The Mookherjee Clan Celebrates Durga Puja at Kuldiha

As I sat at the coffee outlet in Park Street, I took some time to think about the surroundings where I would be savoring my next evening’s coffee. Kuldiha…. Kuldiha is my maternal granddad’s native village. Though, I feel when all villages are written about, they’d sound verisimilar, Kuldiha is a cut above the rest. The only time I can wrangle out a visit to this idyllic village, is during the Pujas; that too every 6th year.

Actually, my late maternal granddad was the sixth sibling. It was incumbent upon the Mookherjee clan (that’s us) to celebrate the Puja in turns. Hence visiting Kuldiha after a hiatus of six years can be quite a treat. Next morning, on Panchmi, at six in the morning, a crowd of my relatives boarded the Black Diamond Express. I was lost in my own reverie, children around ten making up the majority of the juvenile percentage. I wondered how much of the village had changed. After all six years is long enough for a skyscraper to be built!

After an uneventful journey interrupted by a breakfast of luchi and aloor-dum, we reached Durgapur. From here, the journey has to be covered by car, as the village lay a few miles from its nearest town, Muchipara( literally meaning “colony of the cobblers”). We boarded the white rattle-trap of an Ambassador placed at our service, so kindly by Anil Dadu, one of my granddads staying at Kuldiha. We rushed through the roads of Durgapur and finally reached the smaller, more narrow roads hallmarking Muchipara. The shops lining the streets here were a far cry from the well lighted stores I had seen the evening before on Park street. Concrete buildings now gave way to lush paddy fields where feathery Kaash jostled for space with Shiuli trees. A large lake told us we were to reach Kuldiha soon.

Then concrete roads were replaced with mud. It was a kaacha road, which told us of last night’s downpour in these parts. As the cavalcade of cars splashed their way through shrubbery six feet high and assorted vegetation, veiled heads from windows in thatched huts looked in askance at these intruders. Finally, we were in home stretch, and a minute later the Mookherjee house was seen. Gyanendra Bhavan, my maternal great-granddad’s property looked a house steeped in mysteries, being as old as it was. I stepped out with my single bag, resolving to allow myself the sinfully laid- back life this village had in store. Being Panchami, we didn’t have much on our agenda, though in the evening I had my glimpse of Taal Pukur(Palm Pond) in six years. It hadn’t lost any of the charm, unique as it is, a lake guarded on all sides by sentinel-like towering palm trees. It is rumored that the gamut of fishes found in the Pukur’s waters are fifty generations old! Surprises have just begun. We retired early for the day, after a dinner of steaming rice and tender shorshey iilish. After a good night’s sleep under generator-driven fans, courtesy my enterprising mama, we woke when the cock crowed at a little after six. Since it was our turn at organizing the Puja, our courtyard bustled with activity.

Brewing tea, vegetables being peeled, and rosogollas being made greeted us. A small ante- room on the second floor of the house was covered with about a few quintals of colocassias , meant for the kingly feast on Navami . The night was whiled away with platters of telebhajas and tea, followed by a dinner of fish and rice. But after we had retired, some clandestine rituals went on. Behind a padlocked grille, Mama adorned the hands and feet of the deity with gold amulets and anklets, in tune to sacred hymns chanted by Brahmins We awoke on a sunny Saptami .The Puja daalan (courtyard) was swept clean . We guests from Calcutta trained a wee procession to the local river. A plantain chunk draped in brocade, on a palanquin was being borne by young village lads. At the river, an hour long prayers were chanted by the palanquin bearers and priests alike as the plantain similitude of Goddess Durga was formally enthroned into the folds of the two day long Pujas that were to follow.

The procession headed back to our village where the plantain was intercepted by married women from the year’s organizer troupe, my mother included. And finally fruition of six years of waiting occurred as the doors of the idol room were thrown open. The courtyard, teeming with public finally got their first glimpse of the bejeweled deity. She looked so full of life, with those enigmatic eyes and her truckload of assorted weapons to do away with rampant evil. The Pujas commenced as the plantain in its palanquin was centered in the idol room. We trooped away for our ablutions and breakfast. The morning after was uneventful till the Sacrifice! Yes, Kuldiha is still one of those places where the obsolescent practice of animal sacrifice is still in vogue. I do not watch it. A young goat is bathed, veneered with turmeric& ghee and sacrificed at the Goddess’s altar, amidst war cries of “Joy Maa Kali, Patha Bali.” A last plaintive bleat of the goat is all one hears as the sword begins its deathly downwards arc.

During this gory ordeal, the idol room is filled with several earthen censers bearing smoking dhuno . The Goddess doesn’t like violence, and so, only the severed head is offered. We seem oblivious to all this as mutton procured from the sacrificed goat is cooked in exotic spices and served with steaming rice for lunch. We dig in with much gusto. The sun sets and twilight blooms. The courtyard is chock full of people in fineries. Occasional crackers punctuate the otherwise tranquil night. Grandmothers who have come out under a night sky after months are driven back inside by the sudden loud bangs behind their backs, courtesy their ever mischievous grandchildren. After dinner, a local singer tries to make a difference to the monotony but instead cuts a sorry figure when no one appreciates his bellowing. We turn to our beds. Ashtami is a fine day again. In the morning, we go to this lone trunk call booth beside the Taal Pukur as someone has to make a call. The Pukur looks its best even in the bright morning sunshine.

To breathe in the clean air, to let the pristine scenery captivate its beholders, is pure bliss. I was on cloud nine. Modernity has taken a back seat for all of us now. I wished time would drag to a stop. Today, the sacrifice will be at night. As night falls, I shed my former inhibitions, and along with my younger cousins organize a singing competition of sorts for the young ‘uns. The event goes down real well with our young audience, with us handing out candy to all participants. Night was chosen for the sacrifice as Sandhi Puja which earmarks the gap between Novomi and Ashtami fell at midnight. Only a spotlessly white goat could be sacrificed tonight, which was consummated to a shotgun’s report. The bleat of the animal and the bang made for a weird sample, as if it had been shot at. Mama told us in a very mysterious way we would know the story behind the gun’s firing tomorrow; well, a few hours from now.

The morning after, Novomi, saw us piling into two ATVs bound for some undisclosed location. Where the ATVs were hired from was something which was beyond me. As we sped away from Kuldiha , the driver broke down under our incessant questioning and replied that we were going to Garh Jungle. Those who knew about this place whooped in sheer delight .As the few miles were devoured effortlessly by the SUVs, an incredible tale revealed itself. Garh Jungle was the abode of fearsome dacoits who had made the dense woods their base. Till recently, before these ruthless looters embarked on their journey of plundering, they would offer their obeisance to Goddess Kali, along with ear-splitting shrieks of “Ha re re re!”. This would be to the music of gunfire. The same tradition was still being kept alive dutifully by Kudihans, watched over by the restless spirits of the dacoits!

How lucky we were, not to be accosted by some of these rogues on our way to the jungle. We arrived at the jungle, and were told one more incident which was quite surreal. It seemed, every moonlit night, local residents put out some milk in earthenware which would be lapped up secretly by a cobra and his female partner. These reptiles were likened to Lord Shiva and Parvati, his spouse. We offered our prayers in a very strange temple. This temple was hewn out from the base of a very old and gnarled banyan .Once inside the congested, single room temple housing Goddess Kali, looking up, you could actually see up into the woody banyan trunk itself. Wow! We departed the jungle and its temple. On our way back, we halted at this very old temple surrounded by Hibiscus shrubs, all in full bloom. My God! My heart skipped a beat, as our drivers told us this was where an elderly purohit still lived , who was known to have sacrificed humans for his demonic intentions. After the legend was told, no one really wanted to go along the little path that led away from the temple to the man’s house. Were those the gleam of bones which caught my eye on a few Hibiscus trees? I wasn’t waiting to find out… The sight that met our eyes back home was one full of pandemonium.

The Bhoj was on in full swing. Brahmins and their families sat cross legged on the yards of textile spread on the floor in the courtyard and partook of curried mutton, stewed colocassia, urad daal and rice. Dessert was the Bengali favorite, rosogolla and boondies in syrup. Everyone had their fill and thanked my Mama profusely for his generosity. By four, nearly two thousand people were burping their way to their homes. In the evening, we took a short trip to Durgapur to see the pandals there. Good, but the ambience sans any pandal was better back at Kuldiha. The night dawned into Doshomi .Our hearts were heavy because the unstoppable immersion of the deity was in the pipeline today. We all gathered in the courtyard to pray and everyone’s piety at the moment was almost tangible. The lunch was delectable as everyday, but a pall of gloom overshadowed all, and only the rare impious were aware of how tasty the misti doi was.

At evening, the services of several village were summoned for, to lift the Goddess and her cohorts, Ganesha, Kartique, Lakshmi and Saraswati, now shorn of their jewelry, on their shoulders. Kids swarmed to sit on the pedestal bearing the Goddess all this time, and wished. It was said that the wish of all who sat there soon after the Goddess was airborne was granted! A misleadingly happy crowd followed the Goddess singing and dancing for all it was worth.. I lost a slipper in the mud, but who cared? As the palm trees of Taal Pukur raised their heads in the night sky, we knew the time had come. A ritual of Herculean physical requirements that was, the encircling of the Goddess by Her bearers in waist deep water, was performed. As we all touched our foreheads in reverence, the Goddess bit the murky waters, waiting for her resurrection next year. I was carrying a lifetime’s worth of memories, on my way back home. Six years was a long time from now. God willing, if all is well, I shall revisit the place they call Kuldiha. The train pulled out of Durgapur station. Unknown to anyone, a single drop of tear rolled down my cheek…