After you’ve witnessed many seasons along with the return and passing of holidays, they all seem to blur in the mind. A childhood filled with many Kali Pujas has turned into one massive remembrance for me. There were years I went with my parents to buy fireworks from seasonal stalls that sprung up in front of “stationery” shops in my hometown. There were years clapping in anticipation as we lit the aforementioned fireworks which often fizzled out with more of an acrid smell than a dazzling show of light and sound. There were years of bans on “burimar choklet boma” complete with waxing and waning enforcement of a 65 decibel noise-limit. There were years, we would all get into a car in the evening and travel to Kharagpur to see the massive pandals and puja mandaps that came up – as those with the right information mentioned with their voices lowered –through the patronage of well-to-do residents with very shady dealings. All these years have jumbled together to form an inseparable tangle of what I think of when I recall Kali Puja, except for one year, when I was still in college, which is vivid in my recollection.
Back then we celebrated Kali Puja and the day after, which was nominally called Dipaboli, but in reality just the second day of Kali Puja. Kali Puja was two days, Durga Puja was four, and Saraswati Puja one or at most two, and that was it. We had not heard of Dhanteras, and a five-day long Diwali with Kali Puja as an ancillary component was not the norm. I am talking about a time before the current puja inflation.
I didn’t visit mamabari every year, but that Kali Puja is special because it holds enduring images of boromama and chotomama –my uncles –and is one of the last times that I saw either of them. They chaperoned us, a boisterous bunch of cousins, as we went on a walk that commenced quite late in the evening after the crowds and the commotion had died down. I remember during that walk, boromama did not need a GPS or a map: in his mind he had charted out the perfect path so that we could see all the major mandaps in the town and loop back after a few hours of leisurely walking through neighborhoods, bazaars, and the banks of the canal that passed through Contai. Kali Puja is wonderful for walking in a way that Durga Puja generally is not; typically the temperatures are cooler and the chance of rainfall much lower.
The night was capped off by dinner, which we had at a restaurant very close to mamabari just around their closing hours. We had the entire restaurant to ourselves, so it was a very special. The first course always had to be moghlai porota, and everyone got one of their own regardless of age. After washing down this crispy, yet not overcooked treat with cold drinks, we waited for chili chicken accompanied by fried rice. A word or two about chili chicken is in order; there really is no single recipe for it. The only real requirement for chili chicken is that is contain chicken, sliced green capsicum, and an extremely spicy red sauce made from a combination of soy sauce, vinegar, and potent chili peppers. I have not found it anywhere outside of Indian Chinese cuisine, but it is a staple of Bengali Chinese food where it is consumed with fried rice. There is also one basic rule to ordering fried rice that must be followed: if you order a chicken entrée, you pair it with vegetable or egg fried rice because to order mixed fried rice or chicken fried rice would be to waste money on the extra protein.
So, that night we all sat down to a meal of extremely spicy chili chicken and vegetable fried rice, both of very dubious quality. Of that experience I can say that I certainly have had countless meals that have been better, but to this day, I remember the taste that meal very well. Dining isn’t about the food; it is about the company.
And so it was that year. We had looked forward to it and it had not disappointed.
It has been many years since. Those of us, who were young and unemployed when we went on that walk, now have desk-jobs and potbellies. Some of us are married and have children. But when I think of Kali Puja, I always end up thinking back to special year.
(Also, appeared as a column this week)