The Festival of Homecoming

First published in Different Truths

As I listen to the strains of the songs from Agomoni[1], my heart travels to a time when the fragrance of shiuli, togor and malatilata — all flowers indigenous to Bengal — filled the season with the excitement of the Durga Puja. I look out of the window — the landscape is not like the one of my childhood. Here I can see yellow blooms of angsana, golden orioles and a sea inlet that has been converted to a rainwater reserve and goes by the name of a river. Nature is beautiful here too — birds, otters, turtles, fishes, frogs and monitor lizards are all residents near the river where I stay. But there is no shiuli or togor.

I do not have any regrets for what I have left behind, but I cannot deny missing that whiff of flowers and the pujas as I knew them almost three decades ago.

Traveling around the world, I have in the past sometimes missed participating in pujas altogether. Though the festival evolved about two hundred years ago in Bengal, it is largely celebrated as a community-based event. Living overseas there have been times when no one who celebrated Durga Puja lived in the town we were stationed. We celebrated it in our own way and spoke of it with friends from other cultures, tried to create the sense of joy we had for our children. The experience of not having anyone from one’s own culture can lead to creative ways of celebration of traditional festivals, a sense of liberation which can be a bit lonely too. Did I regret that? I am not sure. I was too busy to be unhappy and there were too many exciting experiences to savour.

Now as I move forward, sometimes memories from more distant times waft into my mind. I get an imaginary fragrance from when my grandmother was alive, and I would go with her for the pujas. It was a family event. We had fun visiting various pujas, looking at the statues of the deities in various pandals, trying different snacks— especially the traditional chops, cutlets and Mughlai parathas linked intrinsically with the flavours of Puja. The festivals being mostly community-based events, were hosted separately by each colony for five days in special pavilions created for the festival. We looked forward to hopping through a series of such marquees decorated in different ways all over town.

My grandmother smelt of talcum powder and zarda[2]. I miss her still though she died more than eighteen years ago. She had paan reddened lips for as long as I can remember. She was the glue that held our large extended family together. We lived in a joint family. That was fun. As children, we never really cared who looked after our needs as someone or the other took care of them. Cousins made up for my lack of siblings….

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[1] Songs to welcome the Goddess Durga that are traditionally played at the onset of the season, when the Goddess is said to begin her descent from Heaven towards Earth .

[2] Scented tobacco that is eaten with betel leaf or paan