The air still smells of Durga Puja, but so much has changed. Every year I wait for October, to smell the fragrance in the air. I wait for it brings back memories from my childhood. And somehow, the magic of Durga Puja seems to have frozen with my memories. Mostly because for about 15 years now, I have been celebrating Durga Puja in Delhi. And celebrations here have never been able to come close to the memories that I hold. I am not too sure how Durga Puja is in Assam these days. A few years back, I was there at home in Guwahati one fortunate October and the scale of Durga Puja struck me and scared me at the same time. But there were still a few wonderful puja pandals - where the throng of people did not suffocate; there was the festive cheer, the balloons, the pistols, and the oh-so-yummy-DurgaPuja-jalebis!!! The puja spirit rung in the air. Not like here in Delhi, where Puja means only CR Park and the rest of the city goes on as usual!!!
I remember Durga Puja in my grandparents' place in Golaghat, a small town where everybody knew everybody. "Aren't you Bodu's daughter? When did you come?" people would ask me when they saw me walking or cycling on the streets. "Aren't you the spitting image of your father!" they would say and that's how I would know they knew me even if we had never met before. In the evenings, my aunt (whom everybody knew because she was the only lady branch manager of a bank in Assam those days and her interviews had appeared on newspapers) would walk us to the town centre where the Puja celebrations would happen. The whole place used to be full of people, baloons, masks, pistols, and lines of shops on both sides selling fancy clothes, accessories and jalebis! The air smelt of jalebis and crackled with toy pistols. That's Durga Puja for me even today. Jalebis and toy pistols. We never got anywhere near the Goddess though. We saw her only from a distance. Evenings were utter madness around the pandals. People pressed against each other, shouting and screaming at one another yet offering heartfelt prayers to the Goddess, a technique that went hand-in-hand.
Having looked at the magnificent idol of the Goddess and the demon, we would make our way back to the house. On the way, aunt would ask me and my brother to choose some gift for ourselves. I always chose one of those bright absurdly fancy frilled frocks hanging somewhere in the lines of shops around the puja pandal: a Durga Puja Special! Brother would also select some similar absurdly fancy stuff for himself, depicting something that we must have seen our screen heroes and heroines wear in the movies. And then we would buy masks. When I was small, I used to buy masks of animals. But as I grew older, I preferred the pretty face-of-a-woman masks. And in them, I felt that I really was that pretty woman whose face people saw on me. I guess it's nothing to psyche out about, most children that age do things like that :)
Later, when we shifted to Guwahati, and somehow took to spending our Puja vacations in Guwahati, the puja pandal at Lakhi Mandir close to our home used to be the major attraction. After tea and jalebis at home, we would walk down to the pandal, dad leading the way. During the late 1990s, I am a bit confused when exactly, Beltola puja, right at the mouth of our lane, came up in a big way. We could no longer think about taking our cars out in the evenings then. There used to be a sea of people moving like waves all over! And the focus shifted from just the Goddess and the Demon to the entire architecture of the pandal. So a movement started, and it continues up till today, of fabulous pandal decorations. After Titanic swept people off their feet on screen, they did so on the stage too during Durga Puja. The Goddess that year came on a ship, the titanic to be precise. People went berserk with pandal decoration and that brought in a whole new ecstatic fervor with Durga Puja. Speaking of my generation, innovation started with the Goddess and the demon moving: a movement of the eye, the neck, the limbs etc. with every progressive year. And then innovation graduated to the level of the pandal, lavish wealth spent on creating them. At a time when poverty is discussed and debated, you would wonder why is this wealth being wasted in decorations. That's all fine. It's serving some purpose which is why it is happening perhaps. But to reflect back, I would say, bring back the days of my childhood any day when Durga Puja meant jalebis, toy pistols, masks, new clothes, joy in the air, and walking to the pandal with family, passing by lines of shops selling absurdly fancy stuff. Just that.