Pears Soap


As my mother unwrapped a bar of Pears soap and slid it on the soap dish in our common bathroom, we knew winter in Kolkata was official. Those of you who have grown up or lived in India would attest to the fact that winter in India (at least most parts of India) is a season of relief and joy. After the stifling heat of the summer came refreshing monsoons. Then monsoon and constant rain became an irritation. The roads were a mess, waterlogging brought life to a standstill, commuters looked up at the sky with a frown as they tried avoiding the raindrops from their neighbor’s umbrella. Monsoons gave way to hemanta (fall). For us, Bangalis, that was the time to look up at the cerulean sky spotted with cottony clouds and dream of Durga Pujo. After the  pujos were over, there was a let down period of a few weeks till the blessed cold season descended upon us. And the advent of winter, for me, was the fragrance of Pears soap in the bathroom. I think that soap had a decent amount of glycerin in it to moisten the drying skin during winter time or so the company boasted in it’s advertisement. I believe this was a family tradition – this bringing out of the Pears soap. My grandmother heralded winter with Pears and so did my mother and aunts. Why stop a good thing?

I wanted to eat fish today. Not the fillets that you get in the supermarkets here. I wanted fish with its tail, head and eyes intact, just like we have it at home. So after cooking dal and a vegetable dish for family dinner, I braved the cold, jumped in my car and raced to the Indian grocery store to buy me some fish. As I put in dal, spices, paneer and other staples in my cart, I came across a nicely built pyramid of Pears soap. I picked one up and breathed in. It made me smile. The fragrance reminded me of myself as a little girl  demanding the lep (a comforter stuffed with cotton) to be brought out in October (the temperature did not dip down then, only the evenings held the promise of cooler days). Ma and baba teased me for being ‘Sheet kature” (not sure of the exact translation, perhaps cold wimp). It reminded me of Tuhina, the one and only body moisturizing solution that was bought in our house. Do any of you remember Tuhina? Is it even manufactured anymore? Winter in Kolkata meant family outings at the zoo, complete with boiled eggs, nolen gur er sandesh (sweets made with special molasses) and oranges. Winter in Kolkata meant school picnics in the grounds of Victoria Memorial. Winter in Kolkata meant badminton games, fruit cakes, brightly lit Park Street, Christmas. Winters in Kolkata meant Kul er achar. Winters in Kolkata meant Saraswati pujo and yellow sarees. Winters in Kolkata meant Kolkata Bookfair. Winters in Kolkata meant colorful shawls and vying for a spot in the sun. Winters in Kolkata also meant falling in love with the love of my life.

The whiff of Pears at the Indian Grocery store reminded me I loved winter once. I have not felt the soft caress of Kolkata winter for a very long time now. My thin Indian skin can not bear the intense cold that I experience here. I find no joy in bundling up, feeling my face freeze or slip and slide in ice. I still have not learnt to walk on ice or drive on snow. But I have learnt to love parts of winter here too. The silhouette of bare trees stretching up to the sky, waiting patiently to fill up with leaves, is beautiful. Snowfall is beautiful. My husband’s exuberance after a snowball fight with the kids always tugs at my heartstring. The snotty, red faces of my two children as they sip hot chocolate after a particularly cold day are a joy to watch. Sitting on my favorite couch on a winter afternoon while reading a book makes me feel completely content. The warmth that envelopes me as I open the front door and enter my little house reminds me I am lucky. Yes, I have learnt to love some parts of winter here too.

I bought a bar of Pears soap and I used it when I came home. It reminded me of my mother.  Now I am surrounded by fragrant memories of winters left behind. This winter afternoon, all of sudden, became beautiful!

 

That time of the year.


Every year around this time, I wallow in self-pity. As the leaves start changing colors, the heat of the summer wanes, the blue of the sky simply dazzles my eye, the wispy clouds float aimlessly, I look up and my mind dissociates to travel back in time. Between cooking and cleaning and working and driving the children around my heart remembers the beat of the dhak from a long, long time ago. Durga puja – the biggest festival of the Bengalis is about to begin.

The myth goes somewhat like this:

Mahishashur, a demon, won over the heart of creator Brahma by his devotion and earned a boon that no man or deity can destroy him. He initially desired immortality but since immortality can only be achieved by a god, Brahma asked him to choose another wish. He chose to be  killed by a woman, thinking no woman can be powerful enough to destroy him. Brahma granted him this wish.

His victory complete, he wrecked havoc on the abode of the gods in heaven and defeated them in war. He acclaimed the throne of Indra while the defeated gods ran to the safe sanctuary of Lord Shiva to seek his help. Shiva and the other gods, with their collective energy, created a brilliant, formidable force in the shape of a young woman. She was Shakti (power) endowed with divine gifts. She was the evil slayer, who finally destroyed the evil force and prevailed the good.

In Bengal, however, Devi Durga is more than the destroyer of evil. She comes to us as the much beloved daughter coming home to her parent’s house after a year. The societal structure has been skilfully woven in to this myth and made this festival a very personal and endearing one for most Bengalis. Durga is not only the revered goddess, she is our very own, our dear girl, come back to us for a visit after a long absence. The women, after marriage, are expected to leave their parents’ home and make a new life with her husband’s family. In rural Bengal, it was not easy for daughters to visit their parents’ home often due to distance, transportation, responsibilities. It was indeed a time to celebrate when the daughters finally came to visit. The same concept was passed on to Devi Durga, thus blurring the divide between godliness and humanity. I absolutely love this merging of the abstract with the concrete. Pujo is not just about celebrating the home-coming of the goddess but also the home-coming of many, many other daughters who couldn’t come back to their ancestral homes any other time of the year.

I haven’t been back to my home town Kolkata during Durga puja for over ten years now. This year I couldn’t even go to the local celebration because of work. When I looked at my schedule, I was crestfallen. I won’t get to see even a glimpse of the goddess this year? But now that the day is upon us, I am strangely not that sad anymore. I have those memories hidden in my heart in a beautiful gift wrapped package, waiting for me to open. So that is what I did. And this is what I found.

My first memory of Durga puja is the sky, always the sky. I remember looking up at the brilliant blue sky on a clear day as a little girl counting days till school closed for puja vacations. Our family had our own puja primarily done by my grandmother, who probably knew more mantras than the priest conducting the puja, but could only help in the capacity of an assistant due to her gender. A woman couldn’t be a priest. Durga puja of my childhood is one of unadulterated joy – we wore new clothes every day for four days of the puja, unending games with cousins, no lessons to prepare, we always seemed to stay under the radar of the grown ups since they were busy with their friends and family members. I remember us playing ‘detectives’. Some of us older cousins always assumed the role of the main detectives – Sherlock Holmes and others of his ilk while the younger cousins reveled in the roles of our side kicks – till they got a bit older and rebelled against this injustice. There were good foods galore, the taste of which I can still taste if I close my eyes, late nights, lot of laughter, camaraderie, just a bubble of happiness surrounding us. We knew the bubble was going to pop in four days and real life would be back with a vengeance. But those four days of puja was special and different and structure free.

The family puja finally stopped due to financial constraint when I was about nine. But Durga continued to come to Kolkata and Bengal every year, no matter. As I got older, the four days of Durga puja changed meaning for me. From teenage, I felt the absence of any sort of spiritualism in Durga puja in the opulence and grandeur that I saw all around me. Durga puja, however, remained as a symbol of happy times when life was vastly different from the structure and routine that kept us prisoners. It was a ritual, a joyous celebration. Durga, in my doubting, skeptic mind ceased to be a goddess, but she continued to be that young woman who came to her parents’ house with her four children to rest her weary bones. Durga puja was synonymous with sunshiny mornings, smiling mother, flutter causing dhaak beats, music blaring through microphones in the pandals nearby, the rustle of the new clothes, the limp due to blisters caused by new shoes.

And the crushes of Pujo romance!!! I remember taking umpteenth rounds within a marked perimeter with giggling girl friends so we could catch a glimpse of the young men who caused our hearts to beat a little faster. The stolen glances were all we had and they were enough. Pujo romances were not meant to last. They had the mystery and aura of those magical days. As I grew up, I simply stayed home during the colorful, bright and crowded evenings of those four days. But I still felt this veneer of good will and  joyous spirit enveloping me. I long for that feeling. There was a collective sense of joy, rejoicing and abandonment. We were in unison in this feeling of letting go of our real lives for four short days. There was still poverty and sorrow, the homeless people, living on the streets, and that didn’t escape me. But even the little girl, sleeping on the streets with her family donned a new ribbon in her wild and unkempt hair, and skipped around in the pujo pandals.

There were unpleasantness in the crowd – pickpockets, eve teasing, the nasty man rubbing against an unsuspecting girl – but the distance has made those memories fade away. I have gleaned only the good and saved only the treasures. At this time of the year, the blue sky with wispy clouds is the only continuity I have left. The sky still reminds me that it is time for that special daughter to come home to us. I look up and get lost. When I look down and around, my real life painfully reminds me, I am far, far away from home. I speak fondly of those days, but my family can not relate. They don’t share the same memories.

Friends and family back home complain of the traffic jam, the crowd, the unnecessary opulence, the competitions that pujo pandals have these days. Durga pujo has lost its spirituality. Where is Durga in all this glitter, they ask. And I agree. This grandeur of pandals, this show of wealth – designer clothes and new jewellery, is not what Durga pujo is all about! For me, Durga pujo is all about reconciliation, reunion with family and with one’s inner self, it is about the special search within us to draw inspiration from the goddess to slay our inner demons and emerge victorious. And as I have already mentioned, Durga pujo, for me, is about happiness in letting go of structure and routine, just for a few days.

One year, I will go back home and try to relive my memories. I sincerely hope I will find those feelings that I wrapped up in my heart before I left home. If I don’t, no matter, I will keep the ones I have safe,  and open them each year as Durga gets ready to make her descent to earth, bringing with her, her children, her lion, the repentant ashur at her feet and most importantly happiness and joy!