call up home. That was an era before everyone had cell phones. Calling up ‘home’ meant calling up our neighbour’s place.
It was still the nineties.
A couple of years later Mumbai became ‘home’. Bandra became my ‘para’ or hood. Notun Polly or the Bandra Pujo its Durga Pujo. I went there every year when I was in town during the Pujas. Gorging on the food. And then, hunger satiated, hopping across to say hi to the Goddess.
But something was incomplete. After years of being a volunteer at the Debjan Aparments Durga Pujo at Calcutta – making announcements on the P A system, distributing flowers for Anjali, serving food, taking part in the cultural programmes, dancing on orchestra night, walking back crestfallen from the bhashan or immersion – it seemed strange not to be a part of the Durga Pujo organisers.
I did think of joining the local Durga Puja committee. I drifted towards the organiser’s booth at the Puja grounds a few times. Then walked away shyly. Yes, I only chat up strangers and photograph them when I am in the world of food looking for material to blog on.
I continued to be an outsider at the Bandra pujo. And back home at Kolkata too with my friends long gone.
The Pujos were no longer the same.
Then I wrote this post on the Bandra Pujo a few days back.
The following comment floated in.
You are an amazing writer besides the love for food that shines through. I am one of the folks who put up the show at Notunpalli and have shared this on the Notunpalli FB group. If you would like to join us there, send me a meeting request at the group and we would be happy to have you there....next pujo hope to get to know you better. You can also visit my blog at http://moriroad.blogspot.com. This is also about pujo. Cheers sam. “
And soon, thanks to Sam, I was part of the Notun Polli Puja group. Even if on Facebook.
I logged on to the page today and found out it was Lokkhi Pujo (Laxmi Puja). that there was a bhog (community dinner) at 9.30 pm.
I headed to the Puja at night. Drifting around like a stranger. The Finely Chopped Knights abandoned me when I said that the food was vegetarian.
But seriously guys, it’s Lokkhi Pujo. A rare vegetarian day.
I clicked a few photos and then asked for Sam AKA Samudra.
I was pointed to a gentleman dressed in a shirt and trousers. I had seen him during the Durga Pujo earlier. Looking distinguished and important in an elegant dhuti panjabi.
He welcomed me with a huuuuuge smile. Suddenly I was not a stranger anymore. He introduced me to his wife Rosh. Like all Bengali husbands I have met off late, Sam introduced me to her as, ‘Kalyan writes a blog with lot of lovely recipes’.
The benevolent uncles or kakus and jethus who are so much a part of every Pujo were there. Except here one of them had read the blog post on Facebook. The laughed when I said I used to come here for all these years without approaching them.
“You should have joined us much earlier. What was there to feel shy about?”
Turns out that our group had been noticed on Nobomi night during the Bappi Lahiri concert.
“We saw you folks dancing (!) in front. You were with the gentleman with the cap. We thought you were part of Bappi Lahiri’s group. His guests. Cheering him. We had no idea you were a neutral (sic) party”.
Yes, by Bengali standards we were quite wild that night.
I was introduced to the the President of the pujo. “We need young men like you to be part of the pujo”. My Oil of Olay moment.
The President’s young son, my nick-name mate Raja, in a Kartik-like blue Punjabi who explained to me the difference between Barwari (private) and Sarbojonin (community) Pujo. Listened awe struck when I told him that our pujo at Kolkata served fish and meat in the community lunches.
There was the venerable 83 year old captain. Ramrod straight, running all across the podium. I remembered him from the Durga Pujo.
And the teenager Subhodeep who was commandeered by me to prep up some of the food for me to shoot. He did a good job and was dying to get away from this mad man who told him to lift a ladle with food for photographs.
I was introduced to Kaushik. He was at the counter and chanting ‘Bolo Lokkhi Mai Ki Joy” as he begun serving the crowd with his team. Kaushik is in charge of food just as Sam is of the Pandal and the core Pujo. Chased by the ladies specially when he walked around with a tray of fresh begunis or fried brinjals.
Putting the feast together was ‘Chef Gobindo and company’. Chef Gobindo, like all great Bengali cooks, is from Bengal’s neighbouring state of Orissa. He has been cooking for the Bandra Pujo for years.
For the bhog Chef Gobindo had whipped up steaming hot khichudi, cauliflower curry, beguni, papad fries, tomato chutney and payesh or rice pudding. As traditional as it gets. Reminding me of Didu, my granny, who’d be cooking the same stuff back home after fasting all day on Lokkhi Pujo. And then I realised that Didu didn’t do the Pujo this year when I called mom. Dadu was no longer there sitting at the verandah waiting for the pujo to end so that he could get the prasad.
For me the chutney was the highlight of the evening. As Sam said and I agreed, ‘you can never re-create the magic of a Pujor Bhog (religious feast) khichudi at home.”
The food was truly divine.
Another name of the Goddess Laxmi is Annapurna after all. The Goddess of harvests and food.
Interestingly Lokkhi Pujo, in honour of Laxmi, Ma Durga’s daughter and the Goddess of prosperity, is conducted by the women of the house at Bengal. The men might go out and earn but it was clear that it was the woman of the house was the one responsible for running it.
No wonder the new bride in a Bengali house is called ‘Lokkhi’ after the Goddess.
With each introduction I began to feel more at home. Swaggering around. An organiser. Like my dad used to be in the Pujas of England.
I felt like a volunteer. A part of the Puja Committee like I had wanted to be for so long. In spirit, if not on paper yet. And definitely on Facebook.
The rites of passage concluded for me when Sam got me a plate of Bhog without my having to stand in the long queue. And when Koushik got them to make us a special batch of begunis.
That’s what being a volunteer is all about.
And, for the first time since I left Kolkata, it felt like the Pujos again.