I was last in Kolkata during Durga Puja in 2003. Our daughter was two years old at the time. In the midst of the school term and, till this year, examinations, she has never quite felt the thrill of Puja, never had the chance to absorb its pervasive influence in terms of either culture or entertainment.
She sees it as just another festival, much like Christmas or Ganeshotsav. Never has she learnt to appropriate it for herself.
This is largely because of her deracination, the nature of my job, and my wife’s and my abhorrence of crowded places. Should I feel a twinge of guilt?
The last proper Puja I remember must be from 18 years ago, before I had joined the staff of a newspaper. What I recall most vividly from that Puja is reading. Reading right through the long afternoons as the bars of sunlight leaking through the curtained windows dwindled in length on my bed with the approach of evenings.
Not all my memories are as pleasant.
I tried all my working life in Kolkata to escape Puja. Unsuccessfully, it turned out, because the days of Puja were working days, like any other. Having slogged all day, I detested, while coming home, the unwavering resolve of the celebrating crowds in pandals. I hated scratching my nose and smoking too many cigarettes in the car staring at the traffic that stretched ahead like a river of metal.
But there are other memories, all from the time before I became a journalist.
A transistor radio cradled between two pillows, listening to Mahalaya at dawn and having scalding tea from a flask. Sunlight on the cold courtyard at the Puja at my grandparents’ place, my toes curling on the cement as I walked on it barefoot.
Luchi on banana-leaf-plates and daal, eating sitting cross-legged on the floor with a battalion of cousins who were friends, the smoke from the huge pots in which food was cooked rising like mist, a screen that separated those who did the cooking from those who were doing the eating.
Primping and preening before the mirror, the tags from new clothes hastily torn off and at my feet, wondering if I looked right, was all right at all, torn between doubt and anguish and the desire to find myself at least passable in my eyes, and in hers.
When I think now of Puja, it seems like an attempt, as Philip Roth once put it, to bring it all back, “the most innocent memories out of the most innocent months of [my] most innocent years, memories of no real consequence rapturously recalled”. (As well as the not-so-innocent memories out of the hardly-innocent months of my rather more experienced years).
Many of my memories seem trivial. Some are coloured by delight. But what they are like isn’t so much the point; that they are there is.
Oishi has no real memory of Puja, no particular association with it. That is what I seem to mind. And wonder if it’s already too late to make amends.