Sourish’s Bullet roars through the highway from Udupi to Mangalore, scrumptiously devouring the blue dots on the map that shows another fifteen minutes. When he began his journey he felt like an intruder, trespassing a boundary he had created for himself. That feeling was now replaced with another one, a familiar, boyish excitement which he looked forward to every year with hope. Come what may, the expedition his friends planned for weeks was executed to the letter. It was, after all, a ritual every Culcuttan faithfully performed during the Durga Pujo and to do so otherwise would be shameful to say the least.
They poured on the streets in dozens and got swallowed up by the tsunami of color, light, aroma, and beauty. He remembers how they hopped nonchalantly between elaborately decorated pandals, those complex bamboo structures dressed in cloth, and burnished with glass, jute, thermocol, and other everyday materials, whose attempts at recreating the temples or the simple village life in Bengal or even a hodge-podge of societal issues, albeit in a much smaller scale and scope, were looked upon with much awe and affection. And he remembers how they pushed human bodies for hours just to catch a glimpse of Maa, even though goddess Durga had the same face, the same form, and the same companions every year.
And yet they came, year after year, like reincarnated fireflies.
Durga Pujo in Kolkata was a picnic. Sourish traversed the entire North and South parts of the city on foot.
“Let’s take a bus,” someone would suggest after they had walked for a couple of hours. The braver ones in the group, at least they thought they were, banded together and rebelled, sometimes even belittling the idea.
“Bus! You guys are so weak, like old people with arthritis.” Some of them disagreed and the conflict would finally be resolved through a split. The group thus disbanded until only the faithful ones remained, Sourish being one among them. He went home exhausted, limping, with fresh blisters on his feet, but with a content heart that everything went as planned.
He remembers getting high during one such year. Nineteen and having finished his first year of Engineering from Orissa, he spoke to his school friends about sex and ganja with such ease and experience that it made them jealous. But when he showed them the stuff, rolled neatly into a joint, jealousy vaporized and they walked the streets like old times.
On one of the four days, he went with his Maa to their parar pujo for anjuli. Sourish sat there and offered prayers to the goddess. Maa asked him to make a wish and he complied like a bhalo chele, the quintessential Bengali good boy. What did he ask for? He does not remember anymore. Like every other obedient child, he followed his Maa Baba on their annual trips to – Dakhineshwar, Kalighat, Tarapit, or whichever holy ground they decided to explore next, in buses, trains, or cars.
Something happened to him in his mid-20s. He raised questions like most men his age do, when lying on the bed besides their partner later at night. What is religion? Why do I need it? Why do we need a god? What is his/her function? Such questions boggled him, and his mind plunged into the depths of philosophical discourse from where he had trouble resurfacing. Sourish had heard of Atheism before but it was in California that he became aware of the word, of what it meant. People there viewed god as a concept and often discussed why religion was a farce. Was such a thing possible in India? Sourish often thought and wondered.
His conversion to Atheism was slow and definitely coarse around the edges. At first, he was shocked, but then Julian explained why she was an atheist. It made a lot of sense to him. However, it was riddled with internal discomfort and often led to arguments with his parents, especially with Maa. To see her bhalo chele turn into a rebel was a nightmare.
“Middle-class people cannot afford such luxuries.” Maa would say. “But you need to believe in god,” was her standard response to all of Sourish’s doubts. This need was something he failed to understand. Why was believing in god a need?
“If I lay bleeding on a highway, who is more likely to come to my rescue – your Krishna or a traveler?”
Maa told him the traveler would be god disguised as a human being. He knew the stories, didn’t he? God appeared in the hour of need and helped those who sought intervention. All these doctors, nurses, firemen, and others who magically appeared during a crisis; they are all avatars of god. And at times god tested people to see how strong their faith was. This was perhaps her greatest fear that her son would fail miserably when god tested him. And consequently, his life would be ruined.
Ultimately, Sourish gave up arguing. It was pointless to argue with someone who had been following her faith blindly and was probably oblivious to reason about matters related to god since childhood. Every time they went to their maternal grandparents’ house in Purulia, Sourish observed, at first with reverence and later with contempt, how his mother bowed down in front of her Shib and Gonesh and Maa Kali, clay and mud dolls that had been there for years. The extra piety that she displayed during those moments were not lost on him.
It frustrated him to see Maa show such deep respect towards idols that could be bought for ten rupees at village fairs. It was unbelievable for him because Maa was also part of the same species that had invented space travel, the internet, and discovered inside our cells what made us us.
Sourish’s blasphemy was treated with anger at first and then later with despair. Maa thought it was because of his mobile phone, and all these ‘high-fi’ thinking was simply a result of his ‘over qualification’. After engineering, she wanted him to take up a job in Kolkata. But her son had tasted science and was helplessly addicted to its genesis. He completed his masters from IIT and then pursued a PhD in material science from Cal Tech. When offered the post of a project head in Manipal University, he was in two minds at first but the pay was high and his expenses would be taken care of. Besides, he would leave for his post-doc in two years anyway so a high-paying job was an excellent opportunity to save some extra money.
When Sourish arrived in Manipal, he adjusted to the environment fairly quickly; his experience as a solo boarder in Bombay and California coming in handy. He taught throughout the week, and occasionally on weekends went out either for a drink or on excursions with his colleagues. Most times, he took a solo trip across the vast landscapes and greenery of Karnataka, consuming the exquisite beauty of Coorg, Gokarna and Chikmangalur with bated breath.
Udupi, however, was not Kolkata. He often thought about Maa and Baba back in their Kalighat home, just like his relatives: the mashis, pishis, meshos, kakimas, kakus, and dadus in California, who reminisced about theirs, replaying the best moments, and reliving the lives left thousands of miles behind through stories exchanged in their native tongue, Bangla.
Having grown up in a typical Bengali neighborhood, the idiosyncrasies and cultural distinctness of a Bengali para had become an invariable part of his DNA. How could he then stay away from the sights and the sounds? From the colors and lights? From the chaos and madness? Whenever he heard Bangla, whether in a bar or a restaurant or on the University premises, his head turned automatically. If it was a face he knew, he would approach them with a question: “Apni/Apnara/Tumi/Tomra Bangali?” You are a Bengali? If it was an unfamiliar face, he would try catching their attention, sometimes with a smile or eye contact while walking around the campus. Or sometimes, he would pull out his phone and have an imaginary conversation in Bangla.
But this was during his engineering days and at an age when such theatrics were considered fun and even pardonable. Mumbai, on the other hand, was a hotbed of culture and it wasn’t hard for him to find his own kind. In California, it was even easier. Before stepping foot on American soil, he had already become a member of BASC – Bengali Association of Southern California. It was a much different experience than Kolkata or Mumbai and the Americanized version of Durga pujo amused him. The event lasted for a few hours only and depended largely on the availability of the venue. Famous musicians from popular Bangla bands performed for them. There were no pandal hopping or late-night excursions or the hullabaloo during the immersion of the idol in water. Or the sound of drums and the clang of brass bells roaring through the air. Or the movement of feet moving like ants, following the trail of light, color, or sound. But there was Kakoli pishi and Monoj pishemoshai who took care of the sweets while Prabal da and his family took care of the savory items. There was the idol, a detachable 10-foot structure made from fiber, that had been crafted by the artists at Komortuli exclusively for them. And there was Bangla that flew off the tongues like freed birds.
Sourish was approaching his thirties and at this age it was hard for him to make friends the way he used to. He rarely spoke and hardly showed any interest in group activities and showed friendliness when the other person had the same or greater intellectual capacity than him. In Manipal, he was surrounded by Rao’s, Naidu’s, and even Singh’s but never Chatterjee’s, Sen’s or Basu’s. Soon, loneliness crept in, not the type where one broods, but the type where one feels marooned. And here on this island, Sourish felt a sense of unbelonging, an alienation that was further perpetuated by the occasional culture shock.
It was at rare moments like these that his heart ached for durga pujo. What was the name of that girl he bumped into at Maddox Square? Sreejona…Sanjona…Sriparna…yes, Sreetoma! He was entering the Square and she was leaving. He remembers the day clearly. Wearing a light blue short-kurta, the dernier cri of early 2000s, while she was in a mauve saree. Sourish held Sreetoma by her shoulders as she tumbled on top of him, in true Bollywood style, and was instantly reeled into those big kohl-lashed eyes that curved at the ends. He had seen her turn around and then later met her near the phuchka counter, both unable to hide the blush in their cheeks as they gorged on the hollow crisp puri filled with mashed potatoes, chilies, onions, chickpeas, coriander, and generous amounts of tamarind water. His friends teased him for months and Sourish enjoyed it, secretly wishing for another Durga Pujo like that, another serendipitous meeting, maybe at some café, or the street, or in a bus. Just one more glimpse.
But Sourish’s wish never came true, and gradually, Sreetoma faded away from memory.
The entrance to MANGALORE BENGALI ASSOCIATION, printed in white on a blue background, is decorated with a cornucopia of yellow and orange marigolds. On one end of the hall there is a stage where the goddess stands in her fierce form with her troupe. On her feet lie the remnants of a pujo – flowers, leaves, sweets, lamp, oil, burnt matchstick, and an empty ashon where the priest sat. The decorations lacked the pompousness and the simple classiness Sourish has seen in Kolkata and California. The walls are covered with a tacky, dual coloured – pink and sky blue – cloth that runs from floor to ceiling. There are plastic chairs scattered around haphazardly where people sit, some in groups, some alone, some with families. A group of middle-aged women talk animatedly, each one impatiently waiting for their turn. Three drummers sit at the edge of the stage and talk inaudibly amongst themselves, their drums and brass bells lying idly on the floor.
Sourish checks his watch. It is 12. Apart from the cursory glance, no one looks at him. He wipes the sweat of his brow and adjusts the white kurta which is now crumpled. He starts clicking pictures. It was Trina’s order to do so. Sourish forwards some of them and almost instantly, his phone starts ringing.
“Hey, are you in the lab?”
“Nope. Taking a break. Protimata ta khub sundor baniyeche.” The idol is pretty.
“Pronam korbi kintu.” Do make sure you fold your palms.
“Han…thik ache.” Yes…all right.
“Chal rakhlam.” Okay, I am disconnecting the call. Sourish pulls on a plastic chair and sits close to one of the two long stand fans. The blasting air provides some respite from the heat. He can now feel the coolness in his armpits and the back of his neck and adjusts his hair. Over the sound of the large whirring blades, some of the conversion from the enthusiastic women drifts in. Some boy had run away with some girl. The girl was Muslim and was initially rejected by the family. But later they gave in and now the couple has come home.
Sourish smiles. Runaway love stories were the best gossip. He wonders how his mother would react if he did the same thing.
“Is she a Brahmin?” was the first question she had asked after learning about his affair with Trina and was fairly disappointed upon knowing she belonged to nichu jaat, a lower caste. It was one of the many reasons why Sourish feels such contempt towards religion.
Sourish stands up and walks up to the idol. He had stopped folding hands a long time ago. Despite Trina’s feverish attempts, Sourish avoided being in places where he was supposed to show fake reverence. But the look on her face – the mounting anger, the flared nostrils, and the eyes…big, kohl-lashed, and curved at the end – always took him back to when they met in Kolkata during another pujo from another time.
Shouvik Banerjee started out as a science student and has a master’s degree in Biomedical Genetics. But after a string of career failures and consequent depression, he quit his PhD to pursue a career in freelance writing. He is the author of Seven Sundays (Hay House India, 2019) and also indulges in poetry and short stories. He can be discovered at www.shouvikbanerjee.com.