The Nostalgia of Durga Puja
Festival of Chakradharpur
Shivaji K. Moitra
Copyright 2018 by Shivaji K. Moitra
The Upanishads mention that the cosmos resonated with the all pervading sound ‘OM’ at the beginning of Time. But Time cannot be perceived without awareness. So God created the human beings to perceive Time and also to wonder at His grand creations.
Ever since, our religious beliefs, sweet and sour memories and our nostalgia have been our companions until death because time never pauses for anybody.
Quite a few of my cherished childhood memories revolve around the DURGA PUJA Festival at the Bengali Association of Chakradharpur.
The little picturesque Railway Town of Chakradharpur nestled in the bosom of the rolling hills of the Chota Nagpur Plateau of India and ringed by the fast-flowing twin rivers Sanjoy-Binjoy at its south-western boundary had a jewel in its crown those days. It was the Durga Mandir of the Bengali Association. Established in 1919 by the resident Bengali community, the Bengali Association celebrated the biggest festival of the community every year with great piety and enthusiasm.
Therefore, every year the Durga Mandir became the most famous place of worship of Goddess Durga, Goddess Lakshmi and Goddess Kali in the railway town and the grounds adjacent to the temple premises came alive with a large fair consisting of merry-go-rounds, magic shows, mobile zoos, performing stuntmen, makeshift ghost-towns, food-stalls, shops selling everything from toys to lipsticks and orchestra. People from the local Bengali community and also from far and near having even the faintest connection with the town were drawn towards it like insects drawn towards a flame. No wonder, during the festive season of the year, Chakradharpur became the mostly lively meeting place and watering hole of the non-resident Bengali community that descended upon the hill-ringed township from across the country and even as far as Switzerland and America. They met their parents and their relatives and friends to renew their bonds and celebrated the festival together. The pleasant weather and the grand fair on the school-grounds enriched their holiday mood and they all had a wonderful time for a week or two.
My father and his nine siblings were born and brought up at Chakradharpur. My grandfather had been employed with the Bengal Nagpur Railways and therefore had been a man of modest means and humble expectations. No wonder, his children grew up in an extended family of uncles, aunts, cousins, nephews and nieces who shared their frugal meals and their little joys and sorrows together without envy or malice, in a humble but warm and cheerful environment and completed their education fighting the odds all the way. But adversities teach the lessons of a lifetime and create unbreakable bonds. However, after completing their education the urgent need to earn a living made them drift apart. Only one of my uncles, hugely popular across the Railway Town by his nickname Paltuda and my grandmother stayed behind.
Nevertheless, the occasion of Durga Puja offered them the once-in-a-year opportunity to return to their sweet home along with their families and flock together again.
So on the auspicious day of Panchami, we boarded the train at Bilaspur for our cherished destination Chakradharpur. All my uncles and aunts too headed towards Chakradharpur from different towns and cities along with their families and even accompanied by some of their neighbours and well-wishers.
From the morning of Maha Sasti they began descending upon their ancestral house at Chakradharpur from the railway station on rickshaws one by one amid cheers and shouts of those who had arrived hours or minutes before them. It used to be such a thrilling experience for each of us that the moments became unforgettable for everybody.
Soon the three-room house with a long veranda got crowded with men, women and children who had waited impatiently for a year just to be part of that euphoric crowd. And in spite of the difficulties they faced and the compromises they had to make due to the constraints of space and food, none had any complaints. Everyone seemed to be immersed in the delightful moments because the festival happened to be a great leveller.
On the days of the Durga Puja attending the Durga Mandap at Bengali Association every morning to worship the Goddess and her two sons and daughters used to be a ritual for everybody while offering Anjali to the Goddess on Maha Astami was a sacred duty.
During the day we either played with our cousins in the backyard or just indulged in naughty acts like locking somebody in the loo or trying out a pinch of Gudakhu (tobacco paste) from one of our uncle’s can of Gudakhu. Spinning heads and swift retribution was what we got in return.
In the evenings, dressed up in our best new clothes and woollen garments we divided ourselves into several groups, each led by an uncle and hopped from pandal to pandal across the township from Barabazar to RE Colony. After that we regrouped at the fair grounds to eat at the food-stalls, to ride the merry-go-rounds and to hop from one tent to another inside which bizarre shows from ‘Maut Ka Kuwa’ (Motorcycles racing over the vertical walls of a round pit) to Magic and from Puppet Shows to a Mobile Zoo could be seen. The meagre money that our uncles and aunts gifted each of us from time to time took care of all our expenses. It used to be a delight spending money in one and two rupees notes and then counting the remaining money frequently. In those golden days of our childhood there was no Television, no Mobile phones, no envy and no ego. Happiness came cheap and quick.
When we felt sleepy we returned home, relished our simple dinner consisting of rice, dal, potato chips and egg-curry having half an egg and went to sleep wherever we could find a place to squeeze in. However, on a day or two in the middle of the night we were roused by the commotion caused by the spotting of thieves in the premises by somebody and the subsequent chasing off those petty thieves by my uncles. Those days even thieves had some conscience and were not violent. I still remember that funny night when some thieves entered our storeroom and while fleeing with some utensils one of them got entangled in the maze of mosquito nets and was caught. Blows rained on him from our thirty-strong force before he was handed over to the police.
At the end of the Durga Puja festival the fair grounds were readied once again to host a different type of festival – the Festival of Jatra, a ten day grand sequel of historical and social episodes enacted by famous Jatra parties like Natta Company, Binapani Opera, Mohan Opera etc.
A huge round tent was pitched in the middle of the ground and a big round wooden stage was constructed at its centre.
I vividly remember the thrill and the childish curiosity of those days. Having finished my dinner early along with all my cousin brothers we headed straight for the big round tent carrying bed sheets that we then spread out on the prime spots on the ground in front of the raised stage to occupy those places in advance for our mother and sisters who usually arrived after finishing their daily chores and just minutes before the beginning of the plays. On some days we found that elderly men and women had arrived earlier than us and had already taken the vantage positions. So we had to piss secretly to wet the place and displace the people sitting around us so that we could occupy more of the coveted spaces.
Our glee knew no bounds as soon as the band sitting behind the stage began to play in the foreground. The historical plays used to be our favourite. The flowing colourful dresses of the robust actors, their roaring dialogues, the music of horns, wind instruments and violin and the jangle of swords, all mesmerised us and took our imagination to the medieval times. For nearly three hours we could not turn our eyes away from the raised stage.
When the plays ended well past the midnight all members of our extended family, some 20 to 25 strong regrouped and staggered home across the quiet and foggy street and slumped on our beds.
But good times never last long. The ten-day long Jatra season ended one day and our holidays too. With heavy hearts we bade good bye to one another and departed for our respective homes carrying the treasure of those delightful memories with us. The hope of another grand reunion the next year was the only consolation.
Year after year we descended upon Chakradharpur drawn by the mesmerising charm of the Durga Puja festival and the unique thrills of being part of the large extended family.
The passage of time however transformed us from children to adults and our parents too grew older. The demands of our studies and careers gradually forced my cousins to drift away and made our annual journeys to Chakradharpur irregular. Further down the time-lane the preoccupations with my own family turned those visits into a distant memory.
But now the news of the centenary celebrations of the once famous Durgotsav of the Bengali Association has rekindled those cherished memories and the nostalgia seems overpowering.
I therefore look forward to join the centenary celebration of the Bengali Association Durga Puja along with my family to give them the rare opportunity of imagining what great thrills and unparalleled delights the festival sprung up back in our childhood days when there were few gadgets and no digital entertainment and life was like a clear cascading stream.
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