Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Going Back

For the past 15 years I had been contemplating about going back to Delhi - just to visit friends and look up all the old places that I used to frequent while I lived there. Somehow the opportunity or a reason to go to Delhi never came up and going alone for a weekend just to mingle with old friends was frowned upon heavily by family. Thankfully a very dear friend of mine decided to get married and the whole family had a reason to go to Delhi.

There was a lot of excitement everywhere, another dear friend called me and threatened dire consequences if I didn't stay with her and both of us had a lot of conversations about our husbands meeting for the first time, food likes and dislikes and the menu plan for the five days that we would stay with her. The menu plan was an impressive array of Mongolian, Lebanese and Italian cuisines along with some Indian fillers which I used to eat at her house many moons ago. I was to be the guinea pig for the recipes that would make it to her soon to be published cookery book and kept my fingers crossed!

The great thing about friends is that one can take up exactly from where we left off and after banishing our respective husbands and children to their respective rooms we talked like there was no tomorrow and caught up on each others lives, thankfully the husbands and the kids got along quite well so we could leave them together and go do our own thing.

I went back to my school after more than a decade and this time with my son which felt kind of strange. I bribed the ferocious looking watch man and gave him emotional crap about wanting to show my son this grand school where I once studied. We walked around and to my relief not much had changed and whatever had changed was not at the cost of open spaces and greenery. The gardens were perfectly manicured, flower beds bloomed with seasonal flowers, the canteen was still at the same place and so were the water coolers. I peered through the art room to see the wall where my creations were once displayed and the award I had received from K R Narayanan (one time President of India) for my art. The Banyan Tree which was also our school emblem had spread its branches forming a shady green canopy; the props from Rang De Basanti were thankfully not in evidence.

We walked down the lane behind the school to Nathu's and I remembered the many times that we had sneaked out of the gates to have their famous chaat and gol gappa. We drove down to Defense Colony market and ate at Aka Saka (as Faley's had closed down). I requested the chef to make me roast pork noodles which no longer seemed to be on the menu. The gentleman at Defense Stores where we ordered grocery from seemed frozen in time and still looked the same. I introduced myself and said that we stayed in A33 and at once he recollected my Father's name and enquired about my Mother and gave me updates about who had died, who had moved and how many old shops had closed and so on.

My favorite bakery had closed down so I reluctantly brought my son an ├ęclair from the one that had taken its place. I took my son to the toy store where I used to buy comics and toys - this gentleman had grown older and frailer. I was overjoyed to see that the small little library behind the market was still in existence. The house where I had spent 18 years of my life however had been razed down and a new building was being built in its place.

So much had changed yet so much remained just the same. The houses were grander, the roads were wider, the people were richer, the familiar landmarks were gone and there were new ones in their place and some roads and the parks which seemed grand before appeared to have shrunk. It felt like home but it also felt like a maze where I tried to search my past looking for some reassuring signs of familiarity. At times it felt as if the city had overtaken me in terms of progress and it seemed vast and strange and at times it felt that I had outgrown the city as my horizons had widened.

It's good to go back home...

Friday, September 01, 2006

Aagomoni

I heard from a friend that this time Goddess Durga is coming to visit us in a boat. I keep hearing various interpretations of her mode of travel which people use to predict the future. Maybe there is some amount of truth in it but that’s a topic to be researched later.

To me, the coming of the Goddess was signified by the fragrance of the 'shiuli' flower which blooms in the months of September and October. The flowers would bloom in the wee hours of the morning, spread their heady fragrance and intoxicates all around and then fall off by mid morning. I remember there was a 'Shiuli' tree in our garden which I used to shake and all these little flowers would rain on me. I would collect these flowers in my basket and place them in front of idols of Radha Krishna which belonged to my paternal Grandmother; it was a daily chore during the season.

The coming of the Goddess was also signified by examinations which would invariably fall in those days, I had two Mothers pulling me in two different directions, at one end my human earthly Mother ordering me to study while at the other end Mother Durga beckoned me to join the festivities. I managed to appease both; I studied diligently all day so I could go to the 'pujo pandal' in the nights.

Listening to the 'Mahalaya' telecast at 4 AM in the morning is another must, the mesmerizing and hypnotic voice of Birendra Krishna Bhadra and the timeless songs still give me goose bumps when the tale of the Goddess Durga's victory over Mahishasur is told. The nippy morning air, the dewy silence of a world just about to wake up adds to the magic.

On the first day of the pujo we would go to the pandal and see the Goddess being adorned with jewels and all the weapons being placed in her ten hands while the dhakis (drummers) beat the drums in unison. Lunch was usually not cooked in any Bengali home in the vicinity and all would troop in to eat 'bhog' which is first offered to the Goddess and once she eats and approves, it is distributed to all who come irrespective of caste, creed and social standing. I would stand as close as I could to the drummers and stare into the all encompassing fierce but kind eyes of the Goddess and allow the drums to drive away the cobwebs from my mind and draw strength from the gaze of the Goddess, this is something I still do.

On the ninth day of Pujo - Navami, the lights of the pandal would be switched off, the only light would be from the 108 oil lamps which would be lit up, the smell and the smoke from the 'dhuno' would fill the air and the Dhakis would beat the drums with all their might while he priest performed the arati (worship) and finally the holy flame would be passed around so we could all place our hands over the flame and be blessed and lastly holy water would be sprinkled over all the bent heads in front of the Goddess by the priest.

I still remember the air of competition amongst friends over how many new dresses they got, the lazy afternoons where we sat around in circles after eating bhog and gossiping about people in general. Going back home to freshen up and then again dress up with more vengeance for the evening, the rehearsals for the dances and plays that we performed, the stage fright when we actually did, the bloopers of forgetting our lines, the endless goodies from the snacks counter, the yearly rounds to Kali Bari, Kashmiri Gate and Greater Kailash pujos, the budding romances, the beautiful ladies dressed in red and white silk garad saris, the men in crackling starched dhotis, the candy floss man, the bows and arrows, swords and clubs sold outside, my dear friend Rachita and her parents Pinu Aunty and Samir Uncle who made sure that the absence of my Father never affected me.

Durga Pujo in the A Block Defense Colony grounds was magical, somehow I haven't found that magic anywhere else, in Calcutta every corner has a Pujo and it’s too commercial. In Bombay its all about how many crores the Bengali associations spend to outdo the and somewhere the Goddess, the worship and belief are sidelined and forgotten, people head straight to the seating area to grab seats to see some famous artiste perform and then they head towards the food stall to fill their greedy stomachs while the beautiful Goddess in all her finery just gets a passing glance and a quick bow.

At times I wonder that the Goddess should enter our beings and kill the Mahishasur within us in forms of greed, hatred, lust and make better humans of us all.