Esha su chandana gandha pushpa billo patranjali, ong r’hing Durgaoi namoh. It was Maha Ashtami, the most sacred day of the Durga Puja. We were crowded around the deity, and her four children, at the local puja pandal. The pundit stood at one side, chanting mantras over a mike. His assistants buzzed around, focusing on their pre-assigned duties. Our mothers bunched around the purohit, many of them helping with the distribution and collection of the flowers and leaves that were needed for the pushpanjali, or the offering of flowers to the goddess. Even with their eyes closed and their minds supposedly focused on the Goddess, they were aware of everything that went on around them. Any child trying to edge away was immediately dragged back; those ‘hurling’ their flowers up at the Goddess instead of putting them in the community basket which the pundits would then upturn at the Devi’s feet would find their hands suddenly stilled in mid-throw. The few fathers, who had managed to take the day off from work, stood at the back, chatting and joking among themselves. We teenagers formed the middle row, too cool now to push ahead or to compete for the spot closest to the deity.
We couldn’t wait to finish and get hold of the prasad. Now that we were older, our mothers wouldn’t let us eat till after the pushpanjali, and we were starving. Every now and then, one of our stomachs let out a growl. The mothers glared, the fathers laughed. “It will be over soon. Patience,” they chuckled.
It wasn’t just the eating that we looked forward to; it was also the chatting and joshing with people we met only at the pandal every year. There were mild romances that blossomed over the five days of Durga Puja, enjoyed as much by the couples concerned as the people who watched their every move. It was innocent fun, involving stolen glances, some handholding and clumsy compliments from the boys. The affairs were brought to their annual standstill with the bhashan, or the immersion on the final day of the Puja.
It had been a long monsoon that year, and everyone feared that it would be a wet Puja. As a child, I’d heard a story about the rains from my grandmother, and had been fascinated by thunder and lightning ever since. As per the legend, when the second half of the year came around, Durga began preparations to come ‘home’ with her kids. But her husband, Shiva, refused to let her go. She would try and coax him, flashing a smile (cue lightning) and saying “So, may I go home now?” ‘No,” he would thunder. She’d try a few more smiles, but all would elicit a thunderous response, and finally she would just end up crying. This squabbling, ending in the shedding of tears, or rain, would go on for months, till finally Shiva relented. And Durga arrived on earth.
This year, the tears had clearly carried on till the nth hour. But now that both had run their course and Ma Durga was here, the celebrations were in full swing. As I finished the anjali, and moved to the bhog counter, I looked for my mother.
I had a question for her: if it started raining during the Puja, were those lonely Shiva’s tears? And did a cyclone indicate a wild rage?