It's that time of the "yaar" again when sweaty Bengalis converge under makeshift tents and try to clog their arteries with cholesterol from Moglai porotas, kobirajis, cutlets and bhaja bhuji fried in oil as old as the dinosaurs. Since it's strictly for religious purposes, they expect Maa Durga to vanquish acidity, loose motions and clogged arteries just like that dark-skinned Mahishasura. As you daintily nibble at the meat in the kosha mangsho, you can feast your eyes on sombre looking men sashaying in "panjabis' embellished with smiling owls and boudis in stunning dhakais and blouses as deep as the Grand Canyon.
Your baby gibberish was unlike anything your parents had heard before—it had a haunting, lyrical quality to it.
Durga Pujo is a Bangali's own Woodstock. It's a non-stop four-day binge-fest where you sleep little, eat lots and hop from one pandal to another like a Duracell-charged bunny. While evenings are a happy mishmash of hogging, ogling, lovingly pushing each other to get a closer look of the protima, soaking in calchaar as you tap your feet to latest hits by Miss Jojo and doing adda till the wee hours, mornings are serious business when you actually offer prayers to the Goddess. Also, this is when you get to observe the Bangali Maa (BAM) unleash the Durga (the warrior goddess) within her as she puts the chomchom of her eyes, her darling child, on the stage, where he can stun his paraa (neighbourhood) with his many talents.
We Bangalis are not content with being good at just one thing and this is firmly ingrained in us right from the time we are born. As a toddler if you loved tearing pages of the books from the shelves, you were promptly declared a Tagore in the making. Your baby gibberish was unlike anything your parents had heard before—it had a haunting, lyrical quality to it. Your Thamma had a gut feeling that you'd be as graceful as Ananda Shankar as she bounced you on her tummy while chanting "dhei dhei nachhe nachhe." By the time you picked up the pen on your annaprashan, it was a foregone conclusion that you'd be a world-renowned scholar. Then they nicknamed you "Hablee", "Godon", "Natoo" or "Goga" and you had no choice but develop a sense of humour to survive this cruel world.
How long can you hold back a child prodigy who can paint like Jamini Roy and lisps the most profound observations about life! So, he takes his first baby steps dressed as a clock for the fancy dress competition on shoshtee during Pujo. His mom, who spent days foraging for cardboard and turning it into a grandfather clock, is an anxious wreck as she watches her Hablee recite "tic toc, aami clock" that she composed especially for him. She's always known he's the best. It's time the world accepted it as well. Just like her own mother had known about her. She spent her growing up years proving her mother right—bent pensively on stage as Chandalika, reciting Nazrool's poetry in a quivering voice and winning the first prize for it.
By the time you picked up the pen on your annaprashan, it was a foregone conclusion that you'd be a world-renowned scholar.
Now here lies the catch. All BAMs are convinced that the chomchom of their eyes deserves to win a prize, even if not the first. After all she has been preparing him for months! By the time Hablee finally learns the chronicles of Hattimatim Tim by heart, the whole house, including Cecelia their hired help from Jharkhand, can recite it in her sleep. If you dare deny his mom the coveted prize, you risk having her do a surgical strike, her eyes flaming with unbridled fury, her back glistening with sweat from the exertion of having to push so many women to grab the second prize at musical chairs. The last time Rana Chatterjee, cultural secretary of Pujo committee tried to reason with her, he saw her explode like a Samsung Galaxy Note 7 right before his eyes. He could sleep normally only after several visits to his therapist.
Singed, the Pujo committee people smartened up and came up with as many contests as possible to give Hablee a chance to win. If he still didn't manage to bag a prize for recitation, painting, one-legged race, nritya natika, Hablee was given a Camlin colouring set for serving bhog with a smile.
Meeting a Bangali without a history of participating and winning prizes at the many talent contests held at their local Pujo is as rare as meeting a bhodromohila who hasn't put up with "Bai god, Bong women are so hot!" From ages 3-16, we are engaged in the arduous task of proving right our non-Bengali brethren who insist, "Yaar, you Bengalis are so talented and bright. It must be because of all the machhi you have." By the time we are grown-ups, we have a formidable collection of Nazrul geeti or Robindro shongeet up our kurta sleeve for every occasion and mood. It's not unusual to come across a bunch of Bongs having a perfectly normal conversation and then breaking into a soulful rendition of "Purano sei diner kotha" without even batting an eyelid.
All Bangali Maas (BAMs) are convinced that the chomchom of their eyes deserves to win a prize, even if not the first. After all she has been preparing him for months!
But then that's the beauty of Durga Pujo celebrations, especially outside of Bengal. It's one of the rare occasions when the Probashi gets to assert his/her "Bangaliness" that gets lost in the cosmopolitan khichdi. We dress in our finest handlooms, including violently coloured "panjabis", and assert our foodie supremacy by hogging non-stop. Since we talk culture, walk culture, laugh culture, no revelry is complete without its generous phoron (tempering). And it's up to the Bangali Maa to shoulder this responsibility. Just before Pujo she sprouts 10 arms. She multitasks between scripting and directing a play for paraa kids, frying shingaras for the hungry parents who land up for rehearsals (read adda) and then rushes off for rehearsals for the play where she essays the role of Chitrangada. Of course, who plays the leading role has a lot to do with their proximity to the powerful 'uns of the Pujo committee.
This is how she stakes her claim to divahood. Her paraa is her domain, where she and her chhanaas (kids) get to assert their supremacy. Who's Rana Chatterjee to say otherwise? Pujo committees may come and go, but the BAM will be there forever. From her sprightly youthful days, svelte in her sleeveless blouse, to her senior years, amply proportioned, blouse crying for some coverage, she continues to reign supreme.