Ever had one of those moments when you think you are extremely happy to be in the company of your loved ones, and yet, there is an inherent sadness in the moment, but you can’t understand why? I think I am experiencing one of those moments now.
It’s Mahalaya, the day that marks the end of Pitri Paksha, and heralds the beginning of Navaratri, or for us Bengalis, Durga Puja. And it is an invariable Bengali custom on this morning to listen to a certain recording that was supposedly made way back in the 1930s. It is part Bengali, part Sanskrit, part songs, part recitation and part storytelling.
It tells the story of how the Goddess Durga kills Mahishasur, the demon who took the guise of a buffalo. No bull there! I am now listening to this programme on my computer, but hundreds of thousands of others in my native state of West Bengal are listening to it on radio. It may be just a litany of sorts for some, but to me and these numerous other Bengalis, the connotation is different.
To us, the Goddess Durga, aka Parvati aka Uma aka a hundred other names (literally!) is not actually a goddess, but a girl who lived in Kailash. Her father was Himavan, the personification of the Himalaya mountains. From an early age, Parvati performed tough penance in an effort to become the wife of Lord Shiva, who generally lives a rough life, consuming what-not, accompanied by ghosts, wearing only a tiger-skin to ’protect his modesty’, covered in ashes. After all, he is the greatest of all ascetics, who has renounced all worldly pleasures!
We know that Uma aka Parvati succeeded in getting Lord Shiva to marry him, and therein lies the tragedy of a family that must see its daughter spend the rest of her life with a man who apparently does not take enough care of himself, and therefore gives rise to the question: will he be able to keep the little girl happy?
To outsiders, this might seem like madness. I think I just heard someone out there exasperatedly say out loud, "They are GODS, aren’t they!?" You are missing the whole point! All across the country, we have humanised our Gods. That’s why, when we celebrate Gokulashtami, we treat Lord Krishna as a little child! And this is just one example.
The point here is that Goddess Durga becomes a ghar ki beti the moment she comes down to earth, and she is imagined to be spending a few days at her father’s home during the days of Durga Puja. And then there are the Agomoni songs, which are supposed to have been evolved keeping the season of Sharat (Autumn) in mind. Their common subject is a mother or a father trying to get their daughter, little Uma, to stay a few more days in her parental home before she heads back to her husband’s abode.
Only recently did I listen to quite a few of these songs. The style of singing is typical, but the contents almost moved me to tears. Why? Because I identified with them! And I am sure that every person who has had to stay away from their beloved ones would have identified with them! Heck, even the lyricists of Harry Belafonte’s Jamaica Farewell or Guns n Roses’ November Rain must have identified with them!
The pathos in these songs are reflected on the day of Dashami, which the rest of India celebrates as Dussehra. While they celebrate the victory of Lord Ram over Raavan, we, the Bengalis, bid a tearful adieu to the little married girl who must now go back to her in-laws’, and we are once again faced with the prospect of staying away from our most beloved person!
And this brings me back to the first paragraph of my post. In a matter of just days, I will be going back to Kolkata, where the rest of my family lives. That presents me with the joyful proposition of reuniting with everybody, including my just-over-one-year-old niece, who is the apple of everybody’s eye. She can’t form words now, but she talks to me in her own language over the phone. She knows that others say that I am her Mama or Mamu (maternal uncle), but prefers to call me something like "Mam mam mam mam mam mam." Precious!
So why the sadness? It’s there because I will have eight days to spend there, and I intend to make the most of them. But they are already starting to feel too little! Besides, listening to Mahalaya is a joyous feeling, and I want to share this feeling with her and everybody else, but can’t. And I am already ruing the day I have to come back to this sadness at the end of those eight days!
But till then, I’ll try to be as happy as possible. I’ll try, honest!