Today is Mahalaya, which officially means that Pujo is just round the corner. Barely seven days before the city dresses up in fanfare and grandeur, Mahalaya is observed to herald Ma Durga’s arrival. Shoroter aakash (the sky of Autumn), kaash phooler dola (the swinging of kaash flowers) and Birendra Krishna Bhadra’s majestic voice conspire to welcome the Goddess on earth. I have many a memory associated with this day. Mahalaya is synonymous with Mahisasura Mardini (the destruction of the demon) — a radio programme at the crack of dawn. It also has its television counterpart but right from childhood, and more so today, I’ve always enjoyed the radio version, largely because the lazy me can lie on her bed, eyes half closed and listen to Bhadra’s mesmerising rendition of Mahisasura Mardini, rather than watch Tollywood actresses portray Ma Durga in a not-so-flattering way.
One particular Mahalaya incident I would never forget was the year that I was in journalism school. My roommate D (also a Bengali) had a Mahalaya folder in her laptop which we were all excited to hear on the D-day. All of us in the Girls’ Hostel huddled together in our room after dinner, confident that a whole night session of coffee, biscuits, chips and maggi would see us through till dawn. Obviously we were not in any mood to sleep! Suddenly we saw a couple of figures going to and fro from Room 218 to the washroom. They were unmistakably our mates S and A. At 3 o’clock in the morning they decided to take a bath kyunki “subah ko puja hai” (because you have religious ritual the next morning). We stopped them on time and had a mad laugh about it for years thereafter. It was quite sweet really, Punjabi friends of ours had become so immersed in and excited about Bengali culture that they were looking more forward to Mahalaya than the Bong brethren. When the clock struck 5, we readied ourselves in our track pants and T-shirts. Of course we could have played the programme in the room itself, and we wouldn’t have had to get up from the bed even! But we did not want the specimens in the Boys’ Hostel to miss out on the fun. So we walked down the winding staircase, out of the hostel and amid our lush green campus that we had grown to love and adore. The boys gradually emerged from their hostel, barely clad in shorts and tees and still rubbing their eyes from sleep. We sat together…almost 30 of us…and listened intently to the voice emanating from the laptop, many of us not understanding a single word but engrossed nevertheless.
That was the best ever Mahalaya of my life. Let this Mahalaya begin on a sweet note. We Bongs are renowned for our love of chutneys. Chutneys are sweet condiments served at the end of a meal along with papad. We break the papad into pieces and spoon the chutney with them. Chutneys are meant to be had in a little quantity, almost like a dip. But in our family, we eat them like dal — yes, in bowlfuls.
Amsatta/Dried Mango Pulp: 2 bars
Paanch phoron: 3/4 tsp
Turmeric powder: 3/4 tsp
Sugar: to taste
Rock salt: to taste
Tamarind pulp: 1 tsp
Bhaja masala: 3/4 tsp (make it at home by first roasting and then grinding a couple of bay leaves, some coriander seeds, cumin seeds and dry red chillies into a powder)
Oil: 1 tbsp
Water: 1.5 cups (or as required)
1. Roughly chop the amsatta bars and keep aside.
2. Heat oil in a non stick pan and add the paanch phoron. Let it splutter for a minute or so. Now add the amsatta pieces, turmeric and half a cup of water, bring to a boil and then cover and cook for 10-15 minutes. Stir from time to time and keep a lookout whether the amsatta melts or not.
3. Once the amsatta turns semi soft and pulpy add the remaining water, taste and add sugar accordingly. Add a bit of rock salt as well for the balance in flavour. Mix the tamarind pulp with 4 tbsp of water and squeeze out the juice. Add it to the pan as well. Cover and continue cooking for another 5-7 minutes
4. When the amsatta melts completely and the chutney reaches your desired consistency, turn off the heat. Sprinkle the bhaja masala and serve with papad to end your meal on a sweet note.
Eat Like a Bong: Day 23