Today is Maha Ashtami. Year 2008. The sign that Devi Durga has indeed descended to the earth is in the weather. And it is clear. It is the perfect Sharat (Autumn) weather - blue skies, with white clouds gliding. It doesn't matter that I am in the diametrically opposite face of the earth, the essense is here. It makes perfect sense.
I attempt to sketch Maa's face on my white board, I chant mahishashur mardini stotra in the evening, I make plans to visit the Durga Puja mandap in Atlanta, even if that means driving for miles, I receive mahalaya part 1 and part 2 mp3 version as email forwards. I try to recreate the essence.
But then I think, is it really possible to do so? Is it possible to recreate events that start long before the 5 days of puja? The page full advertisement of Bata shoes with the latest puja fashion, the counting of number of new dresses you have and comparing it with your best friends, asking maa to tell the newspaper guy to get us the pujoshonkhya anandamela, on getting the book - reading Paandav Goyenda and Feluda stories first, followed by Arjun and Kakababu, and the comic series and skillfully evading the essays and thus declaring that I have finished reading the whole book, making plans with friends to meet up at a specific mandap at a specific time and manipulating maa-baba’s plans accordingly, taking out the new dresses once almost every day to check on them, saving every bit of the pocket money for those mouth watering phuchkas, getting up at 4 in the morning of the day of mahalayaa listening to the baritone voice of Birendra Krishna Bhadra on Akaashvaani followed by the dance drama on DD Bangla.
Finally after millions of such little anticipations, the day of Shashthi is here. Maa’s face, which was covered for so long, is unwrapped. The chants and hymns infuse life even in a clay idol. The beats of the Dhaak is truly the music of the Gods. The Pandal is gorgeous with its lights and decoration. It is a grand affair for everyone for the next four days! The next morning starts the day’s excitement with the arrival of kola-bou. I always found it an enticing concept. A banana tree dressed up in a yellow saree with red border as a surrogate wife of Lord Ganesha. That’s some mythological story!
Ashtami for me has been the most eventful day of the puja, for years. It has the grandest pushpanjaji, sondhi pujan and arati. The festivities culminate to their peak on Ashtami, it being the midway of the five day long puja. Since there is fasting before the anjali, there is feasting afterwards. Bhog, luchi, bandhakopi, payesh – these words hold an altogether different meaning and spirit on the day of the Ashtami. And the adda with friends is at its peak too. There is never a better time to catch up on the happenings of the town! The baroyari puja mandap is the hub of social gathering and cultural spirit on that evening. Next day, Nabami is for visiting as many pandals as humanly possible and check out their creative and innovative decoration and the protima. And, most importantly to count how many pandals I visited, because I have to exceed my last year’s count and beat my brother’s count too! Dashami as we all know is famous for Bijoya greetings and thakuma's narkel nadu and dida's nimki. As sadness fills the air that Maa will be gone for this year, all of us start counting days to the next year's Pujo!
After all these years, I remember the Puja as one of my fondest memories, and there is no doubt in my mind that I will do so for years to come. Durga Puja back home is an experience of a lifetime, and right now I can give up almost anything to be a part of it all. It is a social and cultural bonding that transcends all literary expressions of the mind. So I will leave it for the heart to relive it again and again….