For a Bengali, Durga Pujo is as big as it gets! It is Christmas, New Year, Diwali, birthdays, first visit to the zoo, trips to Disney Land, nail biting tension during cricket matches, the frenzy of East Bengal-Mohun Bagan football games, a good Sunday afternoon siesta, never ending debates about Soumitra or Uttam, the ‘aaaahhhaaa’s of a Manna Dey classic and everything close to the heart of a ‘Bengali’- all rolled into one. And more. An event where a ‘Keep Calm’ t-shirt will only encourage more hysteria!
Everything- from looking up the dates of the Pujo when the first calendar of the year found its way on the wall or the table top, to that sigh of relief when one found out that school exams would be over before the holidays begin; to the sight of the first pandal and then the pandal at your ‘para’ (neighborhood) and then, comparing the latter to the one of your neighboring ‘para’; to going shopping with friends and making never ending plans of night outs during the five days; to every phuchka, chop and biryani that finds its way into one’s stomach- has its own distinct flavor and stirs passion in the young and old alike.
‘Mahalaya’, the last day of the ‘Pitri-Pakhkha’, has made its mark in the hearts of Bengalis (particularly the younger generation) across continents for reasons quite different from what it symbolizes. Pujo almost starts with ‘Mahalaya’. ‘Mahishashuramardini’ has been playing on radios in Bengali households on the day of ‘Mahalaya’ since the 1930s and continues to do so in this day and age when radios, sadly, have started to become obsolete. The compelling production, which is still as captivating as it probably was when it first aired on the All India Radio, is surely a testament to the genius of its creators.
‘Mahishashuramardini’ airs at 4 in the morning. And the fact that people continue to listen to this, is a testament to a whole different thing- the Bengali determination! And as far as I know, anything at 4 am that has involved a radio (many times in a rickety state) blaring songs and devotional recitation, unwilling folks (every household must have had people who would surely have wanted to sleep a little longer, especially the younger ones!) and the clamor of tea being made and served, could not have been very soothing to the senses!
As I continue to spend my years away from my folks in Kolkata and Jamshedpur, I cannot but think back to those treacherous Mahalaya mornings when the radio would be on from 4 in the morning and Maa-Baba would try their very best to wake up bhai and me to listen to the legendary Birendrakishore Bhadra. The hope, perhaps, was that we too, like them, would immerse ourselves in the revelry and ruckus that is usually always associated with celebrations at 4 am. We really tried but could never be fully awake, and the fact that there was always going to be a next year, never pushed us that much, I think. They nudged and we grudged and when we did wake up, we would really hate the day for the first few hours! Now, every year on the day of ‘Mahalaya’ , as I listen, over the phone, to our good old radio playing, I yearn for the 4 o’clock pandemonium. I have been calling up home at 4.30-5 am (IST) every ‘Mahalaya’ in an attempt, perhaps, to get back a slice of the bygone days- that indescribable feel of curling up in a ‘kantha’; to sipping the tea which tasted best in the wee hours of the morning and to being together on that bed with the three people who have seen me through my best and worst.
In this land of pumpkin lattes, I wake up a bit early on of ‘Mahalaya’ than my normal days and listen to ‘Mahishashuramardini’ (on Youtube) as I sip my morning tea, that tastes nowhere close to the one Maa used to make. I do not try to wake up the good husband and our son is too small to comprehend any of this! I do get a sliver of the ‘Pujo ashche’ feeling but the joy of those early morning quarrels and the music from radio that is as old as I, are dearly missed.