The well-known Ramakrishna Mission Hospital and Math were situated on the route between school and home. Every Pujo season, on the way to and from school, I peeped out of the car window to see if the Pandals were being set up yet. The excitement of spotting the bamboo skeleton of the Pandal being set up in the hospital compound meant it was soon going to be Pujo Time!
The day of Mahalaya announced the end of the somber period of Pitru-Paksh. Mahalaya is also the day when Goddess Durga starts her descent towards the earth. The feeling of Maa Aschen (Maa is on her way) brought about the excitement in the air.
When Saptami , the 1st day of Pujo, dawned we dressed up to welcome Durga Maa, who scriptures say visits her Maika (her mother’s house) during this period. And so we went, in our traditional best, discussing and betting on the color of the saree Maa would be draped in this year.
The first glimpse of Durga Maa always, but always, takes your breath away. You stare awestruck at that serene face, those eyes that convey myriad emotions, the flowing tresses, the saree and jewels, a sight to behold. After we had soaked in Durga Maa’s sight to our heart’s content Mom used to perform a small ritual of ‘nazar nikalna’ , getting rid of the evil eye we may have cast on Maa, by waving both her hands in a semi arc towards herself and then cracking her knuckles on either side of her temples. The louder the cracks, the more the nazar, was the belief.
Aarti time meant prayers and chants echoing around the pandal and the Pandit’s waving large inverted chandelier like lit diyas in front of Maa. Getting ‘Khichuri’ as the Bhog (Prasad) after the aarti was a special treat!
Lots of little shops surrounded the main pandal, a special few with ladies selling homemade sweets and snacks. We always headed first to Mom’s favorite shop, where she stocked up on Khukumoni Alta and Sindoor, Shakha-Pola and Loha the red and white set of bangles worn by married Bengali women. The Shankh (conch shell) was inspected to within an inch of its life before it was deemed a perfect buy to sound at home during her evening Pooja. Beautifully painted clay faces of Durga Maa were our picks.
After the Pooja (worship) and shopping, it was Pet-pooja (eating) time and we hit the food stalls! I would head straight to the Mishti(sweet) stalls and buy my favorite Sondesh, Mishti Doi, Bappa Doi, Chomchom, and Lobongo Latika. And the tantrum I threw if any of my items weren’t available or had sold out! Ghugni, Puchkas, and Jhalmuri made up our savory snacks. We always finished it all off with a bright pink Candy Floss each!
Thus we welcomed Durga Maa. And whenever we did it never failed to remind me that no matter how we may treat our female population, the pomp, splendor, and celebrations for our female Goddesses is unmatched!
Disclaimer: I am a Punjabi born and brought up in Bombay, despite which my fervor for Pujo time is on par with all the Bengali’s I know 😀 Any mistakes I may have made in the post above are my own. Do feel the need to point out the required corrections.