If you've grown up in Bengal, or are from a Bengali household, you would know that Durga Puja is not just a religious event. It is, literally, for most people in the aforementioned group, the best five days of the year.
The only thing that keeps them going at the end of Durga Puja, is that the next Durga Puja is “just a year away.”
For the last three years, since I started working from Kolkata, Durga Puja, for me, has also been the busiest time of the year, work-wise. (Yes, all the videos and articles you saw on The Quint during Puja didn't happen on their own!).
I'm usually always working through the Puja days. This year was no exception. But 'covering' this Pujo (the 'o' is not a typo), and also living it as a part of a Bengali household, is one I will remember forever. This year was different, but maybe not so bad afterall.
In Maa, We Believe
To begin with, the day after the high court announced that Puja pandals will be no-entry zones, it was quite surprising to see them empty. Especially, given the mad rush in the days preceding the order.
But, honestly, seeing the streets empty and without the ‘Pujo rush’ was agonising, to the point that I had to keep reminding myself, every now and then, that this was a good thing.
To get myself out of the gloom, I tried to see the silver lining. At least the phuchkawala in my para was getting more customers than he has been for the last eight months. It's not the usual number he used to get at this time... but tut tut, silver lining.
At least I could go out, even if for work. This also made me wonder why those who were out, were out in the first place. I, for sure, would've stayed at home this year, if I could.
"This is the only day we've come out. Not really to pandal hop, but for a movie. This pandal was next to the theatre, so we are here," said a group of selfie-clicking 20-somethings at the Deshapriya Park pandal.
"I've not bought any notun jama this year. I mean I have, but it’s all house clothes," chuckled another young girl, dressed in a bright yellow salwar suit.
Another girl said that the fact that Puja was even happening was a happy thing because the year has just been that horrible.
Almost all of them, though, had the same refrain – “I’m sure Maa Durga will protect us.”
Now, usually, people of my dispensation mock those who say such things. God is not protecting you from coronavirus. But, standing there, at that empty pandal, the unwavering faith in all their eyes was the vibe I needed this Puja.
It's not like this was a homogeneous crowd. There was the parar dada, the shy girl in the pink kurta, the mashima with her big red bindi, the "South Calcutta types" in her black crop top – but they all had the same, unfaltering faith.
The kind of faith that pandits reading scriptures don't inculcate. It is the kind of faith brought about by community happiness, by celebrating as one.
In a dreary year, the five days of Puja gave everyone the opportunity to have their eyes light up – in faith and joy. Whether it’s the joy of dressing up at home, hearing the dhaak at a distance, or just the fact that Pujo was, indeed, here.
For these five days, people had faith. In themselves and their circumstances, thanks to Maa.
In Maa, Lies Feminism
At the end of the day, after I came back from roaming about the city, heading straight for a bath and sanitising my equipment, I was met with an over-enthusiastic question.
"Aajke ki dekhle?" (What did you see today?)
A tired me would usually respond to my 63-year-old mother with a grunt or a "same old". And, every time she'd express disappointment at the fact that I wasn't sharing with her.
As I opened my laptop to edit what I'd shot for the day, Maa would sit next to me to see what I'd been up to all day.
"Which pandel is this?"
"Why is that girl wearing white on Pujo? She should wear something colourful na."
"Did you actually eat that phuchka or was it acting?"
Stuck at home on Pujo due to the coronavirus, my mother only stepped out once – for pushpanjali on Ashthami at our housing society's pandal.
She used all that free time to plan for my upcoming wedding in December. In this time, she decided that we will have a female purohit officiating the event.
She decided that since we won't have many men at the wedding (my brother, who lives in Singapore, can't make it), we will have women raising me on a piri (a small stool is the closest English approximation) during the mala bodol. There will also be no kanyadaan.
"I'm not giving my daughter away to charity. There is no 'daan’”, she said firmly.
As a girl who lost her father at 11, and spent most of her childhood and early adult life just with her mother, every notion I have about women is shaped by her.
A part of my feminism, I believe, comes from seeing my mother run an entire household all by herself and doing what men do in other families. She was the breadwinner, the caregiver and everything in between.
For me, the watershed moment of every Pujo, for the longest time, has been seeing Maa after sindoor khela, looking like the goddess that she is. She'd stopped participating in the ritual after Bapi died. But, for the last few years (after a lot of emotional blackmail), I've managed to get her back into it.
This year, she once again, stayed away. And, maybe for that reason, or the fact that I didn’t see the crowds, the Puja experience seemed incomplete.
But it did bring with it the realisation that just like it is impossible to imagine a world where Maa Durga doesn't cure all ills, it is also impossible to imagine a life where my Maa doesn't fix everything.
As I bid goodbye to the Devi, here's cherishing my last few days, living with my deity, before marriage and its patriarchy "take me away."
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