Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Mahalaya and Saptami (two stories)

In front of our house was a row of yellow and red company quarters. Our row and their row met at the end of the street, giving us a triangular field in between. This triangular strip of land served as our football, hockey, and cricket field. Every Sunday we used to abandon our books around 10.00 and run to the field to play in the sun. We had heard of the hole in the ozone layer in the southern hemisphere, but that wasn’t a deterrent. We had melanin and adrenaline to keep us going in the sun. Our mothers started calling from around 12.00 noon, but the games went on till about 1.00 in the afternoon. My mom would come and stand at the door, waiting to catch my eye, and then silently go inside.

A few days before the Durga Pujo celebrations in October, came this special day called Mahalaya. Early in the morning my dad would switch on the radio and listen to the voice of Birendra Krishna Bhadra welcoming the goddess and asking her to come down to earth for four days. It was the most beautiful chant, and our entire field outside resonated with the sound emanating from the radios in all the houses. One morning I went out to sit in the field and listen to it coming from everywhere, all around me. It was a magical surround sound experience. If I have an AV room someday, I will make it triangular, I thought.

Mine being an atheist home, the significance of the chant was restricted to the love for the man who sang it, and although the other kids would not have to touch their books today, I would have to finish my homework before the games began at 10.00. Whereas on other Sundays and holidays I would eagerly finish my studies before the field beckoned, studying on the day of the Mahalaya remains in my memory as particularly painful, as tears would well up and the words in the books would go hazy.
But that marked the beginning of the celebrations for the next ten days. We would discuss our new clothes and the latest fashion, chalk out the pandal visits, plan to meet friends at appointed hours, and everybody seemed to be smiling. How much pocket money will we get, was the question on every boy’s mind. Egg rolls at the Newton pujo were legendary.

It is Mahalaya today, and being outside Bengal, it has lost its significance to me now. I still have to come to work, and my son has no idea of what it meant to us as children. That was a day when everything was allowed. Don’t want to study? Okay. Don’t want to do the dishes? Okay. Want to have luchi? Okay. And payesh too? Okay. Want to try out your new clothes in front of the mirror? Okay. The excitement of trying out new clothes isn’t there anymore, and life is the same as it is on any other day.
"But, shouldn’t there be an exception to the rule?" Saya asked.

"Let it be sugar in the tea today then, instead of sugarfree."
“So, tell me about Pujo - what happened then?” Saya asked, sipping her sugared tea. It was the morning of Mahalaya, and we'd decided that work could wait, for a bit. “Tell me", she prodded.
Oh, so much happened. All the action was around Newton, Einstein, Vivekananda, and Aurobindo. “What now", she said knitting her brows, "make sense now". I was at the risk of losing my only audience. Not people, places. In Durgapur, avenues and roads are named after everyone who is a someone; Tolstoy to Guevara. Okay, I kid you, not Guevara. There is a markedly large number of men, dominating road names, I accept. Though this would be an interesting topic, for a debate, I must'n’t digress.

Most of the Pujo action was centered around Newton Avenue, where we had a carnival of sorts around the main dais. After the Mahalaya, the days passed quicker than ever and as Saptami approached, we were gripped by a frenzy of expectations. It was mostly about food, clothes, and not having to study, as I told you.

“And girls? Isn’t that the primary thing for boys during the Durga Pujo? To ogle at all the beautiful girls and flirt with them?”

I ignored her question and continued. When I was 14, egg rolls were about Rs 4.00 each and chicken around Rs 6.00. The pocket money we got during the pujo was around Rs 30 for the three days, which was enough. Nobody asked for the change back, and you could spend all your money on day 1, if you were living for the moment.

At Newton, on Saptami, I had worn a dhoti for the first time in my life, just for the effect. It was a cumbersome silk cloth draped around my waist and made walking rather uncomfortable. My dad made me wear my football shorts underneath, in case of an emergency. Sankar kept shouting at the public in general “hey, everybody, here’s a groom in the market for you, here’s a grooooom, any takers?”
The joke was on me; I was blushing all through the evening and the kurta already got soiled, and they were playing “Meri Biwi Maike Chali Gayee” on the loudspeaker. Suddenly someone changed the song to Tagore’s “Arjun, tumi Arjun.” Before I knew it, a girl broke out of the crowd and started dancing in front of the pandal. Dancing to the song, as Arjuna the warrior.

"Oh yes, that's from Chitrangada. That's a beautiful dance drama. I used to be Chitrangada in it," the wife piped up.

And this girl, with her short hair, was Arjuna. She was oblivious to her surroundings, tied her saree way way above her waist, and danced like a warrior!

Her friends cheered her on, people gathered around, and by the time she finished, I was in love.
I had seen this girl earlier at Ma’s school, playing Swami Vivekananda, delivering the famous Brothers and Sisters of America speech from 1893. She had lodged herself in my head like a buried dream, and there she was, in front of us, in front of me, at touching distance!

After the dance, she came up to me and asked about my mother. "I’ve seen you with Namita miss. You are Shuvo, aren’t you? What's with the dhoti?"
"What's with the saree, then?" I asked.

My friends had abandoned me, just when I needed their support the most. I heard myself offering her chicken rolls. There were five of them and I had paid for it all. My first act of chivalry saw me spending all my Pujo pocket money on five girls. We talked like we had always been friends. It was a strange happiness, to know love for the first time, and when I walked back home with my friends that night, I was determined to tell her one day, about my affection like instantly brewed coffee.

“What was her name?” asked Saya.

I never asked. She knew my name and I pretended to know hers. Seemed rude to ask. Back home, when Ma asked how much I had spent, I couldn’t lie. I told her about the girl who played Vivekananda at her school, and that I had bought her chicken rolls. But I didn’t want any more money, I was covered. And it’s not necessary to have rolls, anyway, I added.

Ma listened to my story attentively, smiled and kissed my forehead. As I stood there hugging her, I heard her quietly add, “And by the way, her name is Anindita.”

The wait for Ashtami had never been longer. And when I found another thirty rupees in the pocket of my Avis jeans the next day, the atheist in me suddenly felt the stirrings of faith in Ma.