The bhog is a poignant, if fleeting, moment where the complex social matrices of caste and class are set aside for a community feast, writes Bedatri Datta Choudhury.
There is no way of describing the five days of Durga Puja in Calcutta without falling into the trap of clichés: I could tell you the city looks like a new bride in all her finery, or I could tell you that the city holds its breath the whole year to exhale joy these five days of Pujo. I could tell you that the five days of Pujo is when my city loves everything with abandon — crowds, traffic jams, shoe bites, the smell of new clothes, the glitter of fairy lights — and food. I could tell you that Calcutta loves to eat — at the kathi roll carts on every street corner, on the plush green lawns of the colonial clubs, at the Jewish bakeries and the Anglo-Indian confectionaries. But Calcutta especially loves to eat during Durga Puja.
The northern parts of the city are populated by centuries-old mansions where Durga Puja has a certain old-world charm. Celebrated by families who have lived here for generations, boasting of a past peppered with stories of beef steaks served to officials of the East India Company, and a others of ritual sacrifices.
It was in the 1970s that apartment complexes started mushrooming in south Calcutta, marking the beginnings of the nuclear family structure. For Bengalis like me, whose parents came to Calcutta looking for better jobs and better lives, Durga Puja usually meant visiting grandparents in the old towns, or alternatively, sharing this time of love and joy with neighbours, who became de facto stand-ins for the extended family we rarely got to see. It is to our neighbours that we show off our new dresses, the same neighbours we go pandal hopping with, and most importantly, it is with them that we feast. North Calcutta can keep its sacrificial goats and cows, but the south will always have the bhog, a ritual of communal eating, a feast in the name of Goddess Durga.
On at least one afternoon of the five-day festival, everyone in the apartment complex comes down from their homes and eats together — landlord, tenant, or house-help. It didn’t matter if you lived in the penthouse or in the one-bedrooms; if you lived in the complex, or even just worked there, you were welcome to sit down and eat.
The tables are laid out in the morning, (and you fell asleep to the sound of ginger being pounded in mortar and pestles the night before). You wake up to the aroma of cumin seeds being tempered in ghee, and you run into the makeshift kitchen where kilos of rice are being soaked in large tubs of water. The menu is never a surprise — it is always khichudi with labda, a dish made with five or more vegetables (the likes of radish, basella leaves and cabbage) with minimal spices, a piece of deep batter-fried eggplant called beguni, some chutney and papad.
Unlike the rest of the country, Bengalis don’t like their chutneys tangy. For us, it borders on dessert — sticky-sweet, dripping with dates, raisins and cashews, we scoop it up with pieces of papad. Bengali khichudi, unlike the North Indian variant, isn’t the go-to almost-medicinal potion that provides relief to the sick and needy. It is an indistinguishable mush of ingredients, with only the occasional slushy potato floating atop. It smells of heaven, but really, it tastes like home — a dish that everyone knows the recipe to, but is hard to recreate in the privacy of your own kitchen. The labda too isn't the most photogenic food, resembling an unseemly blob of vegetables. No food in the bhog is ‘special food’; it is more likely that this is the sort of food that most of us wouldn't even eat on a regular (non-Puja) day. The sweet at the end of the meal is also a very basic kancha golla, the drier cousin of the more festive rasogolla.
But It isn't the food that makes the bhog special. What makes it special is the feeling of emerging from boxed apartments, eating together under the open sky, on rickety chairs and creaky tables, elbow to elbow with neighbours whose names you don't really know. It is spending the brightest, most joyful five days of the year with people who are far removed from their own larger families, and who look to share their joy with you.
It is also the carnival-esque nature of Durga Puja that makes the bhog special — it is the time of year when you can flirt a little with the boy you’ve been crushing on forever, and no one would mind; it is when you wear your new sari and compare it with your neighbour’s daughter’s new sari; it is also a time for whispered catch-ups on the latest gossip with the lady next door. Sitting together over a plate of runny khichudi, you ask how the NRI children are doing, you look at the grandchildren's photos on their phones, and ask when they will be visiting next. You put names to the faces that pass you by everyday.
Sitting down to eat bhog is like being audience to the best version of your neighbourhood — snooty residents serve food to neighbours, and get turmeric stains on their expensive saris; domestic help, chauffeurs, homemakers and CEOs all sitting down to eat in the same row. In a society where labour, class and caste draw out extremely complex social matrices, it is a fleeting, yet extremely poignant moment where, for once, we serve the people who serve us tirelessly all year around.
It is an illusion, a mirage at best — the half-truth we give into every year: the one where we are all friends, that we live in harmony, that we are still guided by love. In a world where truth is the fang-flaring hate we navigate everyday, the apartment complex bhog is the half-truth we need, to remind ourselves that there is still a thin line that we as a society, as a neighbourhood, haven’t yet crossed, to become hate mongers and rabble rousers. I’ll eat an extra beguni to that.
Bedatri Datta Choudhury lives in New York and writes on films, food, gender and most other things. Inputs from Mrinalini Vasudevan and Dr. Tapati Guha Thakurta.
Illustration by Nupoor Rajkumar.
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