Waking up to the sweet scent of autumn in the air, the chanting and devotional songs in respect of Mother Durga playing softly on the playground of my locality and the happiness of the entire family getting together for the meal after the Puja (worship), some of my happiest childhood memories are linked to this day every year, the Ashtami (eighth day) of Durga Puja (worship of Mother Durga).
For my friends across the world, Mother Durga is the Goddess of Shakti or strength. I know it is incredible for a lot of you to believe that we worship a woman as an embodiment of strength, especially when you come across the terrible news of how women are sometimes treated in this part of the world, but it is true. She has ten hands with different weapons in each one and is the destroyer and slayer of the very evil Asura. Every year she bids farewell to her husband, Shiva and her heavenly abode to visit her children on earth (that is, us) accompanied by her real children. Though the premise is a religious one, Durga Puja in Bengal and in fact all over the world where there are Bengalis, has surpassed the religious realm and has become a celebration of fashion, the Bengali culture and most importantly, Bengali food. People belonging to all religions, caste and creed take part in this wonderful celebration which is the celebration of life itself.
Ashtami, the eighth day of this wonderful celebration, is the day when the main worship happens. All of us do not drink water or have any food till we take part in the ritual chanting (Pushpanjali) in the morning. As a kid, my siblings, my cousins and me used to wake up early on the morning of Ashtami, take a bath, and donning new clothes, we would rush to the pandals (temporary place of worship built every year) to offer our prayers and take part in the chanting. Ravenous after all the efforts of worship, we used to race back to our home and the fragrance of the food prepared by my mother would welcome us.
Every year the menu was the same. Actually, it still is. On Ashtami, we are supposed to have only vegetarian food. So, it would have to be “Khichdi” (a mixture of rice and lentils cooked with generous amounts of spices), fries of different vegetables and” labra” (a curry cooked with different vegetables like pumpkin, potato and lots of spices). As the eldest among my siblings and cousins, it was my duty to set the plates on the table. We used to wait with the plates and glasses all arranged and Mom, Pisimoni (aunt) and Thammi (Grandmother) used to bring out the steaming bowls of “khichdi”, “labra”, the “Beguni” (brinjal fries) and “aloo bhaja”(potato fries). As soon as the khichdi was put on my plates, I used to put generous amounts of butter on top and watch as the butter melted and seeped into the entire food. And then, I used to take a spoonful and relish as it spread warmth in my mouth, stomach and entire body. Oh, it was heavenly. Actually, the warmth is quite literal since there were times when I used to burn my mouth by eating the hot food, against the advice of Mom. When you have such food in front of you, how can you wait for such a mundane thing like cooling it down?
After that there was the “chatni” (literally meaning relish, a sweet and sticky flavorful dish). Chatnis can be made of many things but my Mom used to make her special one with “khejur” (dates) and “aam sotto” (dried mango). It was finger-licking good. Oh did I forget to mention that we mostly use our hands and not spoons to eat the traditional home-made food here in India?
And at the very end, there was the dessert. There were warm “rasgullas” (balls made of Indian cotton cheese and dough dipped in sugary syrup). The rasgullas used to be soft like sponge and just melted in the mouth.
This menu is actually quite simple when you compare it to other Bengali festive meals, especially considering there is no non-vegetarian items involved like “maach” (fish) or “mangsho”(chicken). But, this meal is my most favorite because somehow nothing tastes better than the Ashtami “khichdi”. Maybe it was because of the company of all my siblings and cousins at the table, maybe it was the fact that we used to have the food after a long time of restraining ourselves from having any food or water, maybe it was the festive air with the songs that were playing at the local “pandal” drifting in through the windows or maybe it was the food itself cooked with so much love by my Mom. I am really not sure what made it so special but I suspect it was a little bit of everything.
And even today when I try to remember my favorite meal, I can visualize and smell those fragrant steaming dishes of food amidst the friendly teasing and bickering of my siblings. And I cannot wait for the next Durga Puja when I get to enjoy the same meal again. Cheers!!