Durga Puja was just two days away when Deepika asked me when is Laxmi Puja. I told her it will be either on Monday 26th October or Tuesday 27th October depending on the appearance of Full Moon. She asked me to confirm the date with the Pandit Ji as she had to apply for leave for that particular day. We have a tradition dating back to my great grandfathers’ time (or even before) that we do Kojagori Laxmi Puja on the fifth day of Dussehra depending on the Full Moon or Purnima. There are no idol but a straw pot with rice, vermilion, small mirror and bangles placed inside and covered with Red Cloth. I have witnessed this Puja since my childhood and loved it because, on this day we had a large gathering of relatives and friends and the food or the Bhog is delicious. My parents, both Mom and Dad used to cook the Bhog and my sisters helped them in decorating the Puja Mandap. I was just a spectator then little knowing that later on I will have to do the chores myself.
As per custom, no celebrations including puja happen if someone in the family passes away. So when my mother departed this world, we did not celebrate any festivals for one year. The following year I told Deepika that let’s stop this Laxmi Puja thing at our home since my elder brothers are doing it at their home, we can surely skip it. She simply said that as long as she is alive, the tradition will continue.
I am, from being a believer to agnostic has now become an atheist. I believe in humans and animals but not God or Ghosts. But then I do not interfere with anyone’s beliefs. In fact I arrange for the materials for the Kojagori Laxmi Puja, decorate the Puja Mandap (Long back I had taken pictures when my mother used to do it, so, now just follow it), I also make the Sinni or Prasad for the Satyanarayan Puja as it is traditionally done by the male member in our family. But that’s about it, after all that I am just a spectator.
This year we had an option of doing it either on Monday or Tuesday and we opted for the latter based on convenience factor. On the Puja day, we got up early and proceeded with our individual assigned task, Deepika along with the maid Savita got down to making the Bhog Prasad. As usual, I was assigned the job of setting up the Puja Mandap; to my credit, most of the setting up I did without referring to past pictures. Once the setting up was done, I settled down to making the Sinni Prasad, the basic ingredients being wheat flour, milk, sugar and banana. Many people have their own proportion of the ingredients but I follow my mothers’ recipe. My father used to mash the bananas with hand (even I did it in the initial years) but then realised, it may be because technology was not available back then; so now I have a hand blender exclusively for this purpose, it has not only made it easy and faster for me but the final product is superior too. After making the Sinni, I went to fetch Pandit Ji from the Mandir.
The Satyanarayan Puja started in earnest with Deepika and two of my sisters and brother-in-law in attendance. Just for information, Laxmi Puja is preceded by Satyanarayan Puja in our home (or is it universally??), why? I don’t know neither do I care. As the Puja progressed, many friends and relations joined in, like a good host I welcomed them all with cold drinks and juices. One unexpected guest was my niece. Unexpected because she has become extremely busy, working practically 18-20 hours every day and making her online media portal very successful. Even her parents hardly see her most days in the week. She came along with her boyfriend and co-owner, a very nice young man but very shy in front of me, maybe she has told him stories about me and my temper which are not very pleasant, perhaps.
It took almost two hours to complete the twin Puja of Satyanarayan and Kojagori Laxmi, then it was time to enjoy the Bhog Prasad. As per custom, the Bhog is given to all including the guards and drivers in the neighbourhood. I checked with the guests if their drivers are around and if they could call them up to accept the Prasad. My niece said her driver Irfan is downstairs but not sure if he would take the Prasad owing to his religious beliefs. I must say, I have never considered food by their religion; I enjoy this Satwik Vegetarian Bhog as much as I enjoy my Biryani at the Pir Baba Masjid and the Plum cakes that my friend sends me every year at Christmas. I consider food as personal choice same as the ritualistic religion. I told her to call Irfan and if he has any inhibition, then not to force him. Irfan came up and not only accepted the plate full of Bhog but devoured it without any hesitation making my belief stronger that food has no religion.
Later, once all the guests had departed and I was enjoying my daily peg of Nectar of Life, my thoughts returned to Irfan. I have noticed that some of my friends and relatives while referring to people of other faith cannot hide a subtle snide, though, if confronted, they will deny. In reality, we have forgotten that we are human beings first and practically have similar needs for food, clothing and shelter. We have in course of time erected walls of religion around us that prevent the light and air of wisdom to reach us to enlighten our souls. We have stopped appreciating fellow humans for what they are and instead judge them on the basis of their beliefs. I refuse to believe that any teachings can actually call for blood of the non-followers. On that day, Irfan with his limited education but huge humanity in accepting the Bhog Prasad made the twin Puja of Satyanarayan and Kojagori Laxmi truly meaningful for me and my family.