It’s Mahalaya today, which means it’s Bengali party time, aka Durga Puja. The official reasoning is that we’re thrilled that the goddess Durga will be in our midst, albeit in the form of a usually gaudily-attired clay idol. Durga being the saviour created by the gods when there was some unholy bloodshed on earth, who came down and saved the day by killing the Buffalo Demon, chief among the mayhem makers. Somewhere along the way, this Durga turned into an avatar of Parvati, daughter of the Himalayas and wife of Shiva. (If you really want to confuse matters, then consider this: another story says the Himalayas are the dreadlocks of Shiva. So the dreadlocks become mountains, which get personified as some chap who is not Shiva but whose daughter Shiva marries. These gods of ours, I tell you…)
The days of the Durga Puja are partly a celebration of the defeat of the Bad Buffalo Dude but also general jubilation that Durga is coming home for an annual holiday with her and Shiva’s kids (Lakshmi, Saraswati, Ganesh and Kartik). This is why we get all excited, buy new clothes and generally go marginally cuckoo. Mahalaya is the beginning of this general elation.
Quite frankly, I’ve never noticed Mahalaya in all the years that I’ve lived away from my parents. With my usual curmudgeonly ness, I dislike Durga Puja. It was vaguely fun when I was kid. But even at the height of my enthusiasm for the festival, Mahalaya never mattered much to me personally. At my parents’ place, though, you cannot miss Mahalaya because my father has a ritual for this day. This is not unusual. My father has rituals for many days. On October 2, Mahatma Gandhi’s birthday, my father will raise a glass of whisky to the man who preferred goat’s milk to alcohol. Kali Puja means spicy mutton for dinner and before dinner, at least two generous pegs of the best whisky he has. Because one drink is for enemies and my father is nothing if not respectful. On my birthday, he will get me a book and we generally open up a bottle of wine (could be real wine or, if we’re feeling properly nostalgic, Goa’s port wine, which is less wine and more syrupy rubbing alcohol). Yes, most of my father’s rituals tend to involve alcohol. Not on Mahalaya, however.
Back in 1932, All India Radio began broadcasting “Mahisasuramardini”, a programme that basically told the story of Durga’s creation and descent to Earth to kill the Buffalo Demon. “Mahisasuramardini” literally translates to “She Who Killed the Buffalo Demon”. The programme is a mix of scripture, devotional songs and some narration. For years, Birendra Krishna Bhadra (he did the spoken word bits) and his gang would come to All India Radio’s studios at twilight and at 4am, a live broadcast of “Mahisasuramardini” would begin. Then with advances in age and technology, the program was recorded and played at 4am on Mahalaya every year. This is my father’s ritual: listening to “Mahisasuramardini” on Mahalaya. The good news is that even though All India Radio still airs it, my father has a CD of the programme so the damned programme doesn’t blare at 4am. But by 6am, there is no holding him back. Which is why, my outstanding memory of Mahalaya, is leaping out of bed at the bleddy crack of dawn because booming out of the prized Bose sound system, was Birendra Krishna Bhadra’s voice saying the word “Mahamaya” (one of Durga’s names).
If someone had told me that around 30 years later, I’d play “Mahisasuramardini” voluntarily, without any coercion or cajoling from anyone, I’d have stuck my tongue out and thrown a pillow at them. But this morning, I was up at 5.45am, moaning with stomach cramps, contemplating a hysterectomy, trying to distract myself with the internet which informed me it was Mahalaya. And so, at 6am, Birendra Krishna Bhadra’s voice filled my little room and I listened to the story of how Mahamaya was created and how the warrior goddess came to earth and fought that terrible battle and how the worlds rejoiced when she won. It’s really not a brilliant programme by any stretch of imagination, but there I was, listening and mouthing the lines that I remembered while recalling the silly little things that made Durga Puja so much fun as a kid — new clothes, doing little sketches for little expat Bengali community that would gather on those days, eating the food that was made at the Puja, the percussion that accompanied the prayers, writing little “Shubho Bijoya” cards at the end of Durga Puja to send to close relatives back home. As the programme came to a close, it suddenly felt critical that I wear something that’s newish, if not new. That’s another ritual that my dad loves about Durga Puja, new clothes.
So here I am, Birendra Krishna Bhadra humming in my head and on my person, a newish shirt.
Speaking of clothes, we’ve just shifted offices. (I realise the two parts of that sentence don’t seem to be connected but patience, dear reader. They do, in fact, have something to do with one another.) Everyone’s been anxious and excited about this move. The old office had its problems. The floor felt like a particularly potholed road that had a carpet placed on it to hide the crateriness. The airconditioner didn’t work. The bathrooms had the smell of old socks. But it was spacious and there was a smoking area right outside. None of that in the new office. The floors are smooth. The airconditioner works. The bathroom smells of air freshener. I’m going to have to lose weight to fit my desk space (I use the term “space” loosely). To smoke, we have to, like Elvis, leave the building. Not one of the above is responsible for making me yelp when I found my assigned desk on Saturday.
Ostensibly, it looked fine. A desk. Two drawers on the side. I opened one drawer. It was dusty and a screw lolled around like a drunk homeless person. I opened the next drawer. There was a pair of jeans in there. I look around. There were colleagues all around me and thankfully, all of them had their pants on. One non-colleague chap caught my eye because was fitting drawers at a nearby desk. Just as I was about to call him, he rose to his full height of 5 feet nothing and came up to me, twirling a key.
“Key,” he said. “For your drawers.”
“There’s a pair of pants in here.”
Carefully, using the tip of my shoe, I opened the drawer to present Exhibit A: A Used Pair of Jeans, light blue in colour, well-worn, some suspected splotches of white paint and some fraying at visible edges.
“That’s not mine,” the gentleman informed me.
“Well, it’s not mine either,” I informed him.
I shrugged back.
“Key,” he said.
“I don’t want the key. I’m not going to have some strange person’s pants getting in my drawers.”
“Well, I can’t take the pants.”
“Well, so long as the pants are there, I can’t take the key.”
The pants were in the drawer when I left work on Saturday but I’m assured that they will not be there when I get there today. However, the lolling screw and the general dust will. Which is why, along with my wallet, I’m carrying a disinfectant, a cleaning fluid and a dusting cloth to work. Graduate school, nearly a decade of work experience and what’s on the top of my to-do list this Monday — which, incidentally is also day the warrior goddess Durga comes riding into town and the first day of my period—: Scrub my desk and pant-less drawers clean.
My mother, who is a neat freak and makes hospital corners when she makes the bed, would probably be proud.