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
It’s May! School is out. It stays closed through the end of June. It’s too hot. We don’t have air-conditioning either at school nor at home, and our teachers don’t want to risk kids falling like flies to heatstrokes. As the temperature rises to 40oC (over 100oF) , we stay indoors with our windows shut and curtains drawn to keep the house cool. Everyone is napping. Well, we are all supposed to have a siesta to rest up before the cooler hours of the evenings to make whatever we all have to do a little easier. The heat is killing, but with this tremendous heat comes the most delicious fruit – fragrant, sweet and a little tart, and hundreds of species that are native to India – mangoes! Just like the cherry season here, the mango season, too, is very short and is about to reach it’s peak in June. But, so much has changed since I was that little girl sneaking out in the hottest hour of the day when I was supposed to nap to get some mangoes from the tree in our yard instead.
This year, I have to let go of that memory, because I am sure that the tree that gave me so many years of joy and deliciousness has been uprooted like so many others due to hurricane Amphan. This will be a bleak summer, as people shelter in place due to COVID19 and can’t even find solace in the deliciousness of that amazing fruit – that we eat, suck on, pickle, preserve and make innumerable things out of.
My heart is broken – just like those majestic tropical trees that are now strewn all over the ground.
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.