‘What are you doing?’ I asked Apu, my cousin.
‘I am drinking water’ He replied.
It was the month of November. We were celebrating Kartik Puja – our household puja over centuries. In our small village, all the Mukherjee’s are related. However, the onus of holding Kartik Puja falls on three families and we take turns every year. It was our turn and all our relatives from far and near had assembled.
Kartik Puja is celebrated with pomp and fanfare over a period of two days. Small stalls come up offering sweets, fried potato chops, ghugni, ‘papad’. These two days are great entertainment with the Jatra * being the main highlight of the Puja. People from nearby villages assemble in hundreds.
The night after the main Puja, lunch is offered to the entire village. While the spread is kept simple, the taste is unforgettable. The lunch is over by 3 pm after which all the male Mukherjee’s start preparing for the idol immersion. Invariably it gets dark when we are fully ready, as the ladies of the family take their own sweet time in applying vermillion and completing other formalities.
While the ladies were doing their job, all the men were getting ready too. Generally speaking, we are all good boys. We don’t drink, we don’t smoke. Come Kartik Puja and to be specific, the evening of immersion, each of us gulp down only one to three balls of Bhang **. This is prepared by our 80-year-old village barber. He takes his duty seriously and spends almost three or four hours preparing eighty to hundred balls, or golis as they are popularly called, so that everyone gets his share. We have never seen a year when he did not pass out before we had our share. These balls give us the energy and vigor to lift the idol on our shoulder and dance our way to the pond after going through the entire village.
That evening it was almost two hours into the procession when we reached the pond. The final formalities were completed and we immersed the idol with shouts of ‘Asche bochor abar hobe’ meaning ‘Until Next Year’.
By this time all of us were very high on ‘Bhang’. Since I am the eldest of all our brothers, I did not consume any of the ‘golis’. Someone started laughing and everybody started doing the same. Everyone cried when one started crying. There was someone who wanted to run over the water. Someone wanted to climb the big tamarind tree. There was a group who were not allowing the ‘dhakis’*** to stop or go away. They wanted to dance the entire night.
I herded the group which took me around 30 minutes. Everyone started leaving when we noticed Apu standing in knee deep water. I shouted out at him but he seemed to be busy. I went near him and found him sticking his tongue out. His eyes were glazed.
‘What are you doing’? I asked and he said, ‘I am drinking water’.
One more question. ‘So, how is the water reaching your mouth when there is a distance of at least 2 feet?’
‘Can’t you see the red fishes? They are carrying buckets of water and pouring over my mouth’.
There was no point in carrying forward the discussion. So I left him there to drink as much water as possible. I was feeling hungry and thirsty too.
We reached home, cleaned ourselves and sat down to have dinner. The dishes prepared by the three matriarchs of the family is mouth-watering in normal times. Today being a special day, the fragrance had spread all around and this made everyone even more hungry. So, all of us concentrated on eating.
Eat! ‘Devour’ is a better word. We devoured everything that was cooked. The only reason we stopped was because there was nothing more left to eat.
Our special sleeping quarters was on the first floor of a two-storied clay building. This was the bachelors den. One of my young cousins, Babu who is very afraid of ghosts went first. He was followed by our policeman cousin, Abhi after some time. Babu was asleep by the time Abhi reached. We were still chit-chatting downstairs. After 5 minutes or so, we heard a loud crash. Babu came running out screaming. He was a fast runner and by the time we caught on with him, all of us were panting. Between breaths, he narrated, ‘I was sleeping. Suddenly I could feel light on my eyes. I opened my eyes to see that Dada (elder brother) is holding a lantern on his face. His face was very eerie in the light. He brought his face near mine and said, “You see I am dead. Take me to the cremation ground now. Don’t fear as I am holding the light for you’’. And I jumped!
There was another round of thunderous laughter. This time it was definitely not induced by bhang.
Storyteller : P. P. Mukherjee
As narrated to Coena Mukherjee
*Jatra – plays held in the open, especially in rural India
** Bhang – a herb ground into paste and mixed with food; causes intoxication when consumed
*** Dhaki : people playing auspicious drums during religious festivals of North East India
Picture Credit : Bhog at Dutta bari, sourced from google