Home Is Where The Puja Is: As preparations crescendo for this year’s Durga Puja, our contributor reminisces about the humble pandals of Jamshedpur, Jharkhand, and her family’s annual rituals. By Anubhuti Krishna
It always starts with the dhaak, the quintessential Bengali percussion instrument that announces the arrival of Durga Puja around the country. Dhaakis, usually village men who arrive in town well before the festival, are entrusted with the responsibility of welcoming not only Goddess Durga but also her many children. On the first morning of the festival—and all its mornings thereafter—it is this beat that wakes me up and reminds me that I am home for Durga Puja.
I did not grow up celebrating Durga Puja. In Uttar Pradesh, where I spent my early years, it was not the primary festival. Yes, every town I lived in celebrated Durga Puja, but my encounter with it was rare and perfunctory. You can call it my luck then that I chose to marry a Bengali man, and, by extension, the festival. I distinctly remember how anxious I was before my first trip home for Durga Puja; I wasn’t sure how I would cope. I needn’t have worried, though. My hometown-in-law, Jamshedpur, was, and remains, a modest place, and Durga Puja here is always the same: quiet and intimate. It was the first time I enjoyed the festival and saw beyond the noise. In the past two decades since home trips have become a permanent fixture on our autumn calendar.
Arriving in Jamshedpur on a shashti morning (the first day of Durga Puja) is a ritual now. As the train chugs into our little railway station, I see dozens of hands waving from the platform. Even before the train halts, men have hopped off, children have started to squeal with excitement, and elderly parents have wiped their moist eyes. While we may recognise only two or three faces out of the hundreds, all of them feel like our own. The short drive home is ridden with festivity and fervour. Makeshift flower shops with rows of marigold, hibiscus, lotus, and jasmine line pavements; large hoardings announcing special offers loom over low buildings; and Durga Puja pandals, in various degrees of completion, dot the land. The air is heavy with the scent of shiuli, night-blooming jasmine, and the earth smells of home.
Durga Puja is said to have started in the early 17th century by landlords in Kolkata. It was a festival where fresh harvest was offered to Durga, their presiding deity, and distributed to farmers who grew it. It was a solemn single-day event organised only in aristocratic homes. Over the past four centuries, the festival has undergone a complete makeover. Durga Puja in Kolkata today is a grand spectacle marked by thousands of exquisite pandals, rich sponsors, live media coverage, and whatnot. But in this grandeur, I feel, it has lost its essence.
Jamshedpur, thankfully, is still far removed from this pomp and show. Most pujas here are small in scale and organised with contributions of the locals. In our apartment complex, the festival is run entirely by the residents. For five days the pandal becomes our courtyard and the goddess the presiding matriarch under whose watchful gaze everything runs like clockwork. Every other puja is the same: women control the kitchens, men commandeer the arrangements, and the elderly preside over arti, bhog, and anjali (the offering of flowers and prasad to the goddess). There are, of course, some larger pandals too. Complete with themes, music, lighting, food stalls, and toy shops, they transport you to the festive fairs of your childhood. The centre of our universe, however, remains the pandal in our complex. Dressed in new clothes, we sit around the idol watching kids sing and dance, uncles telling jokes, and aunties reciting poetry that they have been practising since the last Durga Puja. Puja days are extra special, what with clear skies, swaying kaash phool (elephant grass), meandering streams, and the serenading scent of chattim (devil’s tree) taking over the whole town. Nights are chilly, mornings misty, and evenings don a gradient of red and violet that I have not seen anywhere else. Nature compels you to celebrate its beauty along with that of the mother goddess’s. Not that you can ever overlook nature in small towns.
There is another thing you cannot overlook: food. Often called ‘Jampot’ for its diversity, Jamshedpur is home to some of the best food in the country. Bengali, Bihari, Tamil, Punjabi, Gujarati, and Parsi influences—married with local culinary practices—have created a hyperlocal cuisine that is unique to the land. And Durga Puja is the best time to sample it. We find our favourite food stall at the same place every year. The owner, Raja, has remained the same for years. Dressed in formal pants and shining white vest, he fries puris with urgency and greets us the same way every year. “Iss baar late aaye, bhaiya (This time you’ve come late, sir)”, he chides us if we do not mark our attendance on the first day. “Baithiye naashta bhijwate hain (sit, I’m sending you food),” he commands. The nashta, or breakfast, comprises four crisp puris, thin potato curry, and a thick, syrupy jalebi, and arrives promptly even if there are a dozen people waiting. Eaten on a narrow wooden bench, while licking the syrup off our fingers and trying not to scald our tongues, it is the most gratifying meal of our entire year—year after year.
It has been two years since we had that meal. Two years since we went home. Durga Puja indeed came last year, but a thousand miles away from home it meant little. It will come this year again, but once again it won’t be the same unless the goddess calls us home. And we live in hope that she will.
Jamshedpur is a scenic three-hour (128 km) drive from Ranchi’s Birsa Munda Airport. It is well connected by train to all major Indian cities and by road to cities in Jharkhand, West Bengal, Odisha, and Bihar.
Dalmanchal in Jamshedpur offers splendid views of the adjoining jungles and hills. It grows and cooks its own organic produce and has multiple boarding options. From INR 2,000
The Sonnet is located centrally and gives easy access to places of interest, local markets, and restaurants. From INR 4,010