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Deja Vu of Delightful Devils in Durga Puja

Deja Vu of Delightful Devils in Durga Puja

Durga Maa in rain

Tale of a restless Eighties kid in a laid-back Durga Puja celebration, in Gauhati University campus, Assam, on a year different than the rest

This year, we take fresh guard for what might be a different affair altogether in the name of DURGA Puja.

I can imagine the Mahisasura in most pandals degraded to being a virus (Coronasura of course!) and the entire Goddess family portrayed in masks.

But that doesn’t deter me in taking a trip down Memory Lane to recall those halcyon days  of Guwahati in the eighties.

Much of my now- celebrated- then-uneventful childhood was spent in the pristine locales of GAUHATI university campus (mind the spelling ‘Gauhati’. It is sacrilegious to try to change that for the University) where my father was a professor.

The campus was removed from the hustle bustle of the city and our evenings were spent, listening to the jackals’ concert (hukka huuwa) from the adjoining forests.

The big, bad mosquitoes of Lachitnagar or Ulubari were not to be found. Less than a few hundred metres to the north, the red river in all its majesty and mystery of a million hidden currents silently flowed downstream.

The triumvirate of GU campus, Govt Ayurvedic College and Assam Engineering college almost made it the Oxford of Assam!

A particular year in the eighties, 1988 to be precise, was different; but it won’t go into the record books for being that because there was no virus. 1994 did make it though with the plague making headlines in Surat.

But coming back to 1988, there was a different kind of flood in Guwahati. In the monsoon months(I wonder whether in Assam we have one), most of the rivers in Assam are in spate.

Guwahati seldom faces the wrath and ire of the mighty Brahmaputra. Yet that year was different. A fortnight leading to Mahalaya(usually the DURGA puja starts a week after, but 2020 is an aberration),there was a deluge in the city.

One of its proud tributaries, the Bharalu got clogged and so did the feeder drains. So it happened that the water simply couldn’t drain to the Brahmaputra.

But this time of every year, the excitement would be reserved for the autumn festival of DURGA Puja. And there was a question mark whether we would be able to celebrate the DURGA Puja in our quaint campus at all.

Life went on as usual in the GU campus. We had relatives who descended from Shillong. They were to board a train next morning to Calcutta for DURGA Puja but got stranded. With cousins around, life suddenly became a happening one with me, my brother and then cousins, bringing the house down with our antics .

The rain wouldn’t stop and we played inside the house mostly and when no one was looking , we went out into the sprawling kitchen garden at the back, making umbrellas from plaintain and large yam leaves.

If we managed to keep our fights down, we would play ‘Kata kuti‘ till we literally came to blows. Then there was book cricket where you played as teams, turning the pages of the book and recording the score coinciding with the page number in the units place.

Eight was one run, zero out and the rest were runs in even numbers… 2, 4, 6,.. With no third umpire in sight, the match would often end midway due to a technical fault, the book torn to shreds after a major fight that would erupt amongst ourselves.

The elders who would have been busy visiting Fancy Bazar, shopping for new clothes, stayed back and played cards. They would often let out a sigh that that year DURGA Puja wouldn’t be as grand as previous years.

Sometimes reluctantly, they had to intervene during the violent virtual cricket matches and prevent potential casualties, with a scratch here, a bite or a bruise elsewhere.

Dad with his makeshift fishing contraption made from an old World War mosquito net, caught a few channa punctatas(Goroi fish), which the ladies would clean and roast on red hot coal embers, garnishing it with chillies, ginger, garlic and coriander leaves.

The pungent dry fish or Shidol, was not my favorite those days, but that monsoon made me discover a taste for it for eternity. My aunt managed to dish up a mouth watering paste with tomatoes, onion and garlic, which has remained in me for good.

Rice and cereals had to be rationed but I didn’t miss my bread and butter. We had cows for milk, vegetables from the kitchen garden, lemons, tomatoes, duck eggs, a few hens if one needed chicken, jackfruit seeds, coconut trees, mango papad… almost everything one would think of stocking on an East India Noah’s Ark !!!

The evenings were filled with aromas of freshly brewed coffee (yes, we had a grinder and didn’t drink chicory), besan fritters, puffed rice mixtures, and coconut savouries.

The dinners were simple. Boiled Masoor daal, fried potato chips (expertly sliced and cut into pieces which would put  Botanists dissecting  a China Rose stem to shame), and dry fish paste.

If it was Shidol one night, it would be Bombay Duck or Loitka the other evening. A rare treat would be those wrapped in pumpkin leaves.

The chillies in the pungent paste would make the unruly hairs on my scalp stand in rapt attention as the dandruff would dance to the silent tune of the dry fish accompaniments, leaving me scratching my head amidst watery eyes.

The smell would stay and before my tired, tear-filled eyes would close in sleep, I would revisit the smell in my right palm, fingers and nailbed, not obliterated by the gentle cleansing with the Bengali mascot of Margo soap and gentle rubbing of an emollient, a Bhadralok accompaniment, by the name of Boroline.

We somehow weren’t unhappy due to the flood-induced break although the fear of giving the Pujas a miss was very much there.

By the time we decided we were having the time of our lives, the week was over and the waters had receded. Our relatives couldn’t book tickets as reservation those days didn’t have a TATKAL quota.

Tired of waiting for the water to recede from the railway tracks, they finally decided to stay for the Durga Puja. Schools reopened for a couple of days only to close down prematurely for the Puja. The cousins would be there and there was no looking back.

It was the festive season. Somehow my mom and aunt went shopping and bought new clothes for us. We were least bothered as we only looked forward to the toy pistols and their ammunition in the form of caps which would ‘fire’ once the trigger was pressed. The tin pistols were manufactured never to last beyond four days of the Puja.

The jackals were back in the evenings temporarily and often one would hear their concert with a vixen breaking into a soprano.

To make things eerie, Bhupen Hazarika’s baritone with ‘Protiddhwani Shuni‘ would gently meander into the slightly misty autumn evening  from a 45 rpm HMV record, rolling on a Murphy Gramophone record player.

The song would finish and the ladies would serve us dinner of JOHA rice and a stew of climbing perch or Koi maach, with black pepper, even as the gramophone pin would make scratchy noises against the rotating record when the song ended.

The elders would listen to Aagomoni gaan on a Philips flat tape recorder. The smell of the earth was different. Our parents seemed less strict. They truly followed the spirit of ‘Maanuhe Maanuhor Baabe‘ those few days.

They didn’t punish us when we cousins, in a fit of creativity, cut each others hairs. Our family barber, unable to recognize the creativity, had to shave our heads. Bald headed, as if in penance, cursing the reflection in the mirrors, we would wake up to the autumn morning.

The moods changed dramatically as we soaked in angelic sights of Shiuli phul( an autumn flower)  adorning the grassy knoll adjacent to our quarters.

Akashbani(Radio) would blare out Birendra Kishore Bhadra’s “Mahalaya” chants, signaling that Pujo is round the corner. The cobwebs in the parallel aerial nettings of the Murphy Radio set looked more artistic than Van Gogh’s missing ear.

Dreamy eyed, we lazed around those autumn mornings, the Puja Specials(Pujo shonkhya) from the various children magazines like Anandamela, Shuktara or Kishor Bharati waiting to be devoured.

We loved the inviting smell of the crisp new dresses as it juxtaposed with the mint laden Colgate on the much used toothbrush, bouncing happily up and down the teeth ,carefully avoiding the cavities and sensitive areas. We finally had new hopes beyond the boredom of predictability.

Imbibing the rich aroma of Darjeeling tea leaves being soaked in warm water, taken off the stove just as it was reaching the boiling point, we used to await the same to be mixed with the liqueur of CTC Orthodox Assam tea and fresh milk to begin the day.

A hissing sound was produced as the semi toasted bakery’s fresh bread got kissed by Amul Butter on a heated pan; we looked forward to the arrival of the semi-clad colourful idols of Goddess DURGA and her entourage, almost as if a travelling theatre group was to descend on our majestic hamlet.

The GU Campus Puja used to be celebrated in the campus field opposite the GU Model school those days, in shifting places in the huge cricket field.

Today, it has got a semi permanent structure and a permanent address. We learnt much later that the collections and lack of corporate sponsorships didn’t deter generous patrons from sponsoring almost the entire cost of the Puja.

There was the cost of the idols, the bhog, the daily khichuri, the priest, the pandal as well as entertainment. Neon tubelights hanging from corrugated tin ceilings in the pandal, lit up the modest structure in the evenings giving it a quaint dignity, permanently accompanied by swarming insects attracted by its light.

The bamboo poles supporting the structure were cleverly adorned in white cloth, turning grey with the smoke from the vessels used during the evening Aarti.

Ladies decked out in the most colourful Mekhela Sadors were a sight to behold. The otherwise quiet and laid-back neighbourhood would become a beehive of activity.

The chairs and the benches would be realigned to make way for a makeshift stage, sometimes in the centre in a circle or a makeshift platform in the corner, careful not to make the seating arrangement so as not to show ones backside to the Goddess and her family.

On evenings with clear skies, it sometimes resembled an amphitheatre. For the evening cultural shows, we would hurry to get a seat in the front.

The jackals had meanwhile fled with the first beat of the drum and wouldn’t be heard till the immersion had completed.

The flood waters didn’t exactly inundate GU campus that year. The meteorological department had predicted clear skies but a deluge on Nabami. But as they were seldom correct, nobody bothered about it.

Saptami or the first day was uneventful as we children ran amok, with a couple of tin Pistols each dangling from our pockets and another two on our hands , fighting off opponents and pretending to be cowboys.

We infused some machismo by ‘lighting’ Phantom Sweet Cigarettes, by licking the red end of the peppermint stick shaped like a cigarette.

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Some of our friends even had holsters to show off. This was perhaps the last year of innocence as we put a well chewed chewing gum on the chairs.

Unfortunately my brother was caught red handed as one of the gums he threw landed on the hair of a distinguished lady faculty member, who remained absent from the pandal for the next three days.

In the afternoon, we were the first to burn our fingers in the still heavenly khichdi served with homemade pickle, tomato chutney, mixed vegetables (where cabbage was the captain of the team), and rice pudding as dessert.

The food would make us lazy as we trudged tiredly to our residence, our Italian cowboy personas dying for a Spanish siesta !

The flood which didn’t recede till a week back that year was no deterrent to the twenty strong contingent of five families from the GU campus to proceed with their annual pilgrimage on a Puja evening to enjoy the glitter of the pujas in Maligaon, a distance of barely there kilometers from Jalukbari.

We took the bus to Maligaon and made our way to Rest Camp Kalibari where it seemed that the entire state had descended. Few vehicles were seen those days and most people walked to the pandals.

There was a huge fair with the biggest attraction being the Giant Wheel. For us it was the various goodies in the foodstalls but the contingent led by University Professors would never allow us near any of those.

But we would give the slip when the elders would sip tea and savour a samosa or a jalebi, exchanging opinions on topics as diverse and intelligible as Glasnost and Perestroika, Keynesian economics and Sunil Gavaskar’s retirement.

In the midst of all this excitement, someone would shout that it was time to catch the last bus and we would make a dash to the bus stop all twenty in tow, that year the number reaching twenty four, courtesy four of our relatives making guest appearances.

We returned to our homes with my toothache revisiting me after the sweets and the chocolates, the stain of some curry or syrup on my new shirt, a chewing gum on the back of my trousers,.

In fact, my near bald head brought painful memories of being a juvenile delinquent in my parent’s and neighbour’s eyes a couple of days back and yet looking forward to more fun amidst the distant rumble of the till-then peaceful clouds.

Ashtami brought with it the mandatory Anjali in the morning where one had to fast before the obeisance and offering to the Goddess was made. We did fast immediately after a hearty breakfast of bread with butter and poached eggs, sunny side up.

The day was sunny and passed off peacefully. The weathermen had predicted rain on Dashami and we didn’t care as we were promised to be allowed to watch two movies in the VCR.

Talking of entertainment, as we had gone to Maligaon along with the contingent, we missed the annual screening of a movie in the pandal the previous evening.

It was very depressing as Sholay was shown for the seventh year in a row and we were yet to watch the entire movie in a single sitting.

That evening, there was to be a Bhawona or Ankiya Nat, a traditional form of entertainment prevalent in Assam since the sixteenth century.

It was to be enacted by local artistes of the campus. It was in Assamese and mixture of Sanskrit. The richness of the play and unique movements with artistes putting on makeup and false hair with uproarious laughter amidst a live, three members orchestra was one event we didn’t miss.

The music from the harmonium, the khol and cymbals had kept the modest audience of around two hundred spellbound. So enraptured were we in the play depicting a scene from the Mahabharata that the rumbling of the thunder and the wind had escaped our notice.

The actors had made the ambience to their liking and the occasional windy bursts of air were mistaken to be special effects of the act, particularly when Bheema, the Pandava, let out a blood curdling and spine chilling laughter.

When the wind gathered speed, the audiences were still under the spell of the crescendo of the orchestra and the voices of the actors.

The blowing away of the first of the corrugated sheets didn’t actually make them run for shelter. It was greeted with thunderous applause and barely did it die down that the rest of the sheets also went with the wind, exposing the dark sky and the distorted make up of the artists, most of them being distinguished faculty members.

The torrential downpour exposed the rest of the pandal and we ran towards the school verandah to take shelter. The rain lashed on us for a good two hours.

Once it stopped we started walking towards home. Out of curiosity, we decided to take a look in the pandal. The chairs were lying all around the huge play field.

The corrugated tin sheets had settled in the perimeter, on the road surrounding the field. None of the benches was in their places. Almost everything was distorted if not destroyed.

No….not everything. The idols of Goddess DURGA and her family stood there majestically, alignment slightly lost, yet unscathed.

Somehow that image has remained with me of the power of Shakti… of the Goddess, the faith that brings us together every DURGA Puja this year and forever.

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