As Durga Pujo comes to a close, strangely, it’s the trifoliate bel leaves which have won a place among the number of things uppermost on my mind. Don’t worry, I am not going to expound on the sanctity of belpaata or their significance in Shiv Pujo or Durga Pujo. I don’t have the faintest idea about it nor do I want to know much. As I stood waiting for pushpanjali to begin, my stomach grumbling with the long wait for Ashtami, Sandhi Pujo and Navami aunjoli, my mind cooked up some weird thoughts. Here they are…
The kohl rimmed eyes stared straight ahead-unmoving and unwavering. There was a smile in them. It was mesmerizing to look at them. I could look at them all day long.
“Side deen please (Excuse me),” someone shoved me, tearing me away from Maa Durga’s eyes and bringing me back to earth, back from a world where Her elegance had entranced me into believing in a heavenly abode resplendent with majestic Gods and Goddesses. I stood erect, my legs going steadily limp, as I waited for the Purohit to commence the pushpanjali. I am not into fasting. I need food as soon as I wake up. Whenever I wake up, that is. I summoned all of my patience, believing it to be some sort of a test, which, if I passed would win me choice blessings from the Mahishasur Mardini. But I couldn’t put up a show for myself any longer. Soon, I came into my own, my face wearing that worn-out look, my forehead glistening with sweat. I had put on my best attire for Ashtami, had had a haircut and tried to look decent. But now my hair (previously kept open in a layered style) was up in a clumsy bun, my hand frequently running over my face in an effort to wipe away the sweat and the irritation level rising every minute. The Purohit was doing the Aarti now. A huge crowd had accumulated. It was the final pushpanjali and mom and dad had issued a caveat that I must not move from the mandap till I was done with the aunjoli.
A lady stood ahead of me, her hair brushing my face every now and then. I couldn’t say much since she had a baby in her lap. The baby kept trying to reach my spectacles. I turned my head this way and that but the clever little child would manage to extend his hand and tug at my glasses. I finally changed my place, going back a few paces, earning my parents’ displeasure.
“Aage aaye! (Come ahead),” my mother ordered. And I meekly went to her, saying a thousand ‘excuse me’s and nudging past people with folded hands. Suddenly, I felt the crowd converging at a certain point. Everyone seemed to move left. I finally got some space. As I stood happily, dad nudged me to the left.
“Ki? (What?),” I asked.
“Aarti !” dad answered.
And then I saw a huge flame travelling inch by inch from group to group as the dhaakis continued playing their dhaak, making everyone’s voices except the purohit’s (because he had a microphone) ten times less audible. There was a mad rush to get Maa Durga’s blessings in the form of that flame. It was as if the flame contained the solution to everyone’s problems.
“A similar thing happened 3 million years ago. When man discovered fire,” someone whispered in my ear.
I looked around to see T. in a brand new kurta pajama, looking oddly out of place without his trademark Superman tee.
“Looking nice,” I complimented him.
“Want to impress Her you know,” he replied, winking at Maa Durga’s idol.
There were two more flame fights wherein in the first one, I managed to secure the ‘essence’ of the aarti and in the second, dad blessed me on the Goddess’ behalf by running his hand, that had brushed the flame, through my hair, thus imparting some of the ‘essence’ to me.
Finally, we huddled together, hands folded, eyes towards the basket of flowers.
“Phool…phool…phool (Flowers! Flowers! Flowers!),” everyone chanted, groping for flowers as my dad managed to get me some. I tore up my flowers and gave my friend some petals. He did the same with his friends.
“Ektu belpaata nei? (Don’t you have some bel leaves?),” someone put up a million dollar question. And everyone started rummaging in the basket for belpaata. My mom and dad couldn’t find any. They asked the distributor, clad resplendently in a white silk saree with a red border if they had any belpaata. She entered the mandap maze, trying to collect some. Meanwhile, someone had been lucky. A trident-shaped leaf stood out amongst all the flowers, the holder of the leaf triumphant, as if Maa Durga had chosen him out of all the rest to bestow her blessings. The others looked away, trying to be indifferent and act like adults and yet, feeling that irresistible pang of envy inside. Just then, the flower woman came with another basket, bringing with her some belpaatas. Everyone fell on her as she handed the basket to a man, clad in a maroon kurta. He took over the proceedings in an authoritarian way that the woman couldn’t and started asking around if everyone had received the flowers.
“Belpaata! Belpaata! Belpaata! (Bel leaves! Bel leaves! Bel leaves!),” came the exclamations from different directions. This must be the only time when leaves get more importance than the flowers.
My dad tore the tiny scrap of leaf he had managed to get.
“It’s okay, I don’t need it,” I said as dad gave me a part of his ‘blessings’ or the coveted belpaata. I didn’t pass it on this time. I had gotten a small enough piece, barely visible.
“Chheedbenna paata chheedbenna (Don’t tear the leaf),” someone protested against the tearing of the leaf to pieces. But that is how we humans are. We want to get as much as we can, take as much as we can manage, try as far as our last efforts let us.
With the amalgam of gainda phool (marigold flowers) and bits of belpaata between our palms, we closed our eyes and chanted after the purohit.
The purohit’s commanding voice seemed to bewitch us as we repeated after him. “Namostute!” A kid in front of me exclaimed in a mock-purohit voice.
“You asked me to repeat after him. He spoke like that I swear!” the kid said in his defense as his father reprimanded him for insolence.
“Where are the rest?” I asked T. as another bout of flowers and belpaata began.
“Who? A. and B.? Come on! When have you ever seen them praying?”
“Well, last year, you know.”
“They were in XII grade last year.” He gave me a look that said ‘isn’t that obvious’. “That’s why I am here this year. Else I would have been at home. Sleeping and enjoying my hols. What about you? I always see you in the devotee line. You a fan?”
“Umm…I guess I am one of those flowing-with-the-tide kinda people. And…yes I sort of, am a fan, I guess.” I replied.
Another round of chanting ensued.
“Flowers?” a friend of mine offered me some in the third round.
“Hey! What are you doing here?” I inquired, a little surprised at seeing her otherwise uppity self, delving into the nitty-gritty of the Pujo proceedings.
“Why? Doing some pujo work, what else!”
“I thought you didn’t fast.”
“Well I didn’t. So? You need the spirit, not some bullshit rituals that decide whether you can do pujo work or not,” she said with a self-assured flourish, giving me a paltry amount of flowers sans belpaata (as an answer perhaps to my curiosity) and moving on, with a wave of her hair this way and that.
‘I guess I am one of those who go by the rule book.’ I thought to myself, as I threw the flowers at Maa’s feet with all reverence after the chanting.
The final round of prayers doesn’t require you to pray with flowers. We chanted with a namaste pose; I, all the while, wondering what to pray for after the chanting ends. That little amount of time between the end of pushpanjali and the consumption of charnamrito always had me in a fix. I just didn’t know what to say. I sorely wished I had some more mantras to utter. That space, that silence always made me uncomfortable. It was like I was on a phone call with the Goddess and I didn’t know how to open the conversation.
‘Hello? How are you?’
‘Hello. Thank you for your blessings. I would like it very much if you could get me a nice job with a nice pay. It would be great if I could learn how to cook, how to take decisions and how to not be awkward. I would love it if…’
And the list would continue. And then I would feel guilty that I was asking far too much. But my heart would crave for ways to say that I wanted miracles to occur in my life, that I wanted to be loved like the princess in the fairy tales, that I wanted to find the answers to all the doubts I have ever had, that somehow somewhere I wanted everything to be just perfect, that I wanted to be assured of a utopia, that I wanted to know why we live the way we do- why we think, behave and act the way do, why we were born at all, and most importantly, importune the God to somehow exist. I was always in a terrible fix and my views swung wildly between atheism, agnosticism and theism. I didn’t want to be caught unawares at the end of my life. I wanted to know now. Then I would check myself thinking that I should pray for serious stuff like health, wealth, joy and happiness. Aaannnnnd….TIME OUT!
Charnamrito arrives and the phone call ends. Tada!
You could use these meanings:
Aarti- A part of puja, in which light from wicks soaked in ghee (purified butter) or camphor is offered to one or more deities
Ashtami- Eighth day of the Hindu lunar calendar
Aunjoli- Offering to God with folded hands
Belpaata : Bel or Bael or Bengal quince leaves
Charnamrito- Sweet drink offered after Hindu prayers to break the fast
Dhaaki- people who play drums
Durga- Hindu Goddess
Gainda Phool- marigold flowers
Mahishasur Mardini- Slayer of Mahishasur (a demon) referring to Goddess Durga
Mandap- temple porch/ temporary platform for puja activities
Navami – Ninth day of the Hindu lunar calendar
Pujo- The act of worship
Pushpanjali- offering of flowers to Indian Gods. In Sanskrit, pushpam means “flower” and anjali means “offering with folded hands”.
Sandhi Pujo- A puja performed at the juncture of the 8th and 9th lunar day
Shiv- Hindu God