Dussehra or Dashami? A Toddler Caught Between Communities
As the air begins to smell of autumn, I feel a slight blip in my blood pressure indicative of two things: the excitement of the festive season and dread of its special balancing act. For the past few years, I have been treading the thin line between Navratri and Durga Puja traditions with caution. Being a Bengali married to a Gujarati, the struggle to celebrate both is what kids these days call real.
Both of these festivals arrive at the exact same time and each mean the world to my respective families. The other thing that means the world to both families? My 2-year-old son. The pressure from both sides escalated real fast after Ochoa’s arrival. Teaching him everything about the two cultures and festivals seems more important than all the space missions put together.
This year, his paternal grandmother excitedly gave his measurements to a tailor to stitch the cutest keriyu ever (the costume that men wear while dancing to the beats of garba). Extremely layered and heavily embellished, the costume is a piece of work – to make, to make a toddler wear and to make a toddler remain in.
But for her, the keriyu is something special, like an initiation into her kin. Handling the garment as delicately as she could, she tells me, bright-eyed, “It is time he understands and enjoys the festival.”
At the same time, my own mother went shopping for tiny, silk kurta-pyjamas. Because, hey, its Durga Puja and you guessed it: “It is time he understands and enjoys the festival,” she tells me matter-of-factly on the phone.
As the days to the festivities approach, I am questioned infinitely on where I intend to stay. I’ve become quite efficient at doing the math: Navratri lasts for nine days, and (most of) my husband’s side is pacified when Ochoa and I stay the first six days in Gujarat. The last three days that run up to Dusshera, however, are important to my kin, so we go to my parents’ home in Calcutta. ‘Bad feelings’ are averted on both ends, if not, perhaps, in the middle; to be honest, I had hoped to travel somewhere completely different, like a (God forbid) vacation.
Traditions and celebrations are an integral part of all our lives. But my family, particularly, embraces them without discrimination. My parents explained each festival to my sister and me, and as a family we chose which to celebrate more than the others – Christmas, for the cakes and carols, Diwali, for the crackers and lights, Holi, for the colours and the license to get dirty.
But Durga Puja was – is – different. The festival is like the blood running in our veins – vital and thrumming in my background. It excites me months in advance. When I was young, it meant anticipating new clothes, extra pocket money, delicious food stalls at the pandals and the amazing sound of dhaak; later in life, it meant finding friendship and love. It still means all of these things and more.
After marriage, I belonged to two very open, liberal families, who, as much as they valued and respected the others’ traditions, also clung tight to their own. I walked the tight rope of being Both – an open and tolerant daughter-in-law and daughter, a celebrator of both Navratri and Durga Puja traditions – though perhaps I always leaned toward the latter. I was just about getting the hang of it when Ochoa accelerated the process of figuring out how much of each culture could be crammed into one, tiny space, or (as was the case now) into one, tiny human.
It is difficult to understand, suddenly, how heartfelt the requests are to teach him the names of Durga and her four children, or to teach him garba or to visit the shrine on festive days. My bias toward Durga Puja traditions has had to take a hit as I try, exasperatedly, to mollify both sides and achieve a balance. I feel like a schoolgirl again, with two surprise tests that I just can’t fail, awaiting me on one, single day.
But achieving a balance, I’ve learned, is not entirely in my hands. It can be upset by the most passing comment. As I returned with Ochoa from visiting one of the Jain community’s holy shrines recently, a relative on my husband’s side told me, “Now Ochoa is a true Jain.” To me, trekking up 3,600 steps to reach the temple that sits atop a mountain was a great adventure. I had done it to see if my child could take grueling journeys and enjoy them, too. My aim was hardly to make him a ‘true Jain.’ If being born to one parent who follows the religion isn’t good enough, then I don’t know what is. Ochoa, by birth, is truly Both.
Which is perhaps why my son is rocking the whole situation. He stands and chuckles as his dadi dresses him in one new outfit after the other. He says, “Dugga! Dugga!” on the phone to my Ma, sending her into a frenzy. He even dances to garba songs with his nanny. He contains within him the hopes and aspirations of two communities and, unlike the adults around him, he is open to all of it, neither understanding nor getting bogged down by the distinctions we adults fret about. Far from the efficient maths and the balancing act, Ochoa is swimming effortlessly in the sea of festivities, his spirit reigning over the customs.
It takes a lot of effort to be OK with what we are missing out on or not managing to cram in. We allow the other’s tradition to take up some space within us, but still protect our own, try not to let our new appreciation cut into our more heartfelt one too majorly. So, we push and we pull to make it all work for a toddler, who, in his effortless way, brings out the true festive fervour in us – and perhaps in spite of us.
Beautiful writing, beautiful insights, beautiful inspiration, beautiful spirit. How wonderful that both families embrace an expansive perspective which is the truth of the festivals, rather than a victim mentality. Beautiful and difficult work on your part as the mother caught between