Bengali families are notorious for being superstitious.
It is widely believed in our community that the first day of the Bengali New Year is an indication of what is to follow throughout the rest of the year. And I grew up specifically hating this day.
My family (including our meddling relatives) believe that waking up early in the morning is a touchstone for achieving success in life. Since my childhood – my alarm clocks have varied across both objects and living beings. They have varied across: a table clock that rang like it wanted to summon Satan from the depths of hell, my father’s yell that woke up more birds than humans, my mother’s incredibly nagging voice in intervals and cold, freezing water which finds more relevance in interrogations and tortures.
I have always disliked temples. There’s something incredibly unsettling about thousands of opportunistic, greedy and irrational human beings assembled together, praying to mud idols in their collective stupidity, bound by rituals and beliefs that feed on insecurities, prejudices and customs aimed at self-humiliation and degradation. It is ironic – almost risible, that I have been rewarded with living in a city where young couples, for their honeymoon, travel for hours to visit the overcrowded, sultry temples miles away – kneeling before an almost amused Almighty – instead of losing yourself in her twinkling eyes and dinner under the stars and a walk on the wet sand, with the sea quietly labouring by the rocks (or destroying beds, smashing countertops and getting drunk on champagne and waking up to the sunlight streaming onto her skin – based on what you prefer.) But that’s beside the point.
Like the typical, rice gobbling Bengali, I draw an almost titillating pleasure from sleeping. It is my second favourite activity that I enjoy alone. (The first being writing.) Only my girlfriend has the privilege of borrowing my sleep-hours, and I make sure I am repaid in a different (and more pleasurable) currency in return. On the other hand my parents, if it were possible – would lasso the sun and drag the poor thing from under the horizon if they could. Unfortunately, my sister and I have always been believers in letting things be. My sister, who from a very impressionable age, could fall asleep anywhere – from a commode to a prayer hall, generally responded in the choicest expletives or gestures – while I would sit up dejected – another opportunity wasted. We’d be tossed into the bathroom and given twenty minutes to do whatever we deemed necessary. I’d be out in fifteen, while my sister would be seated precariously on the toilet seat, very still, eyes closed in the form of deep meditation. (On being questioned, she would respond smugly, “I was recalling the Physics lesson from yesterday.”)
In no time at all, we’d be on our way to the singular, behemoth, marble temple that had seen more romancing couples and disdainful middle aged ladies on its grand stairs than sincere and honest prayers by its shrine. We’d be ushered into a long line that comprised men dressed in their finest embroidery, discussing about the recent political gaffes of our accomplished politicians – and women, who’d be in the grandest of sarees and gold, generally critiquing the neighbour’s son’s performance in the board examinations, with smug sighs of disappointment in regular intervals. Innumerable children would play in the shade of the tin roof – squealing and rolling about in the dirt, not yet privy to the greed, ego and complications of the world. Forty minutes of interesting conversations, rebukes and screams later, we’d be smeared in vermilion that I’d wipe off the moment we set foot outside the temple.
Since Bengali children are expected to know the English alphabet by the time they can hold their necks straight, and write Pulitzer winning novels by twelve (and I was in my mid-teens already, struggling to balance a failing crush and my failing credibility in mathematics), the instructions would be clear. We were to spend at least four hours praying to the books – while the excellent ladies of the neighbourhood would be out strutting the streets in sarees. My sister, who has always been extremely composed for her age, would accept her fate with dignity and go back to reclaiming the lost hours of sleep. Meanwhile I would wage a losing battle with Chemistry and gaze out the window – watching the golden sun of spring scorch the dark green leaves of the mango tree and the tired daily workers, trudge back from the plant.
As a family, we have eaten out thrice in the last twenty six years (does not include family trips to Goa [yes], or the hills – and even then, we’d carry tea, sugar and cream from home.) A sumptuous Bengali lunch of meat, rice and rice porridge would follow. My sister would be glued to Lord of The Rings playing for the umpteenth time on Movies Now, and my father would be lecturing me on the importance of not mingling too much with the female species – while my mother, would act as the moderator. I would continue to text under the table, while nodding at regular intervals.
By nightfall, we’d be sitting at the veranda – watching nature breathe a sigh of relief after the long, searing day. My mother would always snatch the phone off my hands, to my utter disbelief (she does that, even today.) She’d insist on my sister and my watching the sky in the dying light of the sun. We’d protest, but give up eventually. We’d watch the squirrels scamper up and down the tall palm trees, listen to the rustle of the swinging palm leaves and watch the little grey birds hop about on the warm road – in search of critters and grain from the morning. We’d prop up our feet on the parapet of the porch, while we’d watch the scarred, red moon rise into the dark sky, dotted with incandescent planets and the tentative stars. I’d point out the constellations to my gullible little sister, while she’d watch the sky wide-eyed.
When I return home from work these days, in a city a thousand miles away I sometimes light up a cigarette and lie down on the roof. Between those tall, glittering buildings, I look up at the sky – trying to catch the Orion or the Libra – unfortunately, the clouds and the smoke make it possible to make out the stars these days.