It was that time of the year we Bengalis wait for. The entire city was getting geared up to welcome the goddess Durga with streets all lit up, pandals ready, last minute touches being given to the idols, food stalls getting set up and everyone just seemed to be in the mood. Parents were not asking much about studies; teachers in school kept aside the text books and wanted to know whether we would be spending the holidays in Calcutta or we had booked ourselves for some exotic location far away. That particular year I was super excited. Baba, my father, had announced that we were going to visit Sikkim, Kalimpong and Darjeeling during the holidays. Amma, my grandmother, was accompanying us on this trip which made it all the more special.
Like any 9 year old kid, I started sorting out the best dresses I had. Since it was Durga Puja time, I had quite some new dresses. I packed the new ones and those favourite ones I had kept for special occasions like this! I loved to hear the stories Amma told me during night. She would accompany us meant that there would not be any break to that ritual. A week before we were leaving, I had been insisting her to tell me stories of all those places we were going to visit. I had started visualizing the places through those stories.
The eve before we were leaving, my sister and I sat with the most important task of our lives. We started counting our pocket money we had been saving all this while. We made a small list of people we considered important, so that we can get some gifts for them with the money we had. Somehow the list seemed to be too long and the money short. After some serious brain-storming we had our final list! Then I went to help Amma with her packing, talking to her, asking about the place, while Dadu, my grandfather, sat there watching us. That evening he was not glued to the TV, which was otherwise his usual evening routine. He kept reminding Amma to take the all necessary items interrupting my banters and unstoppable chattering. Looking at him I felt bad since he was not coming along with us.
Mejo Jethu, Baba’s cousin, had come home to meet Amma. It all started with a teasing from him that we realized, Dadu too wanted to join us; although all this while he never expressed his wish. Dadu was a no-nonsense person who was very practical and valued money a lot. He hated any kind of splurging or unplanned expenditures. He always advised us to not waste electricity or waste money buying stupid things. Rather, he saved every bit that he could to stay prepared for a future that might benefit from the farsightedness. He was a man who was always in control of his emotions. Seldom had we seen him expressing his wishes! My sister and I started jumping as Dadu subtly voiced his wish while Amma was stunned at his eleventh-hour confession. We kept our fingers crossed and hoped Baba would do some magic to take Dadu along.
We all wondered what could be a perfect solution. Because my sister was small then, she was supposed to travel with a half ticket. Out of an impulse, Baba decided to take Dadu on my sister’s half ticket and Dadu agreed!
No one could ever imagine Dadu would agree to travel in a half ticket! We had known him as an authoritarian and a disciplinarian. He would never agree to our wasteful demands as kids; he wouldn’t let us get spoilt. And hence everyone was pleasantly surprised when he smiled in affirmation.
Next morning we woke up all excited. We were leaving from Howrah station in another few hours.
When I look back and think about the day, it still feels like a pleasure that didn’t end there. Dadu hopping on at the last minute, our eventful journey, we all were looking up for fishes that Dadu could have for lunch, and then fighting with him for not letting us have chicken, relishing my first sip of tea in Darjeeling from Dadu’s cup, the old man buying us an ice-cream cone with all the love, and then dividing it exactly into two halves expecting us to savour it that way, my sister furiously protesting against that half ice-cream and forcing him to buy another one while I kept licking the ice cream which was dripping all over me, Dadu fussing about the expenditure and then finally easing up and enjoying– everything still come back to me as a Déjà vu!
Dadu and Amma are no longer with us today. But these memories are still the most formative part of the emotions we nurture for the festival. Just like the idol makers create an inner shell with hay and sticks, and then use clay to bring up the huge ten-armed Durga, the childhood memories with grandparents and relatives seem to be like those hay and sticks. They may not be the Goddess herself, but on those stacks of hay lay its strength!
As I lift my hands to pay homage in front of the Durga idols each year, I simultaneously remember and thank those two important souls for making our childhood and the Durga Puja’s year after year, as beautiful as they were.