I inherited religion as a social celebration, an exciting annual chapter in the family drama. Such is the nature of festivities in India, we celebrate everything with ostentation and unbridled merriment – tending to rarely differentiate between national-political observances and those with religious implications. For us an Independence Day, Gandhi Jayanti, Saraswati Pujo, Eid or Christmas holds much the same meaning – a Red Letter Day offering similar respites… from the drudgery of studies or work, lengthy noxious traffic jams and the general mad pace of things; the luxury to wake late, not be in a flurry to reach anywhere and gorge on delectable.
As a race we are secular and remarkably flexible, bringing a near-religious fervour to commemorative holidays and a cheeky irreverence to religious ones. The same long queues in front of the liquor shops the previous night and the butchers’ in the morning puts our celebratory spirit squarely in place.
My dad was a food aficionado who took his pleasures for cooking to dishevelling heights every chance off work. He and I once toured a good part of east and south Calcutta for that perfect joint of mutton. ‘Foodie’ is too casual a term to do justice to that level of single-minded dedication. He brought his all to the table and it was without exception delicious.
So, religion in our house was, and remains, food or Pet Pujo, (= worshipping the stomach, a popular euphemism for eating), a preoccupation my sister has inherited. The Saraswati, Lokkhi Pujo and Christmas meals are chalked out from breakfast to dinner, shopped for several days before and eaten several days after. Feasts are planned in ridiculous details, down to the exact quality of rice grains and drops of essence, condiment combinations and menu permutations.
There is reassuring comfort in familiarity.
My childhood home had no puja room but a winter confectionary business. The home based cake industry stopped some years before Dad’s passing, no one having the time or effort to spare for such a colossal no-profit project.
But back in childhood December was an exciting oozy time with huge packets of candied and dry fruits being decimated, diced, sliced or halved, juices staining our hands for days later. The heavy whiff of allspice and hot cake lingered well into the new year.
Bijoya Dashami was similarly given over to nimki, jibey goja, lobongo lotika, Poush Shonkranti to peethey, Lokkhi Pujo to narkol naru and Saraswati Pujo to gota-sheddho (a melange of vegetables boiled, i.e. sheddho, whole, or gota, without addition of spices.) An assortment of sweetmeats and savouries greeted us from the kitchen whatever be the occasion, often without, making an occasion by themselves. For most other personal anniversaries, Dad would make biriyani, his forte, and it was comparable to that cooked in any Muslim household.
Sitting in the quiet of the house on Christmas Day this year, not a car whizzing by on the usually busy thoroughfare across the park, my husband and I reminiscence how, back in Bengal, it was a day to fill the trucks, carry a sound box and startle some village meadow with a picnic. West Yorkshire was bright with a crispy sun and low wind, no cold, no frost, helping to further our imaginations of home. No noise floated from any house, not a soul stirred save my son’s friends on their bicycles or rollers. With sun down many of the residences remained dark. On Christmas Eve, our immediate neighbour had called a taxi and vanished. On Boxing Day another had several cars parked in front and a chirpily filled living room.
The lights twinkled in the quiet lanes, some windows displaying the Seven Candles of Unity alongside their portly Santa (though none of the householders are of African origin or hold the Baha'i faith that I know of.) [BOX HERE]
It wasn’t quite as different from home, I thought, subdued, inbound, of joyous gluttony and family time. Right, Ms Marple, people are majorly the same everywhere, even when they differ in longitudes. Down south they’d be flaunting their cottons and G-strings as up north the woollies, India may go ballistic and take to the streets where the rest of the Christian world hurried indoors.
Some of us may string our fairy lights in Diwali, some do it for Christmas. That is about the only difference in our oneness.