Revisiting Agartala

Agartala palace by the lake

 Agartala Palace by the Lake

Agartala will always have a special place in my heart. A small relatively quieter town that I grew up in, with friendly bunch of people. A town that I was eager to leave behind during my teens when my ambitions knew no bounds. A town that I crave to revisit now from time to time but feel mildly disappointed during each visit.

I guess hometown does that to us all. Somewhere in our imagination we crave for a place that has remained unchanged, that will take us back to those carefree childhood days whenever we go back. Change however is inevitable!

A lot about Agartala has changed as well. The quiet town that I once grew up in has become noisier and is bustling with activity. There are malls in Agartala now and fast food chains. As a kid samosa, kachoris and chops were the only fast food we knew. The quiet lane by our house is now a busy road. We can hear vehicles passing by and honking, voices of people on the pavement talking even from the bedrooms. When I go back now, it takes me a few nights to get used to the noise and get some good sleep.

Tatched roof tin house bordered by beetle nut treesI remember my childhood home with a huge courtyard, with jackfruit trees, mango trees and coconut trees. There were beetle nut trees along the boundary. Our house was defined by a big bakul (creamy white fragrant flowers) tree by the gate – the house with the bakul gaach (tree). There were many flower plants and crotons in the front yard, dad liked gardening. Agartala is a rainy place, tress grow easily there.

When I think of Agartala I miss those rainy days the most. Pittar patter rain falling through the day on tin roofs, our courtyard and roads getting water logged, wading through the water to the bus stop, floating paper boats in the rain, I yearn for those days.

The courtyard of my childhood home is not as big anymore. The bakul tree is long gone along with many other trees. Unlike earlier we now buy coconuts and jackfruits from the market. The thatched tin roofed house has given way to modern concrete buildings – economic prosperity and modernization taking away a bit of my childhood!

In fact, some time back not so long ago, most houses in Agartala had huge courtyards with all kinds of fruit and flower trees. Some houses even had a small pond, like my maternal grandfather’s place.  We would sometimes fish in that pond and occasionally manage a decent catch. The excitement of pulling that fish out of the pond is something I will never forgot.

Some things however haven’t changed, the excitement I feel each time the wheel of the plane touches Agartala, the lake before our house (though the banks have been concretised), the homemade food – the variety of fish preparations, posto, shukto and sweets.

Agartala remains dear to me for the things that have not changed and for the things that remain unchanged in my memories!

It’s Pujo time

Like most Bengalis Durga Puja is the festival I look forward to, or at least I did then as a girl in Agartala. Puja vacations were the most awaited vacations, four days sans studies, only pandal hopping and showing off our new clothes. Yes, we were given at least one new dress for each day, in fact that was the only time in the year when we were given new clothes (except may be birthdays). Mostly our moms stitched our clothes, we knew nothing about brands, couldn’t dare ask our parents for branded clothes even when awareness grew.

Shiuli_phool_-_panoramio

Back then the anticipation and the excitement of Durga Puja was built days in advance, with the first bloom of shiuli phool (night jasmine/coral jasmine) or the first site of a puja pandal being constructed. We would happily watch white autumn clouds float in clear blue sky and eagerly wait for the festivities to begin. Every house had a shiuli plant then and the ground below the plant would be strewn with sweet smelling flowers in the morning. As a girl I would pick up those flowers and string them into a garland, my most coveted morning task as long as the flowers bloomed.

There would be a puja pandal coming up in every corner, special sale and discounts were announced in every shop. That was the time when we would start bargaining with our parents for new clothes, shoes, pocket money during puja days etc. As kids it was a matter of great pride to have earned more newbies than your friends and peers during puja.

Mahalaya that announced the advent of Goddess Durga was a very significant occasion. AIR would play Birendra Krishna Bhadra’s “Mahisasura Mardini” or “The Annihilation of the Demon” very early in the morning. In my excitement and eagerness to not miss the Mahalaya recital I would hardly get any sleep the night before. None of the modern editions of Mahalaya that now come in various TV channels match Birendra Krishna Bhadra’s magic.

Barir Pujo

Puja days were spent at my maternal grandparents’ place as they performed Durga Puja every year. I remember waking up as early as my grand mom and other ladies of the house, towing them as they rushed through the elaborate preparations of Devi puja. Children were sometimes allowed to gather flowers, a job that was performed with much pride.

In the evening we would go pandal hopping. As Agartala is a small place we could even walk from one pandal to other, buy mutton chops or rolls from roadside vendors outside the pandal. Visiting the maximum number of pandals was kind of a competition. Pandals even then where very well decorated and lit. Some of the well known pandals got idols from Kumortuli and light decoration from Krishnagar, but they were nothing compared to the fancy hi-tech pandals of today.

dhak image

Smell of shiuli and dhuno (camphor), sound of dhak (type of drum), dhunichi dance are strongly associated with my memories of Durga Puja. We could hear dhak through the day from every nook and corner. Dhakis (dhak players) would go from house to house playing for a small sum. Even in Agartala most houses don’t have shiuli plant anymore, dhakis are making way for more hi-tech music!

Having stayed away from home for years I really miss the flavour and the spirit of Pujo. Durga Puja days are usual working days here, though I make it a point to wear a sari everyday and visit a Pandal in the evening. CR Park in Delhi almost replicates Kolkata during Pujo but somehow falls short of the frenzy and the excitement, or maybe is just me missing my childhood Pujo!