(Sohini Mukherjee of New Delhi, India, writes about her first Durga Puja in Guwahati as a 10-year-old with her extended family. )
“Let’s give grandma a surprise this year. Let’s not tell her we’re coming!” Dad’s out-of-the-blue suggestion astonished us!
“Are we going to Guwahati for Durga Puja?” The very thought of it filled my 10-year-old heart with excitement! I had spent the first few years of my life in Guwahati with my maternal grandparents but being an infant then, I hardly had any clear memories of events and places of that time. This, certainly, would be a proper grown-up visit then! Besides, I was thrilled at the prospect of meeting my mother’s mother, who I fondly called mammam, and loved dearly second only to Mom!
It was already Mahalaya and anyone would think making travel plans at this hour was a downright daunting task. Today, Durga Puja vacation means having to draw up elaborate plans at least a month before, if not earlier. But two decades ago, life was simpler and you could go to the railway station, buy tickets to your destination and hop on the train.
So Shasthi morning had me, Mommy and Daddy packing our bags and heading off to Patna junction. Chandaa, the teenage Assamese girl who helped my mom with the housework, accompanied us too—delighted with the prospect of getting to spend a full week with her family in Guwahati.
As the Tinsukia Express rumbled on, I was mesmerized by the sights that kept me glued to the window—the fields, the village huts, the ponds, the rivers, the greenery, and not to forget, the grand spectacle of the Farakka Bridge…My mom took to chatting with the Bengali couple with whom we shared the compartment. They were headed for Malda in West Bengal, and got down at about nightfall.
Saptami dawn was just breaking when we caught our first glimpse of Maa Durga! The train was slowly pulling out of the Alipurduar station, and there, just beside the tiny platform, was a tree-lined lane at the end of which stood a petite pandal! A lone bulb had lit up the goddess, allowing us just enough time for a fleeting look before the train picked up speed again…Unforgettable!
At about eight in the morning, the train came to a grinding halt at Bongaigaon, and we were told that it would go no further! Whazzat! Floods had ravaged the railway tracks. [With a monsoon that stretches from April to November, floods in Assam are an annual event that nobody bothers about. They don’t get any of the publicity that a foot of water logging in the national capital does.]
But, Guwahati was still far away! A taxi was the next best solution, and soon, all the four of us were again on our way! With the lush greenery and glimpses of local culture all around, Assam by road is even more breathtaking than Assam by rail, and before we knew it, the mighty Brahmaputra loomed into view!
Here too, we found out that the road bridge was under repair and hence closed for traffic! A ferry it was then, with our taxicab, us and a horde of local people, all loaded onto it! Once on the other side of the river, the taxi was unloaded from the ferry and we all hopped on to it again for the last lap of our journey…
Finally, when we reached Grandma’s flat on Danish Road, hungry, thirsty and tired–but with elevated spirits nonetheless—it was way past noon… Needless to say, Mammam and the rest were elated at this grand surprise!
The next two days were spent at the family Puja pandal—our very own Durga Puja, an ancestral traditional ritual which my mom’s family has been organising for the last 200 years! This puja is held in the chandimandap of the sprawling courtyard of the Boro Bari, or the big house, a house which still upholds the joint-family structure and is the place where my mother spent her childhood and early youth…
The Sen family Durga Puja is quite famous all over Guwahati, both for the exquisite beauty of the protimaa and also for the interchanged places of Lakshmi–Ganesh and Saraswati–Kartikeya. Legend has it that an ancestor dreamed them that way, and since then the family has adopted this style as part of its tradition.
In the midst of the chaos that a family puja is, I was taken to meet the extended family and duly introduced to each of them with a feet-touching pronaam from my side and the usual exclamation of “Oma! Koto boro hoye geche!” from the other side! With four generations of the family having stayed together, my mom has every kind of relation that one can think of—uncles; aunts; grand uncles; grand aunts; first, second and third cousins, and their wives, husbands and children! So, it’s no mean feat going thru the pronaam routine over and over, mind you!
A visit to my mom’s primary school, the Hari Sabha, was another memorable experience. While I was looking on at the goddess installed inside the school pandal, a loud thunderous sound at my side made me almost jump out of my skin! Turning around, I saw a man beating a huge drum that was all plumed and decorated. It was my first darshan of a dhaaki and his dhaak!
In another pandal, instead of being dressed in fiery red, the goddess Durga and all her attendants were clothed in white paat silk, the special fabric of Assam!
Every respectable Bong worth his or her maacher jhol knows that no Durga Puja account is complete without details of the bhog and the khawa dawa.
But before we mortals get a chance to dig our fingers in the delectable bhog, it is the goddess who must be served first—with a spread of 108 items to be precise, ranging from the humble shaak to the kingly mangsho, the repast completed with an array of the choicest sweets and fruits! Yes, the Grand Lady has both appetite and fine taste!
A marked feature of our family puja is the boli, or the goat sacrifice. I was unaware of it, but on Navami morning while on a visit to the chandimandap, I spied a couple of bleating goats tied to a post in the courtyard.
“What are they for?” I asked my grand uncle.
“They are for the sacrifice which will happen just after the priest completes the daily puja ritual. Do you want to see the boli?”, he asked matter-of-factly.
I just shook my head, too astounded to speak! Once again I looked at the goats. They were still bleating at the top of their voices.
However shocking the revelation was, I found that I hardly faced any problem while savoring the meat curry later on at lunch! Nor did the sight of a severed goat head, kept on a plate at the feet of the goddess, startle me to any great extent.
The superb bhog, served on fresh banana leaves, comprised begun bhaja, chholar daal, phulkopir dalna, paathar mangsho, kamrangar tok, doi and mishti, all accompanied by the aromatic Joha rice, another specialty of Assam! True to tradition, the meat for the bhog is cooked without onions and garlic, using only gorom moshla for the flavor.
Since our stay extended till Lokkhi Puja, it is worthwhile to describe here the amazing concoction that I got to taste on that occasion—a mixture of raw moong dal, bananas and batashas, all mashed into a pulp—the traditional bhog for the goddess of wealth. The mixed flavors of all the ingredients give an out of-the-world feeling to one’s taste buds. It has to be tasted to be believed! It was also during Lokkhi Puja that I learnt to make rice-paste alpona for the first time!
Since all good things must come to an end, Bijoya Dashami—the day that marks the grand finale of Durga Puja festivities—arrived at the appointed hour, not a day sooner, not a day later.
Dashami morning saw the family crowded in the chandimandap, and one by one, we viewed the reflection of the goddess in a bowl of water. This ritual, I came to know, signifies the immersion or bishorjon, of the protimaa. Once it is completed, the goddess is deemed to have left for her heavenly abode. What remains is the now-lifeless idol which can be immersed in the river any day, any time.
The rest of the day was equally eventful—the shindur-khela for the ladies, the final pronaam to the goddess, walking up to the Brahmaputra ghat to view the immersion, the sweets and the family gatherings in the evening, and in all this an indescribable lingering sadness, and a wait for the coming year…
The return journey proved even more thrilling! The flood-wrecked railway tracks were still under repair and hence no trains were available from Guwahati to Patna. So how were we to go back? By air, what else? My first airplane ride!!
It’s been a long time now but I still remember that special Durga Puja spent in Guwahati, my first full-blown experience of a proper Bengali Puja. What makes it more special was the fact that it was a family puja! Times have changed, dear ones have departed and we have never been to Assam since then, but a part of the extended family still lives on in Guwahati and the tradition still continues.
I don’t know if I will ever visit the place or the people again, but my best wishes and fondest memories are with them always!