I had an epiphany last week. As you know, times have changed and people are finding their cultural and spiritual roots and each one of us must do our bit. Sadly, my education in these matters has been badly neglected, so when Durga Puja came along last week, I grabbed the heaven-sent opportunity, not just with both hands, but also with tongue and teeth, fork and spoon.
The most important part of the Puja is the ancient ritual known as pandal-hopping. In fact, calling those glorious edifices built to resemble temples or Facebook pages or spaceships mere pandals borders on blasphemy. Pious pilgrims, clad in little more than new clothes and jewellery, spend days and nights travelling from pandal to pandal, braving huge traffic jams and an enormous crush of people, in their quest for spiritual fulfilment. Immensely long queues to enter the pandals steel the devotee’s spirit.
A unique feature of the Puja is the presence of many smaller booths of worship outside the main structure. The throng of pilgrims outside these subsidiary religious places is often greater than in the main pandal. The devout frenzy with which worshippers elbow and shove their way to these booths, trampling sinners in front of them in their hunger for salvation, while screaming out mantras at the top of their lungs, is an inspiring sight. Their chants ranged from ‘One chicken roll’ to the more traditional ‘Moglai paratha, moglai paratha’, to the spiritually ravenous ‘Two plates mutton curry rice.’ The fervour with which they then tucked into the blessed nourishment brought tears of joy to my eyes.
‘Which do you think is more uplifting, the fish fry with mustard or the chicken cutlet with tomato sauce?’ I asked a chap. ‘The oracles say it’s wise to have both,’ he advised, ‘followed by antacids.’ But I was worried about the ecclesiastical propriety of the chicken hakka noodles. ‘Is it right to serve Chinese here? ’ I asked the priest, who said enigmatically, ‘Confucius say: use your noodle.’ An expert in the crowd said dim sum had distinctly Sanskrit overtones.
Exhausted by the theological discussion, I sought spiritual succour in sweets. I had a couple of ‘rossogollas’ followed by ‘mishti doi’, but others chose ‘rasmalai’ or ‘sandesh’. As the guru said, there are many paths to salvation. We then started for the next pandal, for the learned ones say the more mutton chops you can put away, the better for your soul. The metaphysics behind this is that fat, cholesterol-laden worshippers are likely to be called to heaven sooner.
Many pandals have a hall attached in which the rituals start soon after noon. Khichdi blessed by the goddess herself is served, along with sanctified fried brinjal and a dish of assorted holy vegetables. This is followed by sublime tomato chutney and topped off by ‘payesh’ and ‘gulab jamun’, which are, of course, divine. This experience miraculously filled the void in my life I always feel before lunch.
I’m now looking ahead to Bakri Id’s mutton, followed by the dry fruits of Diwali and the goat sacrifice during Kali Puja, when some prefer to have vegetarian fare, or mutton cooked without onions and garlic. Then of course there’s the cakes and wine of Christmas and, early next year, the twin hilsa fish cooked during the Bengali Saraswati Puja. My spiritual journey has just begun.
Manas Chakravarty is Consulting Editor, Mint
The views expressed by the author are personal