Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Durga Pujo

Last year, my friend Mega went to her village for Durga Pujo. She spent less than two weeks there, but oh, the stories! SevenM and I could only imagine the fun she'd had with all her cousins, running around without a second's rest to finish all the important tasks and pujas everyday. Each day was a different puja, each night a different topic of family discussion, and from what I heard, each moment was pure joy.

I, who have only a few strung-together memories of all my older cousins being in the same house at the same time, crave that kind of intimacy so badly. The last time we met was at my oldest cousin's wedding last year. It was the first time in many years that all of us were at the same place at the same time -- or even on the same continent. And it was an entirely different feeling, perhaps largely because we're all grown up now and the teasing made up for twelve years of being apart. It was like one weekend away from everything real on the planet. And I, who have largely renounced all usual forms of youthful entertainment, was so overjoyed that I danced. All weekend long.

From what I've heard of Durga Pujo, it sounds like exactly the above: one giant celebration of all the good things there are to share; friends, family, food, and fun. There's something wonderful about living with purpose, and for ten days (and many months prior), the lives of so many people are filled with something greater than themselves. Even for someone like me who doesn't know exactly what rite fits where, or why, the grand purpose is easy to identify. More than the rituals, it's what they bring together. Siblings who haven't met all year, cousins who wouldn't otherwise get any time to bond with their extended families, and grandparents, uncles, aunts, newborns, and entire communities of people who get together to celebrate what's most important to them: life. That much is beyond a facade of rituals, and it's easy to see.

Rangoli Sieve: dust the colour on top...
...and, voila!
I have grown up hating rituals. I think that's largely because I have never understood their functional purpose, or the direct link between them and the rewards they purportedly confer upon those who perform them. For me, rites, rituals and pre-scripted prayers have always been tied to the same sources of authority who standardise others' desires to pull them down and feel relatively more powerful themselves. Priests, heads, factory owners and so on who impose rules and obligations over those who aren't in a position to argue, just so that they can singlehandedly control the masses.

Rituals, thus, do not seem personal. Rites seem perfunctory. Prayer songs lack flavour. It is because they are made to convince the masses that their desires are not their own but filterable by bald, forehead-painted beings in saffron togas. They are made to convince the millions that there is no direct line from them to their own, individual gods, no means of personal conversation with their innermost self and whatever they may believe in. And that kind of imposition, I can't stand.

But there are moments of a different kind of clarity sometimes, where my mind accepts that there may be another purpose to elaborate rituals. There are moments when my mind accepts that although I may not agree with their supposed aims, they do serve the greater purpose of bringing people together in a way that unites their humanity at a very core level.

The Shiv Mandir

This is simple enough to explain. When you lay your doubting self to rest and yield completely to whatever god-force you believe in, something happens. Something changes. When you do it with a crowd of people, loved ones and strangers, something bigger happens. It is not that you are all brainwashed into believing that there is one and only one way to do things, but that by doing the same thing together at once, you divest it of its inert symbolism and allow yourself to fully delve into being one with the forces around you. You become part of your actions, and by that, the actions themselves lose meaning to you, and the oneness with them becomes paramount.

It is this feeling of oneness that makes rituals useful. It is this feeling of being the same, having the same hurdles, the same causes for joy, and the same sadness as others that knits humanity together, or keeps you and me sane. Burdens do lighten when you feel that someone understands your troubles. Happiness does increase manifold. And fast-flowing rivers do seem traversable. For this reason, and perhaps this reason only, I am willing to accept that there is more to doing the motions than I have suspected all along. And today, while pandal-hopping, this is exactly what I saw.

At the Kali Mandir

Adults dancing in fairgrounds, on top of trucks decorated with paper goddesses, in balconies with their parents looking out at said trucks. Babies eating, screaming, sleeping. Married women, their sarees rich cream and red, red, everywhere red; from the part in their hair to the soles their feet. Trays in their hands, hopes on their lips, prayers in their hearts. Edging slowly closer towards the gods they have been conversing with their whole lives. Gods who are as much a part of their thoughts as the sofas are at home in their parents' drawing rooms. Having to wait in line to paint these gods' foreheads is a study of its own in meditation.

Detail on a Pandal
Detail on a Wall
Looking out from behind a lens and through the rich conflux of sounds that comes together when lots of Indian people are together in a large space, I saw just that. Everyone was here, enjoying to their own degrees, connecting with their god in their own way. Behind all the ululating and veryspecificwayofdoingthings, there were thoughts and feelings and hopes and lots of gratitude being offered. And each prayer was pure and sacred and equally important. Each person was too. And that is as much as we can wish for.

Shubho Bijoya Dashmi, everyone!


  1. That Tall Guy in the Corner6:16 PM, October 24, 2012

    I love this girl. An absolutely MARVELOUS photographer with that added skill of being just an excellent a writer. It almost felt like a running film reel when I read through this.

    Seriously, this girl needs to be famous as fuck.

  2. Nanya, this is beautiful. I love all your pictures, and I love you too. :)

  3. Thank you for marrying me. <3 ;)