In the Dreams of a Boatman…

…were couched the beginnings of a 250-year-old tradition in the family I was born into. That of worshipping the goddess Durga. Ma Durga as we call her in West Bengal. Ma as in mother, the beginning of everything that is good on this planet, in every species. Even crocodiles and snakes (ophiophilists, don’t you dare fling a cobra at me).

Durga is the warrior goddess who slays evil and preserves peace by combatting with the ashura, the demon in Hindu mythology. And she is not modest, okay? How could she be, this 10-armed goddess who multi-tasks effortlessly as only a woman can. In the Rig Veda, one of her aliases Devi is noted to have remarked, ‘I am the Queen, the gatherer-up of treasures, most thoughtful, first of those who merit worship…’

For Bengalis, and most of the eastern part of India, her arrival brings with it a celebration that lasts for days. Five at the least. When the number of days perchance decrease, there is a sea made up of ripples of melancholic faces.

What! To be shortchanged thus? Lesser number of days off from work, the chance to show off new clothes acquired for each day and most importantly the opportunity to do pet pujo. Pet is stomach in English and pujo is worship. You get the crux of the matter and where I come from with my bottomless-well kind of appetite.

Roads and alleys are blocked off in the city of Calcutta for the hundreds of community pandals, temporary pavilions, that emerge all over the city, each vying with the other for greater glory. There are various interpretations of the goddess therefore, some staggeringly flamboyant. Once they even had a Harry Potter theme which made my eyes boggle. Sheer genius of someone’s imagination to inject fantasy with more fantasy. It is the one sight that will be imprinted on your mind for a long, long time if you visit the city during Durga Pujo. In a good way. There is bloody chaos, because it is India, what do you expect? Yetin that chaos you shall find peace by gaping at the many reincarnations of Durga around every corner, plethora of street food that will make you go ‘aah’ (with supreme gastronomic pleasure) and ‘ooh’ (the stomach shall inevitably protest) and more food yet in the many classic eateries in the city. If the world eats to live, Bengalis do it the other way around.

Then there are family pujos which are smaller affairs but filled with intricate details that you will miss out at the community ones. That’s where my family comes in.

Years and years ago, as I mentioned at the outset, when East Bengal was still East Bengal, before partition happened when they were dispossessed of their lands and it was named Bangladesh, generations of my ancestors (both my father and mother’s folks) lived there. My father’s and one of my great (I do not know how many times great because my father is the one well-versed with the family tree) grandfathers’ boatmen dreamt of a goddess. As irreverent as I am, I often wondered if he had smoked a few spliffs, but then in his defence, the man did locate the goddess who apparently appeared in his dreams.

A tiny idol of Annapurna made of ashtadhatu (eight metals – an amalgamation of gold, silver, copper, lead, zinc, tin, iron and mercury) was recovered by him from a certain spot that was revealed to him in the vision. Annapurna is the goddess of nourishment (she who wants you to be well fed always) and Durga personified. The boatman passed on the idol to his employer, my ancestor, who started this ritual of worshipping Durga on his land. Unknowingly he had started a legacy that has tempered the outlook of so many generations of my family after him.

Now the pujo is rotated among three family members – two of my father’s cousins and my father. Last year I flew back to Calcutta because my parents who are ageing away at a meteoric pace were sure it would be their last time celebrating it at home. ‘You never know,’ they said, and as much as it hurts, it is the inevitable truth of life I suppose.

As a child, I would wake up early and gather flowers in my skirt from beneath our trees. Some wild purple and white ones, blood-red hibiscus and then mounds of shiuli, the night-flowering jasmine. I would knit garlands out of those pretty night jasmine with their coral center and stems for presenting to the goddess. Then fast for the offering-of-flowers ritual that happened with chantings of shlokas by the family priest during the latter half of the mornings. I would sin by sneaking food into my library room from the kitchen during those times when I was supposed to fast, little orbs of goodness made up of coconut, sugar and milkmaid. Then noons of dressing up and escaping the family to spend time with friends at pandals where the young and beautiful flock together to observe each other with a gimlet eye. And day and night of feasting on delicious Bengali food that comes to an end with the final/10th day of the pujo when we immerse the goddess into the river.

That is when the entire family – the very old and babies barred – we all pile up into a large lorry and rumble down the roads with Durga and her sons and daughters and demon and chant, ‘Aschhe bochhor abar hobe‘ (roughly translated, ‘the following year she shall be here again’) before we slide her gently into the waters of the Hooghly and douse our grief with food, but of course. A feast that kicks off with giant fried sweets, followed up with plenty of fish cooked in mustard, mounds of rice, mouthwatering range of veggies and chutneys.

Autumn for me is the arrival of this festive air. It steals in upon me, arrival of the goddess when the breeze softens, when the skies put on their dreamy blue veil, the merest hint of winter in the air and the long white grass we call kaash phool, a sort of perennial white grass which sways in the wind with immeasurable softness and grace. As much of a non-believer as I am, I bask in the goodness of it because what would life be without traditions. As witty Whitman had declared without a trace of shame: ‘Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself, (I am large, I contain multitudes.)’

Today I feel a throb for my childhood home. For everything that is so far away. Oceans away. Instead of looking for the nearest pandal in Jersey City, I cook and celebrate this feeling because it is my way to celebrate – plus I feel this terrible sense of ennui weighing me down in strange pandals where I have to idly natter with people because I have to, invain attempts to recreate the glories of home. That can never be.
When night comes we shall tuck into biryani (slow-cooked rice, potatoes and meat) – I was jumping for hours today morning trying to calm down an agitated fire alarm and I am surprised she did not drone on about curry instead of fire – and I shall reminisce to Adi who has not seen Durga Pujo in her one true home, Calcutta, for the nth time: ‘You have no idea what you are missing out on. It is legendary.’
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Last year’s avataar of Ma Durga at home
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Cotton soaked in ghee is lit in 108 small brass pots by women to symbolise the destruction of evil during Sandhi Pujo when 108 lotuses are also offered to the goddess alongside.
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Kola bou. Banana Bride. She is the consort for Ganesha, the god whose elephant trunk you can spy in the backdrop. Autumn is the time for harvest so people, particularly peasants, worship the many bounties of Mother Earth.
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Sentimentalism: Home is where the heart is

53 thoughts on “In the Dreams of a Boatman…

  1. So nice to read about the traditional festival and yes agree any festival celebration back home are the best, miles away from home it is impossible to recreate that magic however much we try ! Hope you still have fun in NJ .Happy festivities !

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      1. That’s true I can kind of relate to that growing up in a different town and state than my hometown in Kerala , on the plus side got to enjoy the festivals of both states ! Thank you !

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      2. That does sound interesting and I looked it up out of more curiosity (I sure hope I am not going the way of the curious cat). From the few images what I could gather is that it’s a green town.

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      3. I’m happy to hear you found some images, yes it is quite green really miss those good 22 Plus yrs spent there , these days we only travel to Kerala which is again a beautiful place !

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      4. wow that must have been an awesome experience visiting an Ayurvedic retreat for a story, the backwaters are definitely a great vacation place, would love to read your travel story on that sometime soon !!

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  2. Hi Dippy,
    What a lovely post! I loved reading about your traditions and childhood memories. I was always curious what Indians did during what is the biggest festival for the Nepalese, Dashain as it’s called. I know it’s about Goddess Durga and probably her victory over killing some kind of antihero (Ravana?) but I am really not sure. Our traditions during the festival are mostly receiving red tika from elders, flying kites, gambling, drinking and eating a lot of meat. And I mean, a lot. There are some local customs like swinging on a big bamboo swing (so fun) which I think is unique only to Nepal. It was always about the traditions for me, not really the religious side of the festival. Whenever it’s autumn, I miss the festival atmosphere back home. In fact I was thinking about it just today when we had perfect cloudless blue skies with autumn air. It’s been six years since I last celebrated it with family. Surely it’s the same festival (celebrated differently) that we’re talking about? 🙂 Have a nice day!

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    1. Durga kills Mahishashur, the ashura. Ravana was part ashura if I am not wrong. A big bamboo swing sounds unique. I do not believe I have seen the likes of it in India 🙂 Gambling and drinking is common in India when Diwali sets in a few weeks later. Then you should see the card parties and the kind of money people win/lose. I expect it is the same at yours since you mention it. We eat plenty of mutton at that time too because Bengalis worship Kali during Diwali. Earlier there used to be a sacrifice of Kali at our family pujo, now it has been changed to a token sacrifice of an ash gourd. Thank heavens!

      Yes Pooja, we are surely talking about the same festival. In North India they call it Dussehra. We are neighbours after all. Isn’t it a bittersweet emotion? Though six years is a long time and I can imagine your pangs of nostalgia.
      You have a lovely weekend to live it up. xx

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  3. Nice post girl and yes, just went to the temple to pray Durga! Love starting Sept with fall as well as the Navaratri season. Def get to wear a lot of indian outfits haha 🙂 Hope you have a great Navaratri 🙂

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    1. Thank you Maha 🙂 Let Durga bring out the warrior in us then. I have not had the chance to experience the Navaratris yet. It is such a North Indian experience isn’t it? Well here’s to a wonderful dressy Navaratri to you! xx

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  4. Very enjoyable post… thank you for sharing your memories. Having been raised in the West, I’ve totally missed out on these festivities to the point that they come and go and I don’t feel like I’m missing anything…. In any case, wishing you all the best for this festive season!

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    1. Thank you Annika. Our environment shapes the way we look at things and feel about them. I can quite imagine that you would feel strongly about the festivities you have experienced as a child. I think the best aspect about any festival is the promise of food and good cheer.

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  5. Those rituals of home and family (Christmas for me, of course and Easter) tug at the heart when we are away. The call of the child, the desire to soak up the certainty of the yearly rehearsed festivals. It matters not whether you adhere to the religious aspects it is the comfort of the familiar and the surety of the shared joy that makes it part of our heart wherever we are. I loved this post. Loved the love that you pored into all those nooks of memories. And of course your pictures. Xx

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    1. Thank you Osyth. As always your words tap into the deepest corners of my heart. Funnily enough I feel the same kind of passion for Christmas. You see those are the two big festivals I have grown up with. Possibly because of the culture of Christmas celebrated in Calcutta with great pomp, fairy lights strewn across Park Street, the Anglo-Indian community’s fervour and the many Christmas cakes and goodies that appeared on old-world bakery windows. Those fruit cakes drove me into a frenzy. I am a fruit cake nut. And I try to replicate the flavours and almost get there. Something tells me that it is the rose-tinted memories of childhood that added the final touch of perfection to those cakes. Btw I for once could not find most of my photos so you were excused from being piled under a barrage of them 🙂 xx

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  6. Durga Puja is one of the most celebrated festivals in India. The extravagance that organizers exhibit is boundless and will always surprise you. I have had few of my closest friends as Bengalis and I totally love the culture and the kind of people that they are generally. They live their life like there’s no tomorrow. They speak their mind and are amazing people!

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    1. Haha those are generous words. We also have the capacity to extend our vocal cords beyond what’s needed but hey I am not fighting your compliments. Thank you! And you are right the extravagance is gobsmacking. Then everything is dismantled…that always makes me a bit melancholic.

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      1. Haha, Bengalis are definitely one of the most talented communities, quite genuinely. But about the melancholy of having to part with it or to see it dismantle is totally understandable, we experience it with Ganesh visarjan too. It’s heartbreaking. 🙁

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    1. Thank you Jen. There are cultures and cultures and then subcultures too which can be confusing but there is enough difference to keep even me engaged. Childhood – it is funny to grow up and see things from a different perspective and yet it is always rosier as a child. xx

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  7. Loved reading about the finer details of a Durga Puja celebration. Have never attended one yet. And you are so right, the memories of home festivities made on an impressionable mind back then are irreplaceable. However many other Diwali and Holi celebrations I may have been a part of, have never been able to find true happiness in my heart. Its just not right if its not at home. Wishing you a great festive time ahead xx

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    1. Hey Anushree, thank you 🙂 I hope you shall have a wonderful time in the festive season too. You get me with the words, ‘Its just not right if its not at home.’ We must be a rare breed 🙂 I hope one day you do get to set your eyes on Durga Puja in its home, Calcutta, because it is one of those celebrations that truly do justice to the stomach and the senses. Have yourself a lovely week, girl. xx

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  8. Thank you for sharing this lovely read and photography, Dippy. It’s another world altogether for us and your enjoyable writing brings it so much closer.
    Take care, have a great Sunday. x

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    1. Thank you Dina. I appreciate that you took the time to read it because it is often difficult to imagine other cultures which are as different as chalk from cheese. From one traveller to another, may these differences only bring us closer. Hope you have a wonderful week and I did indeed have a lovely Sunday in the hills of Pennsylvania 🙂 xx

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  9. I love your stories and memories! Traditional festivals always intrigue me. My parents are Mexican and it’s my dream to go to Mexico someday for the Day of the Dead festivities. The state where they’re from apparently does it beautifully so I want to see it for myself!

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    1. Thank you Pam. There is a whole lot to be said about tradition even though I sometimes am guilty of wanting to bypass them. But some traditions just grip hold of the heart.

      I have heard a fair bit about the Day of the Dead and seen shots of the festival. It is fascinating. When you attend it in person, it would possibly be something else because yeah your roots always tend to call out to you. xx

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