Navami — The Last Day of Durga Puja – Then Dashami

Navami, the last day of Durga Puja, is a day of prasad, food that has been given to the Gods for their blessings, and then returned to be eaten.  On this morning, two groups came bearing prasad for us.  We had already begun cooking for the day, but there was also enough prasad so we really didn’t have to.  To the children, all this had some familiarity.  To Gibi, it’s "of course."  I am forever trying to catch up!

One of young women who came on Astami is in Montessori training.  She had stayed to teach for two hours, and came again on Navami.  She called first to see if we remembered she was coming.  The children were already upstairs in the classroom waiting for her, going through their alphabet drills until she arrived.  Towards the end of the class I joined in and we did "opposites."  We walked in opposite directions.  I drew "same same" buildings and then opposite sized.  We had night and day, sun and rain, boy and girl, elephant and mouse, laughing and crying, quiet and noisy.  Of course, it’s not really all that simple, but good enough for now.

For us, it was really just a lazy day at home.  No one was ever naughty enough for punishment.  They even kept the TV at reasonable sound level.  Boro bacchas and choto bacchas spent a lot of time together.

I write all this on Dashami, the day of Durga’s sad farewell.  Today the processions to the water are to begin.  But if you go out to the pandals this evening, you will rarely see this happening.  Like clinging children, we hang onto Durga, the mother goddess, begging her not to go, and canceling her mode of transportation.  What can she do if her lorry does not show up?  Her gorgeously painted and decorated clay form cannot walk the distance to the Ganges.  So she stays, and stays, sometimes until a city ordinance is passed that she must go to the river.  As children we do not easily let our mothers leave us, and as mothers we linger with our children for as long as we are able.

Astami — The Worship of Little Girls as Mother Goddess

Astami, this day of worship of little girls as mother goddess.  I didn’t know this.  I’d lost the day before fighting with the Government.   We are close to some of the neighbors at Gibi’s flat, as my room there was home for me when I was in India.  So some of the neighbors have followed our work, and the creation of Shishur Sevay.  Now they come with gifts and praise for the children.   So the evening before, these friends had called to ask if they could bring breakfast for all the girls, which of course I said yes to.  I imagined one of them stopping by with some breakfast treats.  Had I known this was a day of worship of little girls, I would have dressed them up.  I am not only an anxious mother, but a self-critical one too.

At nine in the morning they arrived, the whole extended family, with shopping bags of food, utensils, and a special plate with elements of worship.  It was beautiful.  They tied a red string around each girl’s wrist, and put vermilion powder on their foreheads (mine too).  The food preparation began and we set up in the classroom to eat, bringing choto bacchas upstairs too.   Really, this was how I’d imagined it would be.  In class the children are learning the meaning of "opposites."  This morning was the opposite of their socially isolated and acultural lives in the institution.

It was a quiet home day for the children.  Gibi and her children were with them for the day.  I went hunting for a courier, and then came back to sleep.

Another evening of pandal strolling…. this time our first stop being the pandal close to our home.  The local "clubs" get together to build pandals.  They solicit contributions door-to-door.  So this year, as they came for donations, I reminded them we were an orphanage, and asked, "And what will you do for our children?  We are in your community?"  The response was really lovely.  One club put up a big banner with our name and address, in Bengali, as I’d requested.  Another club took our Annual Report and put it on poster board just outside the entrance of the pandal.  So, on Astami evening, the children posed in front of the poster with their pictures, and again under the banner with our name.  Some local club leaders joined us for pictures too.  It was so good for all of us.  Then we made rounds of other pandals.  Along the way we met one of our teachers, also out for the evening.  The children called out, "Auntie, Auntie," and crowded around her.  We are a familiar sight, the community is familiar to us.  With the local leaders we mention our troubles with the Government.  They assure us we are safe, that no one will come to disturb us.  The community now feels blessed to have us with them.  They feel chosen.

Saptami — The First Day of Puja

Durga, having arrived the evening before, rises early for her bath.  Her day is spent in rituals of worship of nine plants that represent the Gods who gave their combined strength to Durga in her fight against the demons.

Gibi brought the girls to her home for this day, a special day of celebration.  They dressed in their fine clothes and spent the day with her family.  Her daughter is Didi (big sister) to them, and her son is Bai (brother).  They are with us often when their school is closed or they are not studying.  And I am really grandmother to them.  This is especially important if they are not studying, when a simple call from me will send them immediately back to their books!  Having the girls there is a matter of pride for their family, including their extended family.

I was high on our pandal stroll the evening before, ready to blog about it all.  I had planned a quiet day, and time with the choto bacchas.  The logistics of taking them there for the day were just too difficult, and I had some special ideas I wanted to try out, working on motor and cognitive skills.  Gibi came by early though, to tell me about a phone call she had received that morning from someone "in the know."  After that, I can only describe the day as "lost."  I worked at the computer, wrote and re-wrote documents, letters.  I stopped long enough to visit the girls and Gibi’s family for lunch.  In the evening Gibi and Bijoy took the girls for their pandal walk.  I had managed to twist my back while washing a diaper in the morning – one more added stress — or probably one more result of stress.  But I completed my work, and located a 24 hour courier service for the next morning.

We are getting wonderful offers of support from many areas, but it’s just not clear what will be most helpful.   I will write more about that as it gets clearer.

The girls came home from the day at Gibi’s and pandal strolling, waving new balloons, eating popcorn, and as usual, went first to choto bacchas to give them balloons and share their treats.  I went over all the documents with Gibi, as I always do, and we agreed I’d get them off to the courier in the morning.  We worry and laugh at the same time about all this, the trickery, the lies, the convoluted stories.  It’s all about money and power — who will control me.  This is really a stupid fight because those close to me would tell you that this is not a do-able task, or at least it hasn’t happened yet.  I am very stubborn.

Gibi and I also celebrate, every day, that in spite of the fights going on, we have the children.  They grow, they learn, they thrive, and in that way, so do we.

The Durga Puja

We are in the midst of Durga Puja, the most celebrated holiday in this region of India.  Durga is the "mother goddess" who went into battle to slay the demons who threatened the very existence of the Gods.  She comes to earth for three days each year to visit her parents and to be with us.  After three days she is taken in a long and tearful procession to the Ganges.  She is immersed in the water and returns to the Heavens again.  She is loved and worshiped here in Kolkata, as is her fiercest manifestation, Kali.  Kali Puja will come soon.

But here in Kolkata, "the Pujas" are also secular, in that the entire city, and environs, celebrates, across religions.  Huge pandals are built, temporary temples to the Gods, built of bamboo laced together and covered with thin cloth… Lights shine through the thin cloth so the pandals are illuminated and glow against the dark night. 

This is the major time of gift giving, primarily clothes, so for days before, people begin wearing their new outfits. Thanks to Gibi, we did our Puja shopping early, which I teased her about then, but was very grateful for later.  We knew the girls would be getting clothing from others.  Gibi bought each girl a brass plate, which we have used for our big meals over Puja.  The girls truly love these plates, probably the first things they have ever "owned".  And of course for girls, such possessions evoke the dreams of having households of their own. 

For Durga Puja, offices are closed; the government is closed — which is why I was unprepared for another round of having to defend myself.  So, for me the first day of Durga Puja was spent preparing documents, letters, thinking through strategies, but having a slightly clearer picture of how the battle is looming.  The following morning I found the only courier service open in Kolkata and sent out the documents to people who will probably not read them until next week.  It doesn’t matter.  I have the courier receipts proving that I sent them. Then I took a long nap.

But back to Puja, our Puja — the evening before the beginning of Puja we dressed up all the girls in their new clothes and walked through the neighborhood visiting pandals.  People smile at us, lift their hands to their foreheads in the greeting, "Namaskar" and I do so in return.  Even in Puja time there are strict social rules about who says hello and who does not, based on caste and class, often reflected in dress style.  Women do not greet or respond back to men they do not know. But as a foreigner, as an older white lady, and as a generally friendly person, I am free to say hello to everyone.  This works well, as it also frees the others to follow the rules, while we still present a friendly face to the community.

That evening we were four adults and nine children — ten really, but Ganga was tucked into a sling I wore.  Gibi led the group; a visitor took the middle, and Bijoy brought up the back.  I roamed back and forth — ever the anxious mother.

Off the regular path, down a short street, we saw a lit up pandal. A priest was burning leaves in front of Durga.  This was a family pandal, set up only every six years.  We said our hellos and started to leave.  But then a young woman called out from inside the house.  She recognized Ganga and me.  She is a teacher at the Indian Institute for Cerebral Palsy, where we take the choto baccha, and where they will start school in May.  Then we were all offered sweets. The girls were thrilled to meet a teacher from the choto bacchas’ school.  She will visit our Home one day. This is our community.

Gibi deftly guided us then to her favorite pandal, which for Puja is in the midst of a small amusement park set up for the celebrations.  This was all unexpected for me.  We paid tribute to Durga, and then looked around.  Our girls stared at the rides but did not ask.  They watched intently as I pretended to ask Gibi what we should do, as if it were a real question! Then we headed for the rides.  I

We saw first a tame looking roller coaster, without ups and downs, just round and round on flat tracks.  As this was really the night before Puja began, lines were minimal, and soon we were all seated in the line of cars.  After I was seated, an attendant signaled to me that Ganga couldn’t go on the ride.  "Baccha na!" he said.  I yelled back, "She isn’t a baby.  She is five years old!"  I’m not sure he even understood, but he wasn’t arguing with me, and the ride began.  Well, the ride started, and quickly I realized it didn’t feel as tame as it looked.  Each time we turned a curve I was sure the car would go off the tracks and we would tumble to the ground.  I kept thinking I was so sorry I’d put us on this ride, so sorry for Ganga — who, like the others, was grinning away, delighted with every turn.  I really am an anxious mother.

We went on two other rides, one a merry go round, and another nondescript ride we took because I accidentally bought the wrong tickets and they wouldn’t take them back.  It was all good; the rides were all good.  The girls were all good.  We hit the junk food, which was also good, and we headed home.

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October 2007
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