Yesterday, on the third day of the celebrations, Maha Ashtami, I again visited the venue of the Durga Puja celebrations organized by the Keral Banga Samskriti Sangha. My previous visit (see Durga Puja in Cochin (2012): Prelude) was before the celebrations got under way, but yesterday the event was on in full swing. The decorated idols graced this pandhal in all their grandeur, with a priest in attendance. This priest had traveled from his native Bengal to discharge his duties here. I arrived at 12:30 pm, and lost no time in heading for the food stall, where fluffy poories took shape before my eyes. I devoured no fewer than six of them as appetizers to appease my hunger pangs, made more urgent by foreknowledge of the feast that was to follow.
A rollicking game of Antakshari (see Antakshari) was played before lunch, with teams divided into unmarried men (boys), unmarried women (girls), married women (aunties), and married men (uncles). The uncles, however, declined to participate, citing pressing organizational concerns. The air was full of Bengali; it was as though we were on a little piece of Calcutta transplanted to the Malabar Coast
An organizer now walked up to the Antakshari compere and whispered something in his ear. It didn’t require telepathy for us to divine the delivered message: “Wrap it up, we’re all hungry!” The lids now came off the giant utensils, and the heavenly aroma of the feast in waiting spread throughout the hall.
This is khichdi, the quintessential rice preparation. A volunteer server (a marine engineer whose face fell when I asked him if he didn’t miss Durga Puja most years on account of his nautical profession) in the hall told me as he heaped more khichdi on my plate, “We Bengalis have khichdi when we’re healthy, we have khichdi when we’re sick, we have khichdi to celebrate, we have khichdi when we weep … anytime is khichdi time!”
This lady is part of the team of cooks who have come from Bengal to impart that native Bengali essence to the food. I later met her husband, who is also a cook. They belong to a village near Malda.
Everybody is sitting at the tables, waiting for the food to be served. This is probably the best moment of any feast, the tingling anticipation.
And here it is! I couldn’t remember when I last had an authentic Bengali meal, but all thoughts, historical or gastronomical, were suspended as I entered a delightful gustatory universe and surrendered to the exigencies of that most primal of human acts: eating. This was a feast fit for the gods, and it was so literally, as this was food blessed by the priest after the puja, and so there were consecrated flower petals amidst the food on the plate.
Here are are some bird’s-eye views of the feast in progress.
Upstairs, boys entertained themselves with a game of cricket. Boys will be boys!
And as I regretfully left the venue, I cast a backward glance at Ma Durga, promising myself that I’d be back.