Two weeks before Durga Puja, Babai woke up to Birendra Krishna Bhadra’s melodious recitation of the Sanskrit shlokas of Mahishashura Mardini. Confused, he asked his mother why she was listening to it, when Mahalaya was almost a month ago.
“Your baba ruined my mood on Mahalaya day, remember? When he said he will wear last year’s pajama-kurta, because he thinks no one will notice when he blends with the Navaratri crowd. Can you imagine!” Nandini shrieked.
“But maa, there will be no pujo this year…,” Babai argued.
Nandini looked at her son as though he was an asura she was waiting to annihilate.
“…or even Navaratri for that matter,” he offered, hoping it would placate her.
But Nandini did not care for Navaratri, or any of the other festivals that were spent in lockdown. She did not worry about Diwali or even Kali pujo. She was livid that the one celebration she looked forward to all year, was threatened by a pandemic.
Babai thought Nandini was being fussy and cranky. But he understood why she was behaving this way. For as long as he has remembered, his mother has always eagerly shopped for the family of three before Durga Puja. Wearing new clothes was one of the many cardinal rules of the festival, and by not adhering to it, Biplab (Babai’s father and Nandini’s husband) was inviting domestic trouble.
“Babai is right!” Biplab walked into the room. “When there is no pujo, what is the point of wearing new clothes? It is not like we are living in Kolkata and our Chief Minister Mamata didi has gone all guns blazing on the coronavirus — that come what may, pujo will take place in the state.”
“Then why are we not?”
“Why did you decide to move to Delhi after Babai’s birth?” Nandini asked.
Babai, who hated his ‘daak naam‘ and preferred his real name Pratyush — especially when his girlfriend Ananya addressed him as such — raised an eyebrow at the absurdity of the argument. He just wanted to get on with his day — Zoom calls, presentations, other such office stuff.
But for that, the Mahalaya chantings had to stop. But he didn’t dare venture anywhere close to his mother’s phone which was connected to a speaker large enough for the entire neighbourhood to hear.
“Come on now. This argument is frivolous. Let us check out some pujo-themed masks online. I heard the boudi living in F-tower has already purchased a few. When we visit the CR Park idol for the Maha Ashtami pushpanjali, I want us to wear matching ones. This way we will have something new on us, and we will not risk exposure to the virus either,” Biplab suggested.
Nandini groaned, and Babai left the room, since he did not have anything novel to offer to the conversation. For all he cared, a short meeting with Ananya outside of her house would suffice. That would be his ideal pujo experience amid the pandemic.
But he also knew why it mattered to his parents — especially his mother — so much so that it necessitated scrupulous planning. For a probashi Bangali living outside the state, the desperation of holding on to the culture is real. It has often led to clashes with people of other communities, but never anything too undisguised to damage a progressive Bengali’s pride.
His parents had long left their home state West Bengal, where Durga Puja is the most important festival. In Delhi, however, Babai has only ever been a part of a cosmopolitan crowd. When he had told his parents about Ananya — a Gujarati girl from south Delhi — they had shown their discomfiture, which they had then quickly swallowed with their rosogolla and their pantua.
In the kitchen, a grumbling Nandini stirred the ghugni and announced: “Babai, dekho, only one day for pujo and for the rest of the days, your father wants to dance dandiya with Ananya’s parents. Now, we have to forfeit our culture also! Do you expect me to eat vegetarian food this year?”
“Oh, no! Never,” Biplab was mortified. “We will socially-distance ourselves and buy all the lip-smacking keema samosas, the tandoori momos, the chicken rolls, the fish fingers, the egg pakoras and the mutton cutlets!”
“Look maa, I know it is a big deal for you; it is for me, too. But this is no ordinary year, right? It is a pandemic year, and as much as it is going to break our hearts, we have to understand there is going to be no celebration this time — in fact, there is absolutely no reason for it. While it wouldn’t be fair to spoil your celebratory mood, understand that even the goddess had to stay in quarantine this year. Besides, people are dy–“
“–don’t say it,” Nandini was morose.
Birendra Krishna Bhadra’s voice peaked and then gradually faded — the chantings had ended. The house was inundated with sudden silence. Biplab sensed that Nandini was still upset and hovered near the kitchen. Outside, the sun cast a strange filtered light which heralded that the pujo was nearing. The air smelled different, too. (Or maybe it was just the polluted NCR air romanticized by Bengalis)
It was Babai, after all, who pacified his mother by agreeing to buy one new kurta online. Later, he said: “Don’t worry, maa. Aasche bochor aabaar hobey (Next year, it will happen again).”
Nandini smiled nervously and looked outside.
Hey Maa Durga, I don’t want this pandemic to mar next year’s celebrations, too, she thought.
She said ‘Dugga-Dugga‘ 50 times that night.
Disclaimer: This piece is entirely a work of fiction. Any resemblance to any person is intentionally coincidental.
📣 The Indian Express is now on Telegram. Click here to join our channel (@indianexpress) and stay updated with the latest headlines