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.
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.
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.
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!