Go, have it.” Grandma’s invitation broke my rapt attention. I’d been focussed on the ice-candy man pouring a bright red concoction on the ice shavings clumped on an ice-cream stick. As I turned my gaze towards the popsicle taking on the liquid’s hue, grandma unknotted a corner of her pallu, drew out a coin, and tapped my shoulder. This was unlike her. Grandma’s resolute war against germs had meant long periods of deprivation for me from golas and kala khattas. But the twinkle in her eyes signalled it was time for some cheating. As I sprinted forth, grandma’s counsel about taking it easy drowned in the dhaak’s frenzied rhythms and the gong’s clangs.
It was Durga Puja. Four days when grandma relaxed all strictures about food. Usually steadfast about keeping away from meat during certain days of the week, she had different norms for Durga Puja. They had to do with the festive air — pujor gondho, as Bengalis like to call it. She would welcome the goddess by drawing out her iron wok that was used on special occasions. The aromas of frying onions and the masalas lending their flavour to the mutton, that had been marinating for hours, mingled with the pleasant autumn air. However, there actually was a rule that she insisted on these days. The first meal of the puja was always at home, a mutton curry made without garlic and onions.
I had mixed feelings about the occasion. I loved the mutton dish. But it took me years to appreciate her invocation of the Shakto tradition which cradled her choice of the puja’s first meal. Though Kali Puja, or Diwali, was three weeks away, she would begin by recounting a verse by her favourite poet-saint, Ramaprasad Sen. A fervent devotee of goddess Kali, Sen would sing Ebar Kali tomay khabo (This time oh goddess, I shall gobble you up). The gastronomic metaphor was a way, as grandma would say, to denote the devotee’s oneness with the goddess. “O mother, I shall eat you up but instead of digesting, I shall install you in my heart and make offerings to you,” went the song. Eating, to my grandma, in much the same way, was akin to worshipping the goddess. And, the mutton curry was her first offering.
My parents’ and my preoccupations were more earthly. Durga Puja is about two things Bengalis revel in — the company of friends and endless adda over food. It was, perhaps, this mood that made my agnostic father wait in interminable queues for puja bhog. And made my mother shun her fastidiousness about culinary etiquette in public places and lick her fingers with gusto after lapping up the labra — a dish in which the tastes and textures of eggplants, broadbeans, potatoes, pumpkins, drumsticks, cauliflowers, ginger, mustard and other spices come together in a delicious medley. This, accompanied with crunchy papads, was my favourite part of the bhog.
But picking a favourite was difficult. For there was the beguni as well — eggplant coated in gram-flour batter, salt, turmeric and red chilli powder and deep-fried. It was time to lick fingers once again after slurping up the tomato-date chutney even while the spell of the traditional Bengali five-spice mixture — the paanch phoran — would linger long after the meal. The pièce de résistance, however, was the piping-hot khichuri: Roasted moong dal, short-grained rice, vegetables and an assortment of spices cooked in ghee, whose aromas are inextricable to the smells, colours and flavours that combine to create pujor gondho.
It is difficult to keep any gastronomical reserve when deep-fried breadcrumb-coated fillets of bhetki, the layered Mughlai parathas with a liberal stuffing of egg, mutton mince and green chillies, rolls, cutlets and a variety of sweets vie for the attention of your taste buds. So, as my grandma would say, imbibe the pujor gondho in all its splendour.