The mother joins the family, the mother binds and the mother protects the family. These days, I see the last embers of the warmth of a joint family, a large gathering of siblings, relatives, children and teenagers all hooked to some thread or other of a common family identity.
With nuclear families being the norm and the older generations literally shrivelling, would there be any more homecomings during Puja in Cuttack? Very few reach out to their roots, get into unalloyed festivities. Otherwise, our own little migrant units and Odia-alien children are far away from our culture. The children have drifted because we have distanced. The mother beckons, calls out to meet her children during Puja. Where do we have the time to listen to her, to talk to her and to rush to her. Probably a vacation to a hill station would have more FB value. The same pictures, the same pout in selfies and the same ‘awesomes’. We have been washed away to different shores. I open the window and still watch our courtyard.
Till Dashami, it is wanton gossip, meaningless banter, non-stop paan eating (even in front of elders), sub-conscious nostalgia of early life romance, school and college life, teenage embarrassments and unending nagging of parents, beyond any parochialism or ego couch. Simple human relations during the ten days of the Devi’s mortal presence amongst all of us. Cuttack turns a commune. A commune that has no class, cash or caste barriers.
Durga Puja ushers in the best season of the year – the onset of winter, upward revision of family budgets to accommodate the onslaught of continuous celebrations. Everyone in the city knows everyone, a bit nosy but that’s very caring too. Somebody cares for the son and his family who have come from Mumbai to spend time with his parents and siblings. The day starts late, as is always in Cuttack.
A careless, accidental look at the clock, amidst numerous cups, glasses of tea would push him to get ready for his friends. The gang arrives around noon, drags him out of the house while his wife is still busy with the womenfolk, completely lost in the politics of home care. The children are lost.
Probably they were spotted last at the rooftop of the neighbour trying to locate a pigeon or a kite depending on the wind flow of the day. Parents are sitting in the front room, doing nothing, looking at everyone passing by them, blank look of satiation with children and grandchildren prancing around them. They can’t ask for more. They have never asked for more. What can the poor children give them? The Gods want their children just to be around them.
Sitting at one place, they would be still worried about the menu for the day. Special mutton, from a specific shop, at a designated bazaar is the style of Cuttack. A living city. In spite of all-round corruption, the city has not lost its soul. An undying grit to breathe life. When he comes back from the company of his childhood buddies, he finds all in the family including the parents waiting for him to have lunch. How his family makes him feel so wanted? So cared for? Isn’t this what a family is all about? Otherwise, the concrete jungle is better. Many of his friends are paan shop owners, mechanics but how does that matter?
A discussion with them without flaunting knowledge-led “intellectualism” is what I call root. A root can’t be cloaked in false decorations. So naïve that they are your last refuge. “Home’s where you go when you run out of homes.” After a good, long session of gossip, mimicry and nothingness in the post-lunch afternoon, tea is ready.
Odia homes never run out of the cycle of food. One after the other, constant culinary exploration is a delight. Thinking about the next course of meal, snacks and making them is the only constant. After tea and when the parents are up from their afternoon siesta, there is a chat session with parents. The wide-eyed admiration for his exploits in some faraway city, sometimes embarrasses him also. He realises suddenly the power of guileless admiration and unconditional fan following.
They believe in everything and that overwhelms him. He can’t think of pulling out his latest smartphone or his tablet to show off or to do any email check. You feel so small doing this in front of your creators. He feels like sitting there, timeless under their feet, listening to their idiosyncrasies and accepting the growing weakness of his source of strength. He has now, after all these years, understood his identity under the sky. Know yourself, he tells himself always. When evening sets in, parents ask him to go out with his family and friends and enjoy the city. They are so proud of their habitation. He doesn’t give them examples of the city where he lives, how the roads are so good, how there are no flies or open drains. He can still cite those examples but is that his city, will it be ever his city. How futile? Evening time is hopping from one medha (pandal) to the other.
This year, there are about 150 plus puja pandals in Cuttack but no crowd. He can’t possibly see all of them but he would try to cover as many as possible, with COVID restrictions. The virus has killed the Cuttack Puja spirit. The preference of medha visits differ. This year, smartphones have created a lot of difference. Instead of looking at the medhas, or the people, the youngsters are only clicking selfies. How selfish are selfies? Every medha comes with accessories – a small mela surrounded by eateries around the area near the medha. At a distance, there would be space for a melody party later in the evening. But where is Akshaya Mohanty? The heart skips a beat in sheer ecstasy to see Akshaya Mohanty on the stage wearing a silk lungi and mischievously rendering the latest Puja release with a twinkle in his eyes and a swagger and oozing self-confidence. So much Cuttackia, so quintessential.
Puja release was a trend, a money-spinner and an opportunity to try out innovations in modern numbers, without the confinement of a film plot and the restrictions thereof. Akshaya Mohanty is no more; the eateries have more Chinese food than Odia and the blaring music is unbearably un-Odia. Not that, things should not change. But they should change in style. And being rooted is being cool. This life should go on uninterrupted. How much does he wish? Who knows whether he can make it next year, whether his parents would be sitting in the room anymore? Whether he would see their moist eyes again? Whether Barju, of the eponymous shop, would be alive? Whether he can go to stadium chowk to have Dada singada (samosa), whether there would be the same romance in the air? Change is the only constant, but it comes with deep pain, a pain you can’t show and can’t digest either.
The days are passing by and he has already started thinking about the immersion, the bhasani. Schools would reopen, he has to bounce back to the morning meetings (online/offline) with his team, and she has to join back at her work and life springs back to the meaningless rigmarole, yet again. Life would adapt to the fake smiles, trips of foolish one upmanship, rat race convenience marriages and divorce from reality. Life sucks him till his retirement. Post retirement, he suddenly gets nostalgic about Cuttack but by then he is in no man’s land.
From meaning to no meaning to meaning. This is the truth. But this Puja he understands even more, the indestructibility of the soul. A free sailing soul aloof from pretensions. “All that is gold does not glitter, Not all those who wander are lost; The old that is strong does not wither, Deep roots are not reached by the frost.” ― J.R.R. Tolkien, the Fellowship of the Ring.
Today is Bhasani and life is gone out of Cuttack. The city is morose, weeping in silence and scared with the uncertainty of the next year. Who knows? Devi came, took us by her hand to our homes, showed us around life and went away bodily leaving us all philosophical, albeit temporarily. Because with all the nostalgia we learn little. Bhasani and immediately after Bhasani, one is jolted out of revelry and thrust back to pretentious life. As he hears the taxi calling at the gate, his core weeps. How can he say what he wants?
Every day, away from his people, he alters to be a new person. He is not changed and he can never be changed because he “belongs” here. While the cab touches Pahal, he finds solace. Now at least, Bhubaneswar has an international airport. Such a relief. Instead of making Cuttack his vacation can he ever make a Mumbai or a Los Angeles his vacation? Cuttack is home, others are vacation spots. Can his children feel and touch home? The real home.
Would Cuttack morph, to be more like Cuttack?
Oh Mother ! Keep calling, always.