As a Bengali, the five days of Durga Pujo come with a potpourri of extensive planning, an uncontrolled food frenzy, last minute plans and an inevitable loss of record of what day it is. However, the festival is never complete without the maddening call of the dhak. Pujo days start and end with the invigorating beats – the sound floats in from a distance, assuring you that it’s really that time of year. The ear-numbing ecstasy can make you shamelessly break into a jig, irrespective of your age, in front of the community.
I knew things were gearing up to be different this year, but waking up to the faint sound of a conch without the beats of the dhak hit differently.
Our dhaki has been associated with our local pujo for about 15 years. He hails from a small village in Bankura district and his arrival with a small team of young companions two days before the festivities always acted as a clarion call to abandon textbooks and heave a sigh of inexplicable relief. It is not just comfort, dhak er taal (the rhythm of the dhak) comes with assurance and flavour. The intoxication of the sound is divinely related to days of silence, and the erasure of days of work and worry.
It has been two days now. The speaker is trying its best to relay a recorded track. Everything seems a lot bleaker without our dhaki around. In accordance with necessary safety protocols, the pujo was planned on a very homely scale. But without the euphoric rhythm, pujo seemed abnormally alien.
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As I walked around aimlessly trying to glean some meaning out of this new dynamic, the subtle therapeutic aroma of marinated mutton floated in from the kitchen. The ‘the kochi pnaatha’r (tender mutton) jhol’ has always been the champion of dishes. From heated Sunday household debates to other important events, the most anticipated element to a middle class Bengali weekend has always been there as a centrepiece.
For any Bari’r pujo, the dhak, the arrangements and the hectic kitchen always precede the other integral aspects for some. The dhak provides the very essential symphony to the formalities and the ceremonies, and acts as a bonding factor during this time of togetherness. The dance, the frenzy and sundry attempts to relive more youthful days makes it an ageless festivity.
However, the hectic, noisy kitchen is another interesting and necessary part of pujo. It’s often chaotic considering the range of planned courses, unique to each day. The is furious vegetable chopping, numerous cans of oil and ghee, the whistle of numerous pressure cookers, the sound of the knives hitting plates and younger ones darting in and out in an attempt to steal some snacks. And then there is the table which is laden with food, a picture of which we take every year.
Bari’r Pujo is hardly pujo without a noisy kitchen. The kitchen looked the same somehow this year, if only less chaotic.
But this time, the aroma brought a sense of excitement and familiar comfort. On getting a glimpse, it was assuring to see the familiar pile of potatoes flanking the delightfully marinated mutton, and the oil and spices crackling. And, of course, my parents occupied with their individual roles, often breaking into childish squabbles over perfection to aid a consistent camaraderie.
This suddenly felt more like pujo.
After a noisy episode punctuated with the sound laughs and shrieks coming from the kitchen, the disturbed silence seemed a bit more familiar now. This particularly Bengali dish has united generations through a continuous streak of shared satisfaction. The tender aloo has made its way into the cosiest corners of Bengali sentimentality with the film of fat laminating the entire rich surface of the jhol. It’s a sight. Separating this particular dish from the element of divinity is a cardinal sin no self-respecting meat loving Bengali would consciously fall for.
The loudspeaker continued to shuttle between retro pujo specials and the sad pre-recorded dhak track. It was almost lunch time. The silence was now flavoured with deep anticipation across the table. As my father emerged from the kitchen holding the lightly covered pot, exhausted, but with a tremendous smile of satisfaction, the deep longing to hear the dhak abated for a while.
Removing the lid, as we helped ourselves and watched the fat seamlessly trickle over the rice on our plates, pujo seemed a lot more intimate and temporal. Maybe temporal isn’t always bad.
Pujo started off on a weirdly personal and calmer note. Although not very grand, I’ll always remember how the noisy kitchen and the curious case of the Bengali mutton saved a pujo without a dhaki – if only for an hour or so – alongside some laughs, squabbles and comfortable pauses to soak in a slice of homely delight.
Agnidev Banerjee is an undergrad student studying English Literature at St. Xavier’s College, Kolkata. He is interested in music, film, sports and inertia.
Featured image credit: Reuters/Rupak De Chowdhuri