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Puja Barshiki - The harbinger of Durga Puja

Last week as we were going through the newspaper over our morning cuppa, K drew my attention to an advertisement in one of the dailies which made my heart skip a bit and feel me with childish glee. The advertisement was that of 'Anandamela Puja Barshiki 1428 (Bengali Year)' - the special annual puja issue of the children's magazine 'Anandamela'. Given the current unpredictable situation due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the fact that Durga Puja is nearing was completely out of my mind until I saw this advertisement. I immediately asked K to buy the 'Anandamela Puja Barshiki' as soon as it hits the stalls (Yes, I still read them - probably there's still a child in me). It's true that the puja barshikis of present day do not have the same quality or content as before but it still feels a part of an ingrained ritual, a nostalgia whose seeds were sown in our childhood.

Durga Puja is not just a festival, it's much more; it's an emotion, a fervour that cannot be replicated. And it's not just about the five days on which the puja is held, the festive ambience starts about 2-3 months back. While, for old 'Bonedi Bari' pujas (pujas of old Bengali aristocratic families), the festive ambience majorly starts with 'kathamo pujo' or 'khuti pujo' (the wooden frame on which the clay idol is built) at rath yatra held in the month of July; for the majority of Bengalis it starts with the first glimpse of the autumn sun with floating white clouds under a clear blue sky after the gloomy monsoons, and/or with the publication of the various Puja Barshikis (special annual puja editions) by various Bengali magazine houses or publishers, and/or with the first bloom of the 'kaashphul' (Kans grass - Saccharum spontenum), and/or with the first fragrance of the 'shiuli phul' (Night-flowering Jasmine - Nyctanthes arbor-tristis). The immortalized scene of the brother sister duo running across a field covered with white 'kaashphul' to watch a train pass by in rural Bengal in the Satyajit Ray cult film 'Pather Panchali' was a scene during Durga Puja in the film.

Pather Panchali Scene (Source: TelegraphIndia)

Once the festive mood seeps into the minds of people, a shopping frenzy takes over. From young to old, no one can escape the infectious shopping energy that flows through every village, town or city of Bengal months before the festival.

During our school days, the Durga puja ambience in our home started with cleaning of the house as the season changed from sulky monsoon skies to sunny autumn skies. As the weather started to dry up, all the mattresses of the house were dusted and spread on the terrace to get a good sunbath and sterilization. All shelves, almirahs, every nook and corner of the house were cleaned.

The mornings were a treat to our eyes and nose from our garden as the pink Sthal Padma (Confederate Rose or Cotton Rose) would be in full bloom covering the foliage and the fragrant Shiuli (Night flowering Jasmine) would lay on the ground. Our grandmother would keep a sharp eye for flower thieves since early morning so that no one would touch the trees and harm them or pluck the flowers.

About a month or so prior to the pujas, our grandmother would call a rickshaw and take the four of us siblings for puja shopping. She would buy dresses for us with her pension money. Most of the time, we three sisters would receive similar dresses, only the sizes would be different, which we used to call uniform. As we grew older and started having choices of our own, would we be given clothes as per our choice if that fit into grandmother's budget.

Oh! The excitement we had to show our new dresses to any relative or friend who visited us before the pujas...

Unlike now, in those days, the puja barshikis were not published so early. Our father used to ask the newspaper delivery uncle to bring us Anandamela, Shuktara, Desh, Anandabazar Patrika Puja Barshikis as soon as they hit the stalls; and, he would do so everytime without fail. As soon as Anandamela/Shuktara entered our house, I'd gorge on the Narayan Debnath comics (Handa-Bhonda, Bantul the Great) or Feluda, Professor Shonku or Kakababu first. However, with my school remaining open till Shosti, I could never quite get fully engrossed in the Puja Barshikis until the school closed from Saptami till Lakshmi Puja. While our evenings were reserved for Pandal hopping by foot or by car, the mid-mornings and the afternoons were reserved for the Puja Barshikis.

Oh! What a literary treat they were! The whole compilation with the comics, the mystery novels, the short stories, the long stories by various renowned authors viz. Shirshendu Mukhopadhyay, Samaresh Majumder, Premendra Mitra, Sailen Ghosh, Samaresh Bose, Moti Nandi, Anil Bhowmik, later Suchitra Bhattacharya, along with the crossword puzzles, the general knowledge sections, and the sports sections were a complete festive treat.

I used to sit in our verandah which overlooks a main road with the Puja Barshiki in hand. The faint beating of the drum (Dhaak) from a nearby Puja Pandal or the chanting of mantras by the priest or the playing of Bengali Puja hits over loud speakers in the background, the steady stream of people, from kids to adults, dressed in new clothes though reduced my reading speed, I loved and enjoyed every bit of it. My younger siblings, especially my brother would occasionally come in between with a cap pistol and fire. I'd join them happily for sometime only to return to my Puja Barshiki after sometime.

As time flew by and I had to leave my home and Bengal for professional commitments and the puja ambience got lost for me during the period I had been outside Bengal; except for the puja barshiki that I would read during the pujas either at home if I could visit home or my father would send by post on years that I couldn't visit home during pujas.


What are your Puja harbingers? What nostalgic moments/rituals of Durga Puja do you still nurture? Do you still read the Puja Barshiki? Please feel free to share your thoughts...

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