A Winter Here, A Winter There…

   Growing up in Calcutta (now Kolkata), winter used to be my favorite season. The hot and humid summers that become unbearable at times last for a long time in the city followed by the rains that while being quite welcome also add to the humidity and mood swings of the Calcuttan-s! And so, come November when the mercury dips a point, there is an excitement in the air and everyone looks forward to an inviting winter. Since the temperature does not drop as low as in northern parts of India, winter in Calcutta is truly enjoyable, giving people some respite from the scorching sun and the incessant rains. The glowing winter sun and the chill in the air makes one want to stay for a tad bit longer under the ‘lep’(the traditional Bengali quilt) and sip on copious cups of tea, make plans for picnics and indulge in the quintessential Bangali adda (long chat sessions) for extra long hours with mufflers dutifully wrapped around the heads.

   For me, it was about the ‘lep’, about extra cups of steaming tea made with milk and a generous serving of sugar, about the Calcutta Book Fair which occupies a special place in the heart of all Calcuttan-s and is a matter of utmost pride, about all the scrumptious winter food Ma made, about attending family weddings if there happened to be one, about getting into a never ending argument with Ma about wearing a scarf or muffler around the head when going out in the evening that often ended in tears or at times canceling plans as I refused to be seen in public with the embarrassment called muffler! It was also a lot about Christmas and my hidden desire to get presents from Santa (this was of course when I was much younger and ended when I was around 7-8 years old). For the non Christian, Christmas at that time meant having a cake, wishing each other Merry Christmas and for the over enthusiastic bunch, a trip to the zoo or museum or some overly crowded park for the customary picnic. A trip to Park Street, that used to get all glittery and sparkly with light, was also on the list for many.

   One year when I was around 5 or 6, I don’t remember correctly, Baba had bought a plastic Santa Claus about 6inches tall with a very pink face. I used to take it out from its hiding every Christmas Eve and put it on the window sill, next to a very shiny and tiny ‘Christmas Tree’ and that was all the Christmas I needed. The almost 40 year old me is finding it difficult to recollect what Christmas that tiny six inch plastic Santa and tree could have brought to the six year old me but I guess that is the joy of innocence. I was happy and content with that. And once the day was over, I would again dutifully keep those two back in some plastic bag, to be taken out the following year. Oh and on Christmas Eve, I had once hung two school socks (one each of different pairs)- one for me and one for my younger brother- hoping Santa would bring us some candies. I guess that had put my parents in a spot since hanging of the socks was a last minute idea, right before going to bed, and I am not sure they were expecting to have candies ready for my very fake stockings! But we did find some ‘5 star’ chocolate bars in each sock and spent Christmas morning as happy as clams. That feeling of happiness has stayed with me till date and when I look back on that day, I long for that rustic joy, for the simplicity that has long gone.

   So much has changed…it is a different time. Christmas was a couple of days ago and we took out our smaller (the bigger one had to stay put this year because of lack of space) fake tree and decorated it with trinkets, with our elder one having a ball the whole time. He believes in Santa and kept some Oreo cookies, a glass of milk and a couple of carrots for the tired Man and his reindeer. I kept wrapped up presents under the tree once the little guy went to bed and as I hung proper Christmas stockings, I thought about my white school socks that I had hung outside the ‘moshari’ (mosquito net) many moons ago.

   We no longer look forward to winter here in the east coast because of the bitter cold, there is no book fair to go to nor are steaming cups of tea a staple of the household . Instead, we look forward to the first snow of the season and make snow footprints; we take pictures with Santa at the mall and when venturing outdoors we bundle up in as many layers as possible, where the good old muffler is no longer considered an embarrassment.


   My preschooler has now reached the stage where he looks forward to going to his school. Most days he wakes up before I do and encourages me to laze around in the bed a little less, which is good on weekdays but not a whole lot of fun on the weekends! And with his growing interest in school, I have noticed major developmental changes too in him within a very short period…in terms of language skill, picking up on the tone of the teachers, using specific words to convey certain things and his body language. It makes me happy and proud and reassured to see my little boy taking these strides and becoming his own little person slowly. We all know that kids imitate adults and how it is important to model the behavior we want to see in children. Kids are excellent observers and pick up things in no time. These new skills they practice and master over time and the new experiences that they gain through interaction with important people in their lives are crucial to their cognitive and social development. We have all gone through these stages but I wonder if our parents were as focused on noticing and chronicling behavioral developments, and doing things by the book like we do today.

   While parental behavior and teaching has evolved over time and there is probably a palpable inter-generational tension when it comes to the do-s and don’t-s of parenting, it is quite comforting to see that kids’ behavior has not changed significantly, at least in the early stages of development. While they are much more adept at handling gadgets and have a lot more ‘developmental toys’ at their disposal than us, things like hop scotch, jumping ropes, silliness at monkey bars, the good old see saw, board games likes the snake and ladder are still a major hit with them. And when it comes to pretend play, the imagination knows no bounds!

    Growing up, my favorite thing on the weekends was ‘playing school’ or as we used to say ‘teacher-teacher’ and I am pretty sure I was not an exception. I remember being in awe of all my teachers, especially class teachers (home room teachers) from grade one through six or seven and imitating them at home while ‘teaching’ imaginary kids, was what kept me engaged. I had my own ‘roll-call’ register which Baba had very lovingly bought for me where I had written the names of most of my classmates and neighborhood friends, and before ‘class started’ I would call out the names and mark ‘present or absent’ with blue and red pens respectively against each. I also had a set of chalks to write on the big wooden door of our living room and an eraser. My parents never objected to this action of mine and while at the end of my ‘teaching period’, that lasted a good six to seven years, I had almost destroyed one side of the deep brown door, they never got mad. As you can see, I had all the props needed for teaching and as if to make it official, I would also wear Ma’s saree every time I went to ‘class’. It also helped me learn on my own things that were taught at school, and that was something I enjoyed much more than the routine ‘porte bosha’ (study time) every evening.

   My little guy is in his own world of playing ‘teacher-teacher’ at the moment and this is his current favorite thing after playing guitar with his Baba, being silly with his Dada (grandfather) and being busy with his cars. He imitates his teacher almost immaculately and keeps himself busy ‘teaching’ his friends and at times ‘coaches’ them on school rules! He also goes over the things he learns at school and it makes me smile thinking about the fascinating parallel. He ‘practices’ his rhymes, his Spanish, concert songs (with December just a month away!) while being totally immersed in his world of pretend play and I listen with a happy heart.


   It gives me hope that all has not changed yet and when we play snakes and ladders and he does all the things that we used to do when we were his age, it reassures us of the wonders of childhood that our little guy seems to be living and enjoying. When he hides during ‘hide and seek’, he makes sure you know where he is hiding before you even begin to find him and at times when he manages to keep that a secret, the giggles from behind the curtains or from under the table are priceless and timeless. In this ever changing world around us, I sometimes question my ‘parenting approach’ that creates some needless confusion and clutter. But my little guy steps in unequivocally, albeit unknowingly and relieves me of my futile perturbation. I quiver a little at times when I think if he is growing up too fast and whether we are letting him enjoy his childhood to the fullest and at moments like these too, my little guy comes up with goofiness that makes me toss away my silly thoughts without any hesitation.


(The picture on the left is what he said at school when asked how he thinks he is a good friend and the one on the right is where he was being a tortoise hiding in his shell, giggling away the whole time!)


Another Anxious Parent

   My not-so-little-boy started preschool last month.

   As someone who has always been quite social and likes to strike up a conversation with people he meets, we have always kind of harbored the notion that he would adjust to school fairly easily…but that was not to be. Like all or most kids going to school for the first time, he has had meltdowns and separation anxiety but things have gotten better since the first week and he is gradually adjusting to the new place and routine. Comforting, right?

   Actually not so much! A parent going through new phases of growing up, I have found it very difficult to adjust to this new stage as well, something I had not quite anticipated. As someone who has stayed home with him at all times, it has been sort of a challenge letting him go to a place where I won’t be around to watch his every step and make sure of his needs and well being. Too much coddling one might say and I will not disagree.

   This emotional roller coaster of sorts has been a bit overwhelming to deal with. And I have ugly cried it out too. I wonder if other parents in a similar situation have done so or should I be embarrassed! When he first started school, I missed seeing him around. Initially I found myself literally staring at the clock almost every other minute to see how long till my little boy came home and so in spite of having a lot of ‘free time’ on my hands, I found myself doing nothing and instead sitting crippled with an uneasiness I could not explain. And checking every ten minutes his class’s web cam to find out how he was doing was NOT helping in any way. To see him cry his eyes out was almost tore my heart apart and I had to fight hard the urge to just go and pick him up from school, never to send him back again!

  While my little guy is steadying his small steps slowly, I am afraid I haven’t progressed much. While I no longer sit staring at the clock and do not check the web cam as often, I still have that tightening feeling in my throat and I still cannot do much. I have this ‘free time’ on my hands which I can use to catch up on things I did not have time for before and I can be more than ‘just-a-mom’ and yet I do nothing! While my child is away exploring new things, expanding his mind and making new friends I am still stuck. I wonder again if this happens or has happened to others in my situation.

   This little person that I am so proud of has taken his very tiny first steps towards independence and begun his adventures away from home. His mom, however, has to learn to start all over again to spend time doing things that she likes, things that she has thought about so much when trying to put him to bed for a grueling 45 mins! And now that another little member is about to join the family soon, she better utilize this time getting a gazillion things ready before it is time again to be up every two hours at night, channeling all the energy and love towards that tiny bundle while also finding time to go on silly adventures with the elder one, and making sure he does not feel left out.

  While my job now is to show my little man all the love, support and encouragement for this new phase in his life, it is he who is teaching me more. He puts up a brave face in the morning and holds back his tears as long as he possibly can before letting go momentarily and then tries to smile through the tears. I could not be more proud of him. I come back home with a heavy yet content heart and have started, slowly doing things I can do while he is away. It’s taking time but I am getting there! And when it’s time to pick him up from school, it is the best feeling of the day as he rushes to me beaming and we come back home where sanity is restored once again as the music from his guitar, his conversations during his pretend plays and the sound of footsteps running up and down the stairs fill the till-then eerily quiet house. 


Durga Pujo

   It’s that time of the year, almost. Not here in my adopted country but in my hometown of Kolkata. It is the time when the city dazzles and the people are flushed with inimitable passion and joy. It is the time when people embrace and celebrate their cultural heritage, their love for food, music, the famous Bengali “adda” (the never ending conversation usually over endless cups of tea and snacks!), become tighter as a community, strengthen old bonds while initiating new ones.  It is the time when the city lights up to welcome one and all and artistic grandeur is on display all around. Is the time when the “kashful”  (the kans grass ) adorns the muddy roads of our “grambangla” (Countryside), the intoxicating smell of the “shiuli” (the night flowering jasmine) and the “dhunuchi” (burning of coconut husk along with camphor or some other incense in an earthen pot) along with the deep thud of the “dhaak” (a drum like Bengali instrument played primarily during the Durga Pujo) fill the souls. It is all-the best-things-in-life-rolled-into-one kind of a thing!

   As someone who has not spent a single Durga Pujo in Kolkata (don’t roll your eyes!), I have not experienced much of this first hand, but am very well aware of all this. I have seen the excitement leading up to the five days of the Pujo and can easily comprehend the fervor that the actual days bring about. I have had friends tell me in detail everything that I miss during the biggest celebration that the city holds and I have seen simple bamboo structures, the “pandals” getting converted into brilliant pieces of art through the exquisite craftsmanship of a handful of people. And I have also seen the dazzling elegance of the idols of Goddess Durga and Her Children as they adorn those “pandals” for the most gratifying five days in a Bengali’s calendar. For most, not being in Kolkata during Pujo is unthinkable and not an option. For some, it is a time to escape to a different city and seek some tranquility among the hill stations or soak up the sun at the many beautiful beaches or visit historical places that have shaped our country, our people. And for some who have chosen to live in their adopted countries many miles away from the streets they could once walk blindfolded on, it is a time to draw upon cherished memories from the yesteryear and make the best of the “Weekend Pujo” that is permitted by time and space there.


   So, what does Durga Pujo mean to me who has never been part of the electrifying milieu of Kolkata and who now lives in a land thousands of miles away? When I try to think of what is it that tugs at my heart strings at this time, I find myself overwhelmed with memories of one particular city, one white house (that later got painted to a not-so-good shade of brown/yellow-I never could tell!) and a bunch of faces many of whom are not around anymore. It is where I spent a good twenty five Durga Pujos and of which I have nothing but the fondest memories and utmost respect. The city of Jamshedpur, in the eastern part of India, is where my father grew up and where our ancestral home had been (till this year before being torn down for a hundred reasons) and it is at this place where I spent my most revered days during Pujo.

   For me, Pujo was always about finding out from Baba when our tickets to Jamshedpur were and by which train, when were all the others (the very large extended family) arriving and for how long would we be staying. It was also a bit about the mandatory Pujo shopping for new clothes and shoes:) And the day we would reach that big white house where  a bunch of smiling crazy faces would be waiting eagerly on the porch to give the loudest welcome to all those who came, it would be the beginning of the best fifteen days of that year for me. Everything that followed was blissful. From cuddles and huddles to ten people checking their hairdos and make up in front of a single mirror before “pandal hopping” ; from eating our meals at the large table where chaos ensued almost every other minute to making beds all over the house wherever a square inch of floor space was free; from being dragged out of bed in the wee hours of the morning to smell the shiuli- a smell so fragrant that it was almost intoxicating-and then pick up some for garlands that would later be strewn by the elders of the family for the purposes of worship; from frivolous squabbles to bursting out into peels of laughter over the silliest of jokes; from sitting on the front porch with people closest to my heart and sipping on the tea that was an occasional allowance during this time while our “thakur” (the cook) would fire up the “unoon”  (earthen clay stove, fired up usually by wood or coal) whose heady smell mixed with the sweet autumn breeze would fill the air; from the most ardent feeling of comfort and contentment that cannot be put into words to a serenity that the rolling hills in the distance brought-was what Durga Pujo meant to me. And though it is a very different story now many years later and thousands of miles away, in my mind Durga Pujo is still that and it has been very difficult to find an alternative that comes close.

(This is the house that holds my most precious moments…this picture was taken a few months before being torn down)

   In today’s fast paced life where we are probably connected more digitally than ever before, one can’t always head home for the Pujo. We adapt and we learn how to celebrate wherever we are. In this land far far away from the maddening crowd, Pujo is generally confined to whichever weekend (around the real Pujo dates) a particular school auditorium is available and five days of religious and social celebrations are packed into a rushed 48 hours. There is the actual ‘pujo’ (worshiping the Goddess), ‘pushpanjali’ (offering of prayer and flowers to the Goddess), ‘bhog’ (the typical Pujo lunch and dinner), cultural ‘anusthan’ (program), ‘sindoor khela’ (married women smearing vermilion on each other at the end of the celebration) and men, women and children decked in the best of clothes and jewelry gleefully soaking in every moment. We create memories that might not be able to match up to the ones we still fondly talk about in our “addas” but nonetheless they get stored in our pocketbook of memories.

   I have spent nine Pujo-s in this far away land and each has had its own flavor. the first two have been the most special where everything was more homely and the Bengali Students’ Society of Minnesota made everyone feel involved and we all lent our two cents! From the Protima (the idol) to the Pujo, it was all a labor of love and hard work  and the fun was  “nirbhejal” (unadulterated). The other Pujos have been different. They have been somewhat like showing up at the venue all dressed up, doing the customary chitchat, enjoying the ‘cultural’ part of the Pujo-listening to ‘artists from Kolkata or Mumbai’ entertaining the audience with popular songs-and reliving a slice of Pujo back home when rickety loudspeakers (before they were banned) would be blaring those out at every “pandal” and a group of children would be dancing to those while some elders would indefinitely frown at the loss of “sanskriti”.


     (These two pictures were not taken by me but by a dear friend from Minneapolis)

   Pujo has been different since I no longer could go to Jamshedpur (work and then marriage took me away eventually!) and I no longer try to fight the emptiness that still lingers somewhere deep down inside of me. It has now become a part of the Pujo feeling that I cherish as I proudly reminisce the moments that have shaped the person I am today. Now I dress my little one in “Punjabi’s” (traditional Indian attire for boys and men) while the good man also does his best to dust off his and off we go “Thakur dekhte” (visit the Pujos). Our boy, a little music enthusiast that he is, gets excited beyond words at the “dhaak” and even tried his hand at playing one in his own way and that has become one of my most treasured moments from Pujo here, one of those moments that assure you that celebrations can be different across continents but bits and pieces remain the same and it is up to us to be part of the merriment and keep adding pages to our personal stories:)




Fridge magnets tell a story…our story

     When my brother and I were growing up in Kolkata, we traveled quite a bit as a family and it was all because of my father. He traveled quite a bit when he was younger and he made sure we got to do that as well. Our travels have remained one of the most treasured memories from my childhood. One of the things that my father always did during our travels was bring back picture post cards of the places we visited which were not necessarily of very good quality, in terms of print. Nevertheless he would always bring those back with pictures that made that place famous. And eventually, we had a huge plastic bag full of these very bright colored cards which we would stumble upon once in a while going through family albums. His reason for bringing back those was simple- to have something from the places that we visited, a souvenir. Also, we did not have a very good camera at that time and none of us were ever sure if we would do a good job of taking a picture! And so, he wanted to have something that would, many years down the line, remind him of the places he had been to and things that had caught his eye.

   Picture post cards are perhaps no longer a thing in India and I am not sure if they ever were here in the US (I will have to ask my friends about this!). They have been replaced by proper souvenir items ranging from shot glasses to unique display items, fridge magnets to wall hangings, to mention the basic few. I noticed the wide array of fridge magnets when I first came to this country…it wasn’t a thing at that time in India. And I was quite fascinated. They ranged from simple to unique, from plain to very colorful. And they held together everything -from family photos and school schedules to recipes and to-do lists! It was like a big display board…only much more interesting 🙂

   And I started noticing the magnets much more closely, not in a creepy manner though, whenever I visited my friends and family. Every magnet added to the story of the people living in the house and the things that they held together gave a little bit of a glimpse into the life that was lived there. From kids’ artwork to handwritten recipes, backyard snapshots to wedding announcements, pictures of near and dear ones and special moments- it was like an archive and made the people living in those houses a bit more relatable.


    Over the years, Neel and I have gathered a few fridge magnets of our own from our travels and a couple we have got as gifts. I often look at these and try to think what made me buy a particular one and it makes me happy to reminiscence.  There are magnets that we bought when we traveled as a couple and then there are those that we got during our trips as a family, with our son. They are all special in their own way and I am happy to have them. And they hold funny, silly, memorable bits and pieces of recipes, hand written messages, photos from special occasions- all depicting a moment from here and a moment from there. I hope to add more to the fridge in the coming years as we add to the pages of our lives:)

Playing and growing together



(The red painting, is my birthday gift last year from my then two and a half year old munchkin. He was kind and thoughtful enough to make one for  his daddy too-the one in yellow/green)

    As a stay-at-home mom, I often find myself wondering if I am using my time wisely enough. If I am being productive (running around being mindful of and tending to a hundred needs of a crawling, climbing toddler and the usual household chores aside!) or not is also another thought that occasionally creeps up and usually leads to a zillion other thoughts that often end up having a cascading effect on self esteem. Not a fun thing at all!

   Current circumstances are not that conducive to me taking up (or even getting one, to be honest) a full time job and thinking about how my graduate degrees are going to waste is depressing. Of late, I have been making a conscious effort to not wallow in self pity and focus on what I have around me- a very loving husband who happens to be my best friend and our son, a bubbling ball of energy with all his charms and quirks. Just the thought of this, makes my heart fill with gratitude:)

   I am a big fan of the arts and crafts! I am, however, terrible at drawing anything (and my husband will vouch for that, wholeheartedly!) and I also lack originality when it comes to creating something. So, you see…these are not really helpful qualities if one hopes to take up DIY craft projects seriously! One of my fondest memories from childhood is making holiday cards and I remember the feeling quite vividly- a strange sense of satisfaction at having created something with my own hands and I am sure we have all felt this way at some point in our lives. Haven’t we? And so, with considerable amount of time on my hands and availability of resources that are much more than what the ten year old me had, I started going through Pinterest and what a treasure trove of ideas it turned out to be! And I had the ambitious, or should I say daring, thought of involving my three year old and I was relieved to see that he was not as disinterested as I had imagined he would be. Sometimes, I feel, we give far less credit to these munchkins than they deserve!

   And so it started! I made one piece and then another and another and that caught my son’s attention (which was my whole plan- to see if he would be interested rather than me trying to push him). And we have made quite a few things together since! It gives me something to do and the best part is I get to do something with my son and together we have had many a laughs over silly sticky glue blobs and have had adventures with our scissors and done a huge mess with supplies 🙂 I am thankful to have these in my pocket book of memories.

As you can see, most of these were during the holiday season as that is when his interest had peaked! We have now ‘graduated’ to some serious stuff where we are melting crayons (all with Mommy’s help and supervision!) and then looking for more stuff to melt! All of this hangs on the wall of his playroom and I am working on some more stuff to add to the display. We learn and have fun and in the process I know more about him. He teaches me in his own way that it’s okay to make mistakes, how not to be a cleanliness freak at all times and how awesome it is do even the silliest stuff together…there is unadulterated joy in all of this and I look forward to our goofy art time with all my heart!



The Red Post Box

   Inland letters and postcards have become a thing of the past today. No one writes letters anymore…it has almost become an extinct art. There is not much need for that either I guess, since a profusion of options for instant communication have made life ‘easy’ today. Red letter boxes in street corners have become a rarity and kids running to drop a letter in that box are no longer to be seen.Today, mail boxes mostly see greeting cards, bills, magazines and a lot of unwanted junk mail!

   One of my fondest memories from childhood is that of the small round red post box at the corner of a big field, some fifteen odd steps from my ancestral home in a small town in eastern India. On ‘Doshomi’ (the last day of Durga Puja), the chaotic mornings would have an extra pinch of frenzy as the elders would be scrambling to convey their ‘Bijoya’ wishes, through letters, to relatives living in different parts of the country. And the correct addresses could always be found after a lot of commotion since there would invariably be multiple addresses against most names in the very tattered address book, and the correct one could be found only after a lot of discussion. The dramatics that ensued was a sight to behold all by itself! Once all of that stopped, it would be time to post the letter/s. On the very rare occasion that I was allowed to do so, which was probably a couple of times before the post box went out of use, it would become one of the highlights of my trip that year. It was as if, I had been entrusted with the responsibility of making sure that the good wishes reached whoever it was supposed to in Assam or Delhi or Kolkata, and my red little box had the power to do that. I was small and still believed in magic and also I had never actually seen a postman take the letters out of the box! This special bond that I had unknowingly formed with that red box is one of my treasured memories from the bygone days. Since digital cameras, cell phones were matters of sci-fi books/movies, I do not have a picture of that box to remember it by but I strangely remember the feeling of walking up to the box to post those letters.

   As far as I remember I have always loved writing letters and loved seeing them being slipped under our door by the postman who found his way all over the neighborhood in his trusted bicycle. Those letters and post cards that found their way into each others homes from all across the country carried hope and happiness,  bore bad news and brought tears. That red little box and most like that are gone, as are the letters. But memories of those times have remained, almost unscathed.  As Aldous Huxley said ‘Every man’s memory is his private literature’, and I am glad that I have that little red box in one of my/its pages.


(The photo of the letter here is an actual one that I had written to a friend of mine- we did not have phones at our homes at the time and we used to write letters to each other over our summer holidays..I still have a couple of such letters! This one however, was the one I wrote and my dear friend has been kind enough to keep it!)


A 4 A.M. Pandemonium

   For a Bengali, Durga Pujo is as big as it gets! It is Christmas, New Year, Diwali, birthdays, first visit to the zoo, trips to Disney Land, nail biting tension during cricket matches, the frenzy of  East Bengal-Mohun Bagan football games, a good Sunday afternoon siesta, never ending debates about Soumitra or Uttam, the ‘aaaahhhaaa’s of a Manna Dey classic and everything close to the heart of a ‘Bengali’- all rolled into one. And more. An event where a ‘Keep Calm’ t-shirt will only encourage more hysteria!

   Everything- from looking up the dates of the Pujo when the first calendar of the year found its way on the wall or the table top, to that sigh of relief when one found out that school exams would be over before the holidays begin; to the sight of the first pandal and then the pandal at your ‘para’ (neighborhood) and then, comparing the latter to the one of your neighboring ‘para’; to going shopping with friends and making never ending plans of night outs during the five days; to every phuchka, chop and biryani that finds its way into one’s stomach- has its own distinct flavor and stirs passion in the young and old alike.

    ‘Mahalaya’, the last day of the ‘Pitri-Pakhkha’, has made its mark in the hearts of Bengalis (particularly the younger generation) across continents for reasons quite different from what it symbolizes. Pujo almost starts with ‘Mahalaya’.   ‘Mahishashuramardini’ has been playing on radios in Bengali households on the day of ‘Mahalaya’ since the 1930s and continues to do so in this day and age when radios, sadly, have started to become obsolete. The compelling production, which is still as captivating as it probably was when it  first aired on the All India Radio, is surely a testament to the genius of  its creators.

   ‘Mahishashuramardini’ airs at 4 in the morning. And the fact that people continue to listen to this, is a testament to a whole different thing- the Bengali determination! And as far as I know, anything at 4 am that has involved a radio (many times in a rickety state) blaring songs and devotional recitation,  unwilling folks (every household must have had people who would surely have wanted to sleep a little longer, especially the younger ones!) and the clamor of tea being made and served, could not have been very soothing to the senses!

   As I continue to spend my years away from my folks in Kolkata and Jamshedpur, I cannot but think back to those treacherous Mahalaya mornings when the radio would be on from 4  in the morning and Maa-Baba would try their very best to wake up bhai and me to listen to the legendary Birendrakishore Bhadra. The hope, perhaps, was that we too, like them, would immerse ourselves in the revelry and ruckus that is usually always associated with celebrations at 4 am. We really tried but could never be fully awake, and the fact that there was always going to be a next year, never pushed us that much, I think. They nudged and we grudged and when we did wake up, we would really hate the day for the first few hours!  Now, every year on the day of ‘Mahalaya’ , as I listen, over the phone, to our good old radio playing, I yearn for the 4 o’clock pandemonium. I  have been calling up home at 4.30-5 am (IST) every ‘Mahalaya’ in an attempt, perhaps, to get back a slice of the bygone days- that indescribable feel of curling up in a ‘kantha’;  to sipping the tea which tasted best in the wee hours of the morning and to being together on that bed with the three people who have seen me through my best and worst.

   In this land of pumpkin lattes, I wake up a bit early on of ‘Mahalaya’ than my normal days and listen to ‘Mahishashuramardini’ (on Youtube) as I sip my morning tea, that tastes nowhere close to the one Maa used to make. I do not try to wake up the good husband and our son is too small to comprehend any of this! I do get a sliver of the ‘Pujo ashche’ feeling but the joy of those early morning quarrels and the music from radio that is as old as I,  are dearly missed.

A thousand memories come rushing by

     I recently found out that odor invoked memories are the strongest ones. As a person who goes through a few seconds of being-transported-to-a-different-time-and-place every day because of a sudden whiff, I have found this to be comforting. Since the memories triggered are from very early childhood days and are of not so special occasions, they had often left me asking questions and I had almost begun wondering if I was making things up in my head! And then I came across an article (and eventually, a dozen more) that reassured me of my sanity.

   When memories get triggered by smells in a land that is thousands of miles away and where the way of life has little resemblance to the one left behind decades ago, it seems surreal. For me, those have brought back memories that remind me of my roots, of the simplicity that has been lost and also of the treasures that I have, unknowingly gathered, growing up.

   When I was small, may be around five or six, our family home (or as we say in India, ‘ancestral house’), where we spent our autumn holidays (Durga Puja, to be specific) with the extended family, had two courtyards (known as ‘oothon’ in Bengali) that led to the door at the back of house. Every morning and evening, our cook would come and get the coal/wood burning stove (known as ‘unoon’) ready for the large family meals. That smell of  the burning wood/coal mixed with the cooler air of  early evening, ( I never could wake up early enough to smell it during morning!) was somehow very comforting for me. I loved that strange smell. Early evening was the time when the family would be out on the big balcony, sipping on the evening tea, sharing a laugh or two; the older cousins would be busy in their own world while the younger ones would have their own secret sharing going on! Oh, and making plans for the evening’s ‘pandal hopping’ would also be in full swing and that meant getting to wear new clothes! It was surely my favorite time of the day.

   It has been a long time since the ‘unoon’ has made way for the gas stove, taking the concoction of the burning coal/wood and the sweet autumn breeze away with it. So, imagine my astonishment when one day a couple of years ago, in the parking lot of our grocery store in a land and time that has no place for ‘unoons’, I am made aware of memories long forgotten, by this puff of air that smelled of my childhood days in a small town in eastern India. Swept away by a sudden wave of memories, I remember being deeply conflicted that first time, since it triggered emotions I had not felt in a long time and reminded me of people who were no longer there, who were/are an intricate part of that smell and the time it represented.  It reminded me of relationships that, sadly, have not stood the test of time and now lack warmth, yet are carrying on. It was also blissful as I recalled the gone-by days of running up to the terrace (‘chaad’) to look at the hills in the distance, of smelling the ‘shiuli’ flower right when we got down from the autorickshaw that we took from the train station to the house, of getting candies from our grandmother, of looking out of the autorickshaw as it turned at the bend of the road to see a bunch of smiling faces waving goodbye as we left to return to Kolkata (then Calcutta).

   I remember feeling oddly happy initially, and then ecstatic to have found a slice of my childhood in this almost fanciful manner. That smell has come back many more times since then and every time it has evoked (and continues to do so) emotions that I can only assume I must have felt as a child. They have all been happy ones and have led to many trips down the memory lane. That sudden reunion with my childhood in the parking lot of our  grocery store was  both intense and tender. Intrigued, I keep wondering if and when will I chance upon another such whiff of air from my childhood, and be surprised with forgotten tales.