One of the few events which I always look forward to is Durga Puja. It’s this time of the year which makes me immensely happy. A big reason for this is linked to my childhood. A lot of memories and experiences are associated with this festival which in some way made my childhood memorable. Thinking about all this while sitting on my desk with long form journalism articles in front of me creates an air of nostalgia mixed with equal amounts of sadness.
The earliest memory which I have relating to Durga Puja is how we used to visit my grandparents’ place during this time of the year. My grandparents’ place was located in a small village in Jorhat, which is one of the most prominent towns situated in what is known as Upper Assam. Before we shifted to Tezpur in 2005, we used to live in Duliajan; also known as the oil town of Assam. Durga Puja was the time when we used to travel to Jorhat to meet my grandparents and my uncle and cousins. It was the time when the family used to re-unite for four days and those four days were something which I eagerly waited for. The road trip from Duliajan to Jorhat, spanning around four hours was something I miss to this very day. I remember how I couldn’t sleep at night before the day of the journey, thinking about the fun times and excitement that lay ahead. The whole trip was always exhilarating and I remember how I used to jump around inside the car, sometimes so much that I pissed my parents off. I always had my sister as company, although she wasn’t as volatile as me.
We used to inform my grandpa the day before we were to arrive and the happiness which he used to get from that piece of news is something difficult to express. My grandparents lived a simple and solitary life in the village with the cows that we had and Bahadur kai, the family helper for the last 17 years. My father’s ancestral home was built by my grandfather some 50 years ago and although it was dilapidated, my grandfather never went for repair. Living a luxurious life wasn’t his mantra and although my father proposed this multiple times, he never let anyone touch his house. Bahadur kai used to take us around the village, bought candy for us, tell us stories, pluck fruits from the trees in the compound, help us climb the age-old amla tree near the gates of the house and bear our constant pestering. The only time the household beamed up with liveliness was when the whole family came together. This used to happen twice in a year. The other time was during Bohag Bihu in April. Relatives and passersby from around the village used to gaze towards our unquiet house in wonder, which usually used to be quiet the rest of the year. I never asked my grandparents but I am pretty sure now that they used to look forward for the time of the year to arrive more than anyone else. My grandfather used to wait near the gate, looking out for our car to arrive. Those gleaming eyes of his when he used to see us is a picture which will forever be vivid in my mind. He used to give us a tour of the land and the crops which were being grown, he used to point us the fruits which were growing on the trees, show us the water level of the small pond which we had near the house, he used to talk to the cows; telling them about our arrival. I feel the animals understood every word he said.
I used to get a new toy only twice in a year. Sometimes, it used to downsize to only one toy per year. My choice of a toy was always a vehicle of some sort. Throughout my childhood, I rarely had any other toy that wasn’t a car or a truck or something along those lines. Durga Puja was the time when I got to buy the toy of my choice and I used to plan months in advance for the vehicle type that I was going to buy that year. It was kind of a yearly rite. If this year was a tanker truck, next year would’ve been a Tata Sumo. My cousin brother on the other hand, had a thing for toy guns. Those guns used to look exquisite but no matter how much I cried, pleaded or begged, my mother never allowed me to get a gun. She had a weird philosophy that buying guns would induce negative behavior within me and strictly prohibited my father to get one for me. I used to feel jealous looking at my brother who used to get whatever he wished for. But somehow, I was happy with my choice of toy as well. Right after Durga Puja, I used to plan and imagine about what I was going to get the next year. Sometimes, things didn’t go as per plans.
As you have known by now, Durga Puja is one of the most important festivals for all of Eastern and North Eastern India. Although celebrated extensively in West Bengal, we in Assam also celebrate it with great pomp. The entire streetscape of cities gets a makeover for those four days with thousands of people pouring out to the streets to visit hundreds of pandals scattered around the city. Bangaloreans will find it hard to visualize this image. Simply put, it’s the crowd that moves you forward.
As I grew up, toys changed into other commodities but the practice of buying something during Durga Puja, except clothes, remained for quite some time. It slowly transitioned from toys to my first MP3 Player, my first pen drive, a digital wrist watch until I stopped getting anything special every year. Approaching teenage life prompted me to abandon my toys and resort to other things in life. Necessities changed over time. But I still managed to love this festival and that yearly journey, while it lasted.
All of this changed after my grandfather’s death. This happened when I was in class 9th. My grandmother moved in with us. The family home in Jorhat was locked down. Bahadur kai lived there and looked after the land and the cows. The house got even more dilapidated, and rats took refuge inside it. The weeds grew and the mangoes were left unpicked from the ground. Nothing was the same again. The year my grandfather died, we didn’t celebrate any festival, as the customs are. And from the next year, we ceased to visit Jorhat during our puja holidays. Sometimes my uncle used to visit us in Tezpur but that was about it. Somehow it felt like the fragile link, which was there till my grandfather lived, was broken. In all the years that came, we lived in Tezpur during Durga Puja and I used to go out with my friends. I stopped roaming around with my parents like I used to. Although Tezpur is my hometown, I didn’t like the celebration of Durga Puja over there. It never matched the experience which I had in Jorhat, it was never the same anymore. In Tezpur, it was always about roaming around with friends and having a late dinner in some cheap restaurant.
It can never match the atmosphere of Jorhat. The chants from the namghar in our village, the payasam and rasgulla given on Maha Ashtami, the feast of the nearby temple in Baligaon, the sea of people in the city walking under the pitch black sky, the variety of street food available, the neon lights of shops and hotels, the irresistible temptation to buy toys from countless toy shops, my mother’s love for balloons, the practice of eating jalebis on Vijaya Dashami and the spectacle of the goddess being given a farewell for one more year; these weren’t a part of me while I stayed in Tezpur.
And now, I write this from a place where Durga Puja isn’t even celebrated properly. Today is Maha Ashtami and my neighborhood is calm. It feels just like any other, regular day in Bangalore. This place is devoid of that air of festivity. This is the first time I am not in my home during puja. The nearest puja pandal is some 10 kilometers away, from what I have heard. Somehow, I feel like not venturing out today. I should get back to those long form journalism pieces.