A piece written by my grandfather Ashish Shome, and translated by me.
A hint of daylight illuminates the darkness of the night, in our puja pandal. A singer encourages relaxation in an easy chair and bathing in the sunlight. I can’t take it anymore. I return home. Seated in the comfort of my easy chair, I stare into the limitless dark of the night. There’s no one in the house. My wife sits engrossed in the limelight downstairs.
As I sit alone, and ponder, I sight a tiny little boy, in the mirror of my mind. A ten year old schoolboy. He walks along a road in a village close to the city of Sylhet in the other side of Bangla. Crossing a four lane road, he steps into a lane and runs swiftly into his house. He dumps his books at Sorodidi’s feet and breaks into a sprint. Sorodidi is everything to the motherless child. She calls out to him “eat before you go!” But the boy is out on the streets without a backward glance. Today is the day the Goddess will be given sight. Pal jetha will be painting the great Goddess’ eyes. How can the boy be left behind? Never! Stuffing two balls of puffed rice in his hands, he sprints away. The mid day sun gets in his eyes. But he runs anyway-bare feet; with just a thin shirt and a half pant covering him.
Today is mahashtami. Suddenly my mind drifts away someplace. Childhood memories come wafting up before my eyes like images in a kaleidoscope...the little boy and his many pranks. The few happy moments during the puja...picking flowers and dancing to the sound of the dhak. Staring open-mouthed in awe at the statue of the goddess while it is being completed.
Our village puja used to be conducted at the Zamindars house. The grandeur of the puja never deterred the villagers from considering the festivities to be their own. The likeness of the goddess used to be made in the mandap itself. Our celebrations used to begin the day Pal Jetha directed his attentions to building the framework with straw.
Long before the advent of mahalaya, welcome songs for bijoya would begin. A few singers would go around singing all over town. Ancestral offerings would be over by mahalaya. I still remember, one day during that time, I listened to Virendra Krishna Bhadra’s Mahalaya in the wee hours of the morning. I didn’t understand a word of it then, but something about it appealed to me very much. For this mahalaya dawn, so many people would spent the night in awakened enthusiasm. Electricity was alien to the village then. Radios were battery dependant. During that period, maxed out radio volumes and chatterings emanating from various homes, used to keep the entire village awake. Mahalaya over the radio-a resplendent blanket of flowers under the shivli tree-the drip drop sound of dewdrops on the trees-a strange aroma of fog in the early hours of the morning-a beautiful environmental backdrop. It was absolutely unforgettable. Nowadays radios have phased out and given way to televisions. But a radio was the one thing of joy to us during those carefree days of childhood. Today, mahalaya arrives in Kolkata and goes away. No more do people wait eagerly to listen to the mahalaya at dawn. A reality check shows that today fields, trees and shivli flowers have all been lost in antiquity.
The inauguration at shasti arrives-The village priest bathes the “kolabou” with the women of the village and us children towing along. Sounds of the dhak, dhol, kashi and shonkho could be heard everywhere. Picking flowers during the few puja days, was the one duty appointed to us. In the absence of electricity, kerosene lamps would illuminate puja preparations. Decorations would include flowers, leaves, chains made out of coloured paper, flags and trinkets obtained from Mother Nature. We never experienced the hype surrounding modern day pujas in Kolkata. Apart from the familiar pleasing sounds of dhak and dhol, there was little or no other noise to contribute to the sound pollution we see in today’s day and age. The concept of loudspeakers was unknown to us.
Home hearths would remain unlit in all houses from shashti to bijoya. The mothers, grandmothers, and aunts of the village would make culinary and other arrangements for the puja. The holy offerings for the great goddess, comprising of fruits and sweetmeats in humongous quantities would come from every quarter of the village. The afternoons were spent in a huge gathering wherein all villagers would sit in a row and devour the Prasad offered to Ma (Ponktibhojon). The spread normally comprised of aromatic rice, moong dal and four or five vegetarian preparations-Chutney, sweets, doi, payesh etc. The vegetarian preparations used to be extremely favourable to the taste buds. People don’t cook vegetables like that anymore.
The men of the village used to make recreational arrangements. Jatras, kirtans, debates, poetical competitions-I have seen them all in those days. There was once a bioscope available for view in one of those boxes with a rotating handle. There used to be an opening in the body of the box. We had to put our eyes to the opening to watch the pictures within. A gramphonelike those used in the olden days used to be attached to the top of the box. A man used to go around shouting “Kolkata dekho! Dilli dekho Monument dekho” . These things are not enjoyed in today’s Bengal. Once a magician arrived from Kolkata. What an incident! He asked for the Zamindar’s watch, wrapped it in a handkerchief and smashed it to smithereens with a hammer. Later the same watch was retrieved from his Manager’s pocket. The manager’s face was a sight! I remember one time, I had gone to the neighbouring village to listen to a jatra. I had told noone at home. As soon as I returned home the next day at dawn, a spate of punishments awaited me. I had to stand in front of everybody in the courtyard, holding my ears. Finally I was saved by Sorodidi. That was followed by a treat to hot milk and warm jalebis. Sorodidi was eternally my shelter...till her last breath.
On the night of the visarjan, the last ritual was followed by carrying the Mother to the river. Two large boats used to be tied side by side with rope. Then the Mother would be seated in between the two boats and the boats sent off to the middle of the river. At that juncture, the rope would be untied and the boats separated. Consequently the mother would return to the depths of the river.
So many memories crowd my mind. Today, I am at the end of my life, having experienced the joys of material life. Whenever I look back, I see that little boy-in my blood, in my mind, in my very soul. Those days are long gone. That motherless child in the half pant-that crazy little boy who runs along the riverbank, wearing wondrous nature’s kohl in his eyes. He is followed by his loyal pet dog. He is lost somewhere in the jungle of the city’s concrete houses made of cold brick and wood.
I hear the bell. I believe my better half is home after a long stint in the sunlight!