Its the fifth (panchami) day of Spring (Basant) in Bengal and with it comes this festival dedicated to the Goddess of Knowledge, Saraswati. I used to love everything about this festival. It’s a day of freedom from learning as we surrender our books, instruments, ghungrus (dancing bells), pens and pencils in front of the Goddess of learning, so that she can bless each one of these tokens of learning and make us fruitful in our pursuit of knowledge and wisdom. It is often very intimate in scale and for us, it was always held at one of my favorite family’s home – the Chatterjis.
Chatterji Jethu* was sprightly, a great gardener and just an overall gentle and affectionate person to be with, especially because he would always invite us when the lychees in his yard were ready for our raiding. Chatterji Jethima* was known for her cooking skills through out the neighborhood – especially her aachaars** and ghughni*** and luchi***. The neighborhood adult community came together to cook giant vats of food as we ran around playing with our friends. We would sit down in batches to eat the bhog****, served on plates made with the shaal pata (Shorea_robusta).
But the most exciting part was that we could finally eat the forbidden fruit – Kul (Indian Jujube).. but only after the prayers had been offered. But, really wait for prayers before we could eat Kul?? We have waited long enough for the fruit to be just ripe and ready to eat.
Here I am with my sister Pratiti Raychoudhury throwing caution to the wind and creeping in to steal some kul after everything has been beautifully arranged for the Goddess to eat and bless but before prayers have been offered and blessings have been completed. Will eating kul before the eager Goddess make her petulant enough to dump a bunch of Math problems we can’t solve? Are we going to get failing grades? Who cares, eating this fruit before the ceremony has taken place is worth every drop in grades.
*Terms for your parents’ friends when they are older than your father **Aachaar : Indian preserves *** Whole yellow peas curry with about 4″ diameter fried bread ****Food that has been blessed by Gods/ Goddesses.
Aditi Raychoudhury. You are missing (Detail). November, 2020. Watercolor and Gouache.
Having lost my mother to cancer at 26, and my father to a heart attack 16 years later, I am no stranger to losing those we hold dear. While I still miss them after all these years, I was able to hug them and kiss them as I said my final goodbye.. a privilege that so many families across the world have not had as their loved one fell victim to this deadly virus. I can’t imagine the heartbreak of not being able to hold your loved one and say that final good bye.
As you struggle through this festival dedicated to gratitude and love of family, I can’t say that you will stop missing those you have lost. But as the years go by, may that empty chair that you are can barely look at through your tears today, fill up with love and cherished memories that you share with generations around the table, just like I share the memories of the grandparents my daughter couldn’t meet.
Much love to all Americans during this difficult Thanksgiving. Cherish love, and have a safe Thanksgiving.
“Pictures on the nightstand, TV’s in the den, Your house is waiting, your house is waiting, For you to walk in, for you to walk in, But you are missing, you’re missing..”
The victory of good over evil as Durga vanquishes Mahisasura in an epic battle, is celebrated as Bijoya or victory. We wear new clothes and visit our friends and family to eat, eat and eat some more of our wonderful delicacies that are specific to the season. However, the joyous Bijoya is not complete without Bishorjon, the act of immersing the clay idols into bodies of life giving water. It’s a day when the streets are lined with people waiting to catch a last glimpse of Ma Durga as she leaves her maternal home amongst us to go back to her home in Mount Kailash.
I remember waiting for this poignant moment, eagerly waiting to catch a glimpse of Durga for the very last time as the sounds of cymbals and dhaaks got louder and louder. My heart pounding, “She is coming! She is coming!” And then finally, you see her emerging from round the corner, the majestic statue of Durga flanked by her children, slowly getting larger and larger til she is right in front of us for a brief moment before passing us by as we bid our sad silent goodbyes. Our eyes well up with soft tears, as we assure ourselves, “Aashbey! Maa abate aashbey!” (She will be back again), as the crowd slowly disperses.
Even though, in reality the entire giant statue of Durga and her children are immersed into the river amidst loud clamor, I wanted to capture the intimate moment of gently letting go as a priest cradles Ganesha, one of Durga’s children, before he gently drops him into the water. As we feast for days, even after Durga has left us, Bishorjon is a gentle reminder of learning to letting go. It is a reminder that sadness and happiness are welded together in hope that this short-lived season of celebration as the monsoons ease up and summer gives way to early autumn will be back with festivals in spring and then finally the days of celebration all over India in the early autumn months.. a season for reasons unbeknownst to me has always felt bittersweet – happy for the crisp sun and grand festivals to come and yet sad as the year is definitely coming to an end.
Ya devi sarva bhuteshu, shakti rupena sangsthita, Namastasyai, namastasyai, namastasyai, namo namaha
[To that Devi Who in All Beings is Abiding in the Form of Power, Salutations to Her, Salutations to Her, Salutations to Her, Salutations again and again]
Long gone are those days when we would fall into expectant sleep knowing we would be up at the crack of dawn to this chant welcoming the arrival of Goddess Durga who would slay the demon Mahisasura Most Bengalis of my generation and generations before me did this. I am not sure if that still happens – certainly not in my US household and its a travesty. My daughter knows nothing about the uncontrollable excitement over Ma Durga’s arrival (with her children in tow), school closure, and going out every day in brand new clothes to eat delicious bhog with our friends and just soak in the indescribable atmosphere. What a loss for my daughter and everyone who has never experienced it. Here is @sandip.rc capturing my experience in his podcast https://www.kalw.org/post/sandip-roy-happy-durga-puja-2016
I wanted to present an intimate portrait of a family during COVID19 and focus on that insidious killer, which no amount of handwashing or masks can destroy from ripping away our deep rooted need for human contact.
As we all shelter in place and wrestle against our distraught children, snippy spouses, simmering cabin fever and colossal uncertainty, I see spring’s riotous explosion of colors – it’s beauty, a ferocious and radical act of defiance against death and despair. It reminds me that our lives, too, will blossom back in technicolor, if we can seize little pleasures and completely embrace isolation.
Shefali scrambles through her day cooking and cleaning homes in Delhi. It’s backbreaking work that starts at the break of dawn and doesn’t end till well past sundown. But, she didn’t always live this life of a lowly paid, classless migrant worker struggling to make ends meet in a large confounding city. In fact, she and her husband owned land, a store and a fulfilling life in the Sundarbans. But one day, the hungry tide gobbled up their land – taking with it their home, their middle class life and worst of all – their dignity. Her heartbroken husband tried to find work in his beloved Sunderbans but was ultimately resigned to managing a tiny shop in a tiny scrap of land in the Sundarbans, despite the knowledge that this too shall be fodder for a now hostile sea.
But such is the magnetic draw of the Sundarbans, which I visited a few years ago. This unique region that is now ravenous for land is also great at stealing your heart. So profound is its tranquil beauty.
Shefali’s story of loss and displacement is just one out of numerous others who have been rendered homeless by the rising sea.
The Sundarbans Mangroves ecoregion on the coast is the world’s largest mangrove ecosystem, with 20,400 square kilometres (7,900 sq mi). Sundarban (সুন্দরবন) in Bengali means “beautiful forest”, named after the dominant mangrove species Heritiera fomes which is locally known as sundari (beautiful).
The Sundarbans are located in what used to be my beloved ancestral homeland of undivided Bengal that was partitioned into present day West Bengal and Bangladesh in 1947. Apart from having once been a sanctuary to the refugees of the bloody partition of India, the Sundarbans is a UNESCO world heritage site and home to the rare Royal Bengal Tigers, Gangetic and Irabati dolphins and other species unique to this region. But human development and climate change with its sea level and surface temperature rise, severe hurricanes and increased salinity could lead to the destruction of 75 percent of these mangroves as the sundari trees are exceptionally sensitive to salinity. This poses a threat not just for the survival of the indigenous flora and fauna but also for the protective biological shield the mangroves form against cyclones and tsunamis, putting the surrounding communities at a devastating risk. The submergence of land mass has already rendered up to 6,000 families homeless and around 70,000 people are now threatened with the same.
In an ironic twist of fate, the progeny of those who found refuge in this bucolic setting during the partition, are now becoming climate refugees with no place to call home. While we can’t stop the juggernaut of climate change from destroying life as we know it, policies within the GREEN NEW DEAL could potentially provide solutions to reduce the impact of climate change and restore a life of dignity for climate refugees.
When most Indians are celebrating Diwali and Rama’s return to Ayodhya after vanquishing the demon king Ravana, it is overshadowed by a lesser known festival, Kali Pujo when Kali, a more virulent form of Durga, is worshipped through the night with great fervor in Eastern India. As a Bengali, I was very much a part of this tradition, and we would go out late in the night, to pay our respect to beautifully decorated idols of Kali, resplendent in her garland of blood red hibiscus flowers and demonic heads. We would have bhog after midnight, the highlight of which was an oxymoron – the unusual vegetarian goat curry. If you think this curry is made out of trendy fake meat, you are very much mistaken. Kali Pujo, predates fake meat by centuries! What apparently makes this curry “vegetarian” is the lack of onions and garlic that are otherwise always used in a traditional Bengali goat curry. The goat for this curry is comes from a male goat that was sacrificed at midnight, a ritual I was witness to once as a little girl.
We were at my dida’s (maternal grandma’s) house in Purnia. My widowed grandmother, was a devotee of RamKrishna, a Bengali saint, who in turn was a devotee of Maa Kali. She would take us to the Purnia Kali Bari at least once during our stay with her. It was a trip that I enjoyed very much with its rhythmically bumping rickshaw ride as it snaked through tall palm trees that had little clay pots strung right around where their leaves ended. It looked as though the trees had necklaces around their neck. I enjoyed looking at the daring men who climbed way up high with minimal safety gear to collect the sweet sap from the pots. The sap has a nutty smoky flavor that tastes a bit like maple syrup. It is mildly processed to make yummy nolen gur that went into flavoring my favorite desserts. The sap of some other palms were used to make toddy. What that tastes like, I can’t tell, because I have never had any. Most of all I loved the serene setting of this little temple by the river amidst lush tropical greens.
This time we were in Purnia for Kali Pujo and yes, as usual, we were going to venerate Maa Kali – this time at the Purnia Kali Bari. Like before we jumped on to our parents laps, and bumped along the road as our parents hugged us tightly. Little did I know that this trip was going to be quite different, one that would be seared in my memory.
As, we disembarked on this new moon night that lay suspended between the end of Sharad and the start of Shishir, I was taken aback by the sound of prayers being offered to a male black goat. Oh, how handsome he looked with his garland of bright red hibiscus flowers shining brightly against his silky black fur as he was gently being guided towards the sacrificial altar. As the goat realized its ultimate fate, its joyful pride dissolved into trembling bleats which despite their softness, split right through this dark night. Oh, the poignancy of his bleats! I ran as far away as I could and shut my ears, waiting for that blissful serendipity of the place to return. A few short moments later, all went numbingly quiet, as the giant sword, swiftly decapitated this goat in one fell swoop. It was over – but not for me. I just couldn’t get those plaintive bleats out of my head. With my heart in shards, it became impossible to settle into the quietness of a Hemant new moon. The sight of that goat curry made me gag, and I couldn’t eat it. Even though it didn’t make me a vegetarian, and I continued to enjoy our Sunday goat curries for many years, I couldn’t forget this little goat – so happy in its veneration, so terrified of its ultimate end.
In the process of painting this, I came to realize that I had been so shaken by that event that I had forgotten what time of day this deadly ritual had taken place.
Much has changed since then. Activists have managed to highlight the cruelty of this practice and most temples now sacrifice a gourd instead of a goat.
But despite all their activism, eating meat and the number of brutal slaughterhouses have increased manifold in India. During the process of capturing this memory, I started to wonder is it really worse to occasionally eat a few small bites of meat of an animal that was raised with love, venerated, and killed with compassion and the belief that because of this great sacrifice, he shall be reborn as a human being than to stock up our freezers with mounds of beautifully butchered shapes of meat that bear no resemblance to the being that they came from?
As we ramp up to Thanksgiving, I question our activism that results in hiding from sight what we can’t stand to bear. As we gather around any festive table, perhaps what we should be most thankful for is the being that gave its life to bind us together around the table to cherish our friends and families, and nourish our bodies and souls.
When I was growing up, shashti was my most exciting day. We wore our first set of pujo clothes, and I couldn’t wait for dusk to fall, so that I could see bodhon , the unveiling of Maa Durga ’s face , as she is invited to spend time on our earth (Amantran and Adhibash ) On mahasaptami, the statue icomes alive as she steps into our mortal world to start her epic battle against evil Mahisasur who she vanquishes on Ashtami. She isn’t just brave and strong. Before vanquishing Mahisasura, she promises that despite his misdeeds, he too shall be worshipped along with her and her children. And, so, Durga pujo is not merely prayers for her, but for her children and even the misguided demon. That’s what makes Durga Pujo an epic story and makes Bengalis go crazy during this festival. Here I am with my mother and sister during the Big Reveal !