When you are away from home for a long time, a festival like Durga Puja (and Bihu too) in your homeland becomes something of a myth; an experience you can relive only in memories. For me, being from lower Assam, it’s the puja, more than the Bihu, that’s nostalgic. Now, even if I come home during the puja, to Guwahati, I cannot find the days of celebration as meaningful as I found it when I was a child, and a teenager. Things have changed, for better or for worse, and unfortunately, I am not the part of it.
I haven’t seen Durga puja in Assam for several years now. Last time I was in Assam during the puja, my grandfather, Sarbeshwar Sarma, was there in the Durga puja pandal in Lankeshwar. Though he hold a government job, my grandfather was always a priest. When he was posted in Meghalaya, in a town called Tikrikilla, he was an integral part of the puja preparations there. He was the head priest, and we, his grandchildren, would proudly hang around the puja pandal for all five days. When he retired and settled down in Lankeshwar, he could not really retire from being a priest. So, he would go the puja mandap in Lankeshwar, and we would wait for him to bring home the prasad in the evening.
Out here, when you say you are from Assam, they think, you are a Bengali too. There is a Bengali community in Pune who celebrate the Durga puja with traditional pomp and grandeur. My local friends ask me why I am not part of it. I tell them, the puja is Assam is nothing like Bengali puja. The Bengalis may be much more obsessed with it and claim that Durga Puja is their festival, but Durja Puja is our festival as well, and our celebrations are not the same as Bengalis celebrate puja. For one thing, the style, the way the Durja idol is created is very different in Bengal and Assam, so are the traditions.
I miss the puja as celebrated in Assam, especially during my childhood.
We grew up in a place called Dakhin Hoiborgaon in the Nagaon town. The place had an eclectic mix of various communities. There were the Assamese, Bangalis, Marwaris, Biharis and so on. And, the puja organised there was typically Assamese, you can say to a certain extent, typically ‘Nagaya’ (of Nagaon).
Nagaon being the birth place of Sankardeva, we could not ignore the influence of Bordowa and the Sankari tradition. So, every night, during the puja days, there would be a bhawna performance in the traditional style. I think, those days I was in school. There was a puja pandal not very far from my school and not very far from our house either. Every night after dinner, my mother would take me and my brother for the bhawna, sister and father would be asleep at home. We would lock them from outside. Women and children from the neighbouring houses would join us and we would proceed to the venue in a group. The bhawna was the main attraction of the evening, so it would start late. Before that the local artistes will entertain you, songs, and jokes (anybody remembers bhaya mama?). By the time, the show begins I will be fast asleep and my mother would carry me home. What fun!
Those were different days, before globalisation and commercialisation took over. In those days, there was no Vishal megamart. We did not have any idea that we needed new clothes as long as our school uniforms were clean and wearable. But, come the puja, we knew we would have new clothes. There was the tradition to wear new clothes on the Ashtami day. How eagerly we would wait for the day. We would go to the market in Faujdari patti and buy the clothes, well in advance and keep them ready for the D-day, when we would visit the pandal around 12 o’clock and offer our gratitude to the Goddess.
On other days, in the evening, we would go visit other puja pandals in places like amola patti. While returning, we would buy hot and sweet ‘jilapi’, the staple puja delicacy. If he were in a good mood father would give us some money; my brother would buy a pistol, and what did I buy? I don't remember now.
But, I clearly remember the vijaya dashami day. We would all converge on the banks of the river kolong, to bid the Godess goodbye. The place would be full of people. We would hold father’s hands, lest we are lost in the crowd. We would buy a packet of sindoor for mother. That’s a tradition. You have to buy a packet of sindoor on the vijaya day. And we would get more jilapi.
But the morning of the last day was a different story. We would all write letters to the Goddess. We won’t show the letters to anyone. We would seal the letters and place it on the feet of the Goddess before she leaves the pandal. While returning, we would bring home the piece of the red cloth that adorned the image of the goddess. Mother would tear the cloth into pieces and we would wear them as thread on our wrists. The Goddess would protect us.
During the puja, my Maharashtrian friends ask me if I miss the festivities at home. Yes, I do. But then again, I would never be able to relive those days even if I come home during the puja. We left Nagaon a long time ago. And, Guwahati, including Lankeshwar, has changed, and is changing. My grandfather died a long time ago. Times are differnt now.