Decoding the spirit of the Durga Pujas

Bandra Durga Puja 2017

This post has lot of pictures so please keep scrolling down.

Of new beginnings 

It's nabomi today. The penultimate day of the Durga Pujas, the biggest festival for us Bengalis.

The pujo, which is how we pronounce puja, has turned out to be interesting and eventful one for me this year. We shifted to our new place on Mahalaya, which is also the day that signals the start of the festival. This was a concidence as our shift was decided more by the progress of the house work and the lease of our earlier place than by an almanac.

K had to leave for Singapore soon after we shifted so I was home spending most of my time with painters, carpenters, plumbers and kitchen installation folks, surrounded by sundry boxes and unopened cartons, ordering in food as the kitchen was not ready and the work had overshot the schedule. 

Anandomela fest feast at Powai 

I got a welcome festive Durga a Puja break on chaturthi, a couple of days before the main Puja period started. I was invited by the folks at the Powai Spandan Durga Pujo to be the judge at the Anondomela fair. Anondomela refers to a Fair that happens before the actual Puja starts on shoshthi. People set up food stalls that day to sell food to those who come to watch the various cultural festivals going on at the Puja premises. The stalls are set up by amateurs... grandmoms, little ones, kakus (uncles) who like to cook on weekends and so on. Food is central to any Bengali celebration and the Anondomela is fun for those selling the food as well as those trying it out.

I walked across 13 stalls trying out a variety of dishes, mainly Bengali, mostly deep fried and whose quality ranged from the average to the very good. The evening was a mix of good cheer, enthusiasm, passion, organisational chaos, sweat and effusive laughter which a Durga Pujo festival should be all about. I got to see my first Durga image of the season. A Jamini Roy inspired design made apparently by a moody but talented artisan from Kumurtuli in Kolkata. I caught up with old friends from my market research days and new friends made through social media. It was a fun evening though towards the end tended to just stretch on.

The eventual winners 
Catching up with old friends 
And new twitter friends 

Saptami adda 

I was sequestered at home again after that. With the kitchen still not ready, the boxes were still all over the house and work was still going on. Added to that I had a sudden neck pain which limited my moving around. I couldn't even make it to the local Bandra Pujo. Nor could I go to shop for new clothes as is traditional though K had thoughtfully bought me a nice shirt before she left town. 

The one bright spot on Shoshthi, the first day of the pujas, was that our cooking hob and gas for connected and our cook, Banu, made me a light murgir jhol using my recipe for dinner. My first home cooked meal in a week after we'd shifted to the new place though the kitchen was yet to be fully ready. The truth is that the older I grow, the more I prefer home cooked meals. I had that with the Gobindo Bhog rice that I'd ordered from Oh Calcutta, Khar, in the afternoon.

By the time it was Saptami, the second day of the Pujas, I realised that I was not getting the 'Pujo Pujo bhaab'. In other words, I was not feeling the Puja spirit. Which was ironic given that I'd written two articles on the Pujas and a number of Instagram and Twitter posts on the subject too.

I wanted to go to the Bandra Pujo for bhog but that didn't work out when a 'housewarming' Awadhi lunch was sent by our friends Kerman Lalkaka and Chinmoyee and the ITC Grand Central which had chef Mohammed Shareef's brilliant Awadhi mutton Biryani and a very tender murg tikka and a K&K classic, Hyderabadi Salan. At least seemed special and Pujo appropriate. There was the exquisite Fabelle chocolate too but I  dared not opened that till the missus was back.

The ITC Grand Central lunch

Then inspiration struck me. The  kitchen guys told me that they would finish later in the evening. So I rung up a few of my Bengali friends. These are fellow Kolkatans, but friends that I've made in Mumbai through the blog and some through my Buddhist practise group. These are friends I don't have to be formal around and for whom I don't have to worry about the propriety of it if I call them home with no notice and when the home is half baked at that. 

So that's what I did, I invited them over as I couldn't go out. I requested them to come home after they were done with their Puja pandal hopping for the day for an adda. I then called up chef Sanjib of Bhojohori Manna and placed an order for some food for the night. I kept the menu limited, Bengali prawn roast (a curry it seemed), kosha mangsho and a pulao, a meal that wouldn't stress our elusive dinnerware.

The folks at Bhojohori Manna were kind enough to deliver on a busy day. The food arrived at same time as Banu in the evening. She had got her daughter in law to help and they tried to get the kitchen ready after the carpenters had finally fitted the modular stuff.

What follows for a while was an example of 'what you should not do while throwing a house party.'

The first guests arrived at 10 pm when Banu was still clearing the stuff industriously with boxes still  blocking the passage. Once done and before leaving, she informed me that many of our glasses seemed to have broken in the shift, from the first to the third floor of the same building! This I got to know just after I had magnanimously asked people about their drink preferences. Meanwhile the new Hitachi AC that we had purchased had begun to leak and I had to put a humble bathroom plastic mug on our new floor which everyone was raving about. Then I realised that there were no starters to go with the drinks and ran down to get bags of chips from the cigarette shop at the corner. I came up and realised that I couldn't find bowls to serve them in and handed out the bags as if it was a hostel bachelor party. K, the meticulous host, would have flipped had she been at home.

The thing about good friends though is that you don't have to worry about being proper and formal. We got over the wobbles and ended up having a good adda (Bengali for chat). Our friends seemed to love the house. I clarified to them that this was not a house warming party as K had to be there for that. 

The sound of our excited mixed Bengali and English chatter subsided only when I served the food and the Bhojohori Manna food had everyone in its spell. 

Thanks to the limited number of items and with everyone most considerately rinsing their plates before leaving, the kitchen was the cleanest a kitchen of ours has ever been after a party!

Chingri roast, kosha mangsho, pulao from Bhojohori Manna 
Hiding the mess in the kitchen while I click but some had their priorities right 

Bachelor days (not a plug)

Ashtamir bhog

The next day was Ashtami, the biggest day of the Durga Puja for us Bengalis. A day reserved for the morning Anjali, afternoon bhog, wearing the best of the new clothes you had bought for the pujos and the evening arati. 

Anjali offerings didn't happen for me as I spent the morning in the company of the painter who was doing touch ups at home. Instead of fasting as one should before anjali, I had some chicken sandwiches and cappuccino from Candies, with the breakfast nook at home finally being cleared of boxes. The morning was soaked with gratitude as is the house with prayer and I couldn't have felt more wonderful.

If you look carefully you will see the Candies cappuccino as the house begins to take shape finally 

In the afternoon I did put on the new shirt K had given me for the occasion and went to the Bandra Durga Pujo. I entered the pandal and saw that the Protima  (idol) surrounded by selfie takers who had replaced the anjali offerers of the morning. I joined them too after saying a silent prayer. 

Bhog was being given out and I went towards the makeshift kitchen where I saw chef Gobindo marshalling his troops and sending food to the volunteers serving food to the many who had queued up. I was dying to join them and serve the food but with my neck not being completely fine yet, that was not a good idea.

'Where were you,' my friend Kaushik Saha, who is in charge of the bhog at the Bandra Pujo, bellowed with a big smile on his face as he gave me a hug of welcome on seeing me.

It felt so good to be back at what is known my parar Pujo or home Durga Pujo with my new friends in my now not so new home of Bandra. 

To complete the sense of bliss, I joined the volunteers and had a lovely bhog of pulao, paneer, a cauliflower curry, begun bhaaja. chutney and payesh. The Ashtami bhog is usually vegetarian.  The food was superb and my smile couldn't have been wider. I knew I was home. I felt excited that I got to eaven eat some of the food that had been cooked and offered to the Goddess too. While I might not observe these rituals assiduously now, these are treasured childhood memories after all.

The Bandra Pujo for years has served pulao on Ashtami. I am told that years back, a senior member of the committee had decried that a special day like Ashtami deserved a special dish like a pulao and so the tradition continues.

Selfie with the Goddess
chef Gobindo soldiers on in his vest and glasses 
The pandal
Bhog time 
Ashtami bhog with pulao at Bandra 
'Where were you,' said Kaushik Saha

Khichuri Bhog 

At night I did have the traditional Ashtami dish of khichuri thanks to Pia Promina who had kindly sent us some spicy khichuri, panchneshi torkari with five types of vegetables, a  chop made with pulled unripe jackfruit, chutney and the soft Bengali laddoo known was dorbesh. 

I packed my bags late at night as I was headed to Singapore to join K for a mini break the next day and then shared the khichuri with my mom in law who has come to look after the house while we are away. 

Which I guess ends my Durga Pujo tea for 2017 unless I can make it to one at Singapore but do read on if you've reached up to here, there's more.

Pia's khichuri 

The spirit of the Durga Pujo

'So what is the spirit of the Durga Pujo,' you ask? 

Well I am no religious scholar, academic, historian or politician. I don't believe in telling people how things should be or what should be done so I am not sure if I can give you a definitive answer on this.

I am sure that the pujas mean different things to different people.

Take my family for example. Let me share my hypotheses of what the Puja means to them this year.

To my brother and sister in law I guess, it is about coming back to Kolkata so that everyone back home can squeeze the cheeks of my little niece and play with this little bundle of joy. For this one and a half year old angel, it's possibly about going to the pandal with her dad and dancing to the track of the Rabindra Sangeeta performance which are happening on stage, squealing a word that she's recently learnt, 'happy'. This despite her running a touch of fever. 

For my mother it is about telling me about all this enthusiastically on the phone. For my grandmother, who couldn't go the local Pujo because of frailties, it's about blessing my brother who took the khichuri bhog from our building Pujo and gave her company while she ate. 

For K it was about buying new clothes for me to wear during the Pujo even though she was not in town. She knew that I'd not been able to go to do my 'Pujo shopping' this year. For my mom in law, it was about about celebratinf a shared love of rice and connecting with her son in law's culture over the khichuri. To help her relate to thenfood, I compared the panchmishali to an undhiyu.

For me, the pujos is a time to say of prayer of thanks for being able to feel at home and at peace in a city I'd migrated to two decades back. I realised that I began to enjoy to the pujos again when I stopped trying to chase and recreate Pujo memories and began to create new ones instead.

The Buddhist monk, Nicherin Daishoning had said that it is the heart that is important. So I feel that if your way of celebrating the pujos gives happiness to you and to others around you then you have cracked it in my book.

Happy pujos guys and if you've celebrated the festival then please write in at the comment box and tell me what did you do this year for the pujos.

Also read:

1. My article in NDTV Foods on feasting in the pujos which will also tell you what is bhog:

2. My mother's blog post on her Puja memories:

Written on my iPhone in a Singapore airline flight and posted from Chang Airport at Starbucks. Not a plug. Just an apology for typos

Didu enjoys bhog
Mom with the little ones at the building Pujo in kolkata that I grew up in
Feeling happy at the Bandra Puja which is now my parar Pujo