Wishing you all a Shubho Mahalaya today with an excerpt from my novel ‘Across Borders’ launched in Calcutta on Mahalaya (Oct 2013).
Chapter 3 – ‘The Home That Adopted Me’ (Page 71-74)
Every year during the Durga Puja, Ronjit uncle gave all
women of the extended-family a sari each. I wore mine with
a flourish, for the anjali or collective offering of flower and
prayers conducted by the priest on each of the five days.
With my ardour for dancing, I started the dhunuchi dance, in
offering to the deity. Taking the earthen pot with burning
incense by the handle, I brandished it gracefully. I danced
with agility in front of the goddess Durga and her four children
– Kartik, Ganesh, Lakshmi and Saraswati, to the beats of
the dhak, the traditional drums. My dance recital was well
appreciated by all and even today it is customary for the
students of the school to perform a collective dhunuchi dance
during Durga Puja. The temple where the Puja was
conducted was initially built of mud about two hundred years
back by our ancestors. It is currently a concrete building in
the central porch of the family’s homes alongside the river.
One year when I did not show up for the arati on Ashtami,
the second and important day of the Durga Puja, Ronjit uncle
stormed at his wife Mrinalini, “Where is Maya? Why is she
“She cannot dance today,” Mrinalini crisply replied, close to
“But, why not” Ronjit uncle retorted impatiently, “she is here
somewhere, I just saw her. So why can’t she dance?”
“Maya is here, but cannot come to the temple,” Mrinalini
replied firmly looking into her husband’s eyes, imploring him
to understand. But when there was no sign of his
comprehension, she added briskly “she is menstruating and
cannot come into the temple for the Puja.”
“What nonsense,” Ronjit uncle shot back at his wife, enraged.
“Ma” he said, in reference to Goddess Durga, “is a woman,
isn’t she? Then why follow these stupid customs restricting
her daughters to her presence? You people make a mockery
of womanhood and what Ma represents.”
I was summoned immediately. Mrinalini knew better than to
refute her husband’s wishes. In minutes, draped in the silk
sari Ronjit uncle had given me, I was at the temple dhunuchi
in hand. As I danced to the sounds of the dhaks that evening,
I mentally offered my arati to Ronjit uncle for his
broadmindedness and respect for women, for attempting to
liberate us from traditions imposed on us down the ages.
That morning he possibly also faced the reality that the little
girl he had brought with him five years back had come of
age and was now a woman. Ronjit uncle celebrated Durga
Puja fervently and lavishly, as he was in reality celebrating
Womanhood – the source of life, perhaps in memory of his
own mother who had died at childbirth. He lived his life trying
to fulfil his dream of the emancipation of women, especially
rural woman, starting at home with his own family.
This forward-thinking by a male was remarkable, considering
the position of women then, especially in rural India and
Pakistan. This was when a woman after childbirth was kept
in an outhouse, unable to participate in any activity in the
household. She was not allowed into the kitchen, let alone
cook during her menstrual cycle. A woman, according to
Ronjit uncle, should not have to feel restricted in any way by
her birth. I was to never forget his lessons on the equality of
women, without her needing to act like a man to prove it.
Not only did I live my own life by these doctrines, I would
also bring up my two daughters to think of themselves no
less than any son I might have ever had. One day by my
own initiation, my daughter would light her father’s funeralpyre
at a public crematorium. I would not permit my son-in-law
to do so, merely for being born male, while my daughters
and I stayed home.
Every year at Durga Puja, the new idol was worshipped
wearing Ma Durga’s personal set of real gold jewellery. She
and her children were adorned in them on Shasthi, the first
day of the puja. These were removed and safely put away in
a trunk before the immersion on Dashami, the last of the
five-day Puja, to be used the following year. Ma Durga was
draped in a new, red Benarasi sari every year, which was
then given to any woman in the family who was getting married
the following year, to wear at her wedding. The new bride
wore Ma Durga’s sari, like a daughter would wear her
mother’s on her wedding day. This was in order to invoke
the revered mother’s blessing to bestow on her strength and
good luck. Ronjit uncle had immense faith in the strength of
Ma Durga. He wished upon every woman to find that same
strength and power within herself, with the belief that all
women have an inherent potency, especially in times of crisis.
This was the axiom by which I would lead my life.
For us, it was not merely the celebration of Durga Puja and
womanhood, but of religious harmony during religious
turbulent times. We did not think of the Puja only on religious
lines, but as a coming together of all religions and cultures.
Many Muslims and Christians, both students and teachers
of the school as well as guests, attended the celebrations,
even if they did not take part in the prayers and rituals.
Everyone who attended was served a meal, which had been
consecrated as an offering to the Goddess. Though there
were special cooks to prepare the meals on all five days, we
students served. It was a fulfilling experience, as we
participated wholeheartedly in the festival. It brought
everyone together and was an opportunity to connect. In
my case also, with my estranged father and his second wife,
who came over a few times. Baba even offered to buy me a
sari once, wanting to take me to the local market, but I firmly
declined. I was not about to let him buy off his guilt on a
The Telegraph’s review of Across Borders is in the link: https://www.telegraphindia.com/1130913/jsp/t2/story_17343876.jsp#.UjKlDBA9X2o
Sharing the Mahalaya – Birendra Krishna Bhadra (Full) chants in the link : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iGClESAGmew
PS: I took the photos last Pujo in Calcutta .
The significance of Mahalaya: http://indiatoday.intoday.in/story/why-is-everyone-wishing-the-world-shubho-mahalaya-today-durga-puja-navratri/1/496660.html