The thrill of visiting a Puja pandal is still fresh as ever. I remember the first time when Papa carried me on his shoulders in the jostling streets of a festive Shillong so that I get an aerial view of people, new clothes, food stalls and of course, the Goddess, resplendent in vermillion and bright hues of love, affection, strength and faith.
The rhythmic beat of the dhak, the blow of the conch, the chanting of the Vedic hymns, the frenzy and trance of the arati stay on for days until the next Mahalaya.
There is a plan more meticulous than the seasons in the sun when to buy clothes, how many, when to visit the tailors, a pilgrimage to the beauty parlour for that 10-day look, your shoes, accessories and all that dhoom-dhaam!
Stack your books and studies away for a few days, put your best feet forward, nicely painted toes, pedicured and nicely manicured hands to tuck that frequent/occasional cascade of hair across your face, thanks to a hair disaster that has turned fashionably signature. Oh, Puja is like that. You start with last year’s dress, the less fortunate ones don’t have a start.
Saptami was always quiet, you had to pinch yourself to believe that Puja has arrived. Asthami is the day-fun, fashion, food, frolic and all the jazz. By Navami, you should have seen all the pandals and eaten your fill, flirted you way and earned yourself a couple of blisters, thanks to new shoes that bite, lot of travelling, sore feet, dancing and whatever. Dashami always brought tears, the Goddess leaves and the poignance of the dhak beaters at your doorstep for that extra buck which they wait for the whole year, the colorful vermillion holi that married women indulge in and the excitement of the young, the old, the womenfolk and the middle-aged to dance their way until the river ghat to say a sad farewell. You should see the soiled clothes, the ruffled hair and the red foreheads. All look forward to the shantijal, the prasad bitaran and the sacred thread. I hate when parents howl-get back to the sansar, homework, assignments, revision, selection tests, library work, blah blah.
The morning ablutions were always elaborate and fun, from scrubbing yourself squeaky clean to a nice luxurious bath (with no one banging the bathroom door like the school bell will go off any moment), slide into new clothes, blow half a can of parfum deo spray and steal a lil’ make up here and there to show you have come of ‘make-up’ big girl age.
I always got the heebie-jeebies whenever I had to go to the pandal to sit and offer anjali and wait for the bhog. First, however much an attention seeker I am, I do get squirmish at constant stares, you don’t know why they stare- either you look funny or good(less likely in/with the pancake) or whatever. A small pouch of coins for dakhina and chewing gum, chana badam and the ilk with a sweaty hanky thanks to cleaning lipstick bleeds and kajal smudges, my dim retrospect of those bygone days make me smile like Chaucer. Nobody cooks lunch, there is no breakfast save for bread, biscuit and chai- our desi version of an English breakfast. The bhog is your lunch, piping hot khichuri served with loads of vegetables, brinjal fries, kheer, sweets and I could go on and on.
Pandal hopping was so much fun. You go in hordes. The younger guys and also, the older boys were our permanent ATMs doubled up as bodyguards and willingly enough. How they loved to foot the egg roll bill as long as the girls took care of the grand lunch, no no… we always went dutch. Some affairs happen and fizzle out like colas.
That was until a couple of years ago.