What Raj Thackeray May Not Know About Chhath Puja

May 8, 2008 at 9:12 pm (Personal Essay, Santosh Ojha)

My 78 year old mother (Mai) to her offspring) lives in Jamshedpur. She has nothing to do with politics. Mai and Raj Thackeray do not know each other. There is hardly any chance of them bumping into each other.

 

But if they were to ever meet, the depth of devotion that Mai personify might have had some impact on Raj Thackeray. Or, on his acolytes in Maharashtra Navnirman Sena. They might realize that an attack on people performing chhath puja is an attack on the civilizational core of timeless and borderless India.

 

I have seen Mai performing chhath puja for as long as I can remember. Much to our ( me and my siblings) relief, Mai gave in to our persistent attempts six years ago. For long, she refused to give up performing chhath puja, despite her indifferent health.

 

Chhath Puja demands a lot out of you. Only a true believer can go through this test of endurance.

 

Chhath festival is observed only by married women. During this festival, they pray to the divine for the wellbeing of their husbands and children. It comes six days after Diwali. The word chhatht is derived from shashthi, the sixth day. Some say chhath is the combination of two words – chhah means six and hath denotes hathayoga.

 

 Days before the festival, Mai would start  preparation on a feverish pitch,

 

There were daura (basket) and soop (sieve) to be bought. Copious amount of fruits to be collected. Bunches of small yellow bananas (ghawadh of bananas, as the bunch is called) is a must.  So are sticks of sugar cane and coconuts. Also essential is thekua.  Mai would make mounds of thekua out of freshly ground atta (wheat flour) drenched in ghee (clarified butter).

 

Red paper stickers would adorn the doorway to the family puja room, the hub of all activities.

 

On Day One (kharna) when you wake up, you don’t even brush your teeth. You don’t eat anything. You can’t even drink water. You go without any food or drink until it is evening.  In the evening, you cook yourself a very simple meal. No easy way out for the dinner.You just has to cook it yourself.

 

I still remember Mai coughing away over the smoky chulha on the day of the
kharna as she tries to stoke the chulha in the puja room, cooking her humble repast
of puri and  and rasiyao (kheer made with gur). The only married people are allowed in a chhath kitchen. During my childhood, this condition barred all of us except Pitaji (Dad) to help Mai in the kitchen.

 

Day Two also goes without food and water. In the evening of Day Two, you walk up to a river or a pond and pray (offer arghya) to the setting sun. Nothing to eat and drink in the entire day. Unlike Day One, on Day Two you can’t have any food or drink even after the sunset.

 

On this day, all the puja samaan and prasad are piled onto the daura. We (family, friends and neighbors) would make a procession to the river nearby. The lead-walker, the cynosure of all eyes, would carry the daura on his head. Lead- walker’s was a much coveted position. This used to up for grabs, every year, leading to a stiff competition.

Mai would walk sprightly, just a little behind the daura-bearer. Despite so many hours of work and fasting, the spring in her steps never would ever be amiss.

 

We, the kids, would walk with either sugar-cane sticks or the banana bunches in our hands.

 

I still feel a lump into my throat remembering Mai’s soulful rendition of the
chhath song: 
Kaanchahin baansa key bahangiya, bahangi lachakat jai.
Poochha na Suraja Ram ke kanhariya, daura ghaatey pahunchay
…” Not only Mai, all the women in the procession would lend their voice in creating a mood of joyous fervor.

 

Another popular chhath number –  I may be getting the words mixed up a bit here –  used to go  like: “ Khetwa key aari, aari…”

 

At the ghat, the congregation would split into groups and occupy demarcated patches of the sand-bed. The patch boundaries were marked out by the flotsam which we would collect on the river bank.

 

Mai, knee-deep in the water with Pitaji by her side, would offer the arghya to the setting sun.  She would move the multi-decker soops, clasped by her both hands, drawing circles in the air.  

 

While returning home after the rituals, on my weary feet, I often used to wonder how come Mai would never betray any sign of exhaustion?  

 

You get up pre-dawn on Day Three and walk back to the same body of water and offer arghya to the rising sun.

 

One major concern for all the kids was how to get up early so as to be not left behind. Despite the promises made by the elders, we’re never sure if they would keep their word and wake us up in time. We would just lie down on the beds, telling ourselves not to fall asleep at all, lest we miss the morning arghya! It is another matter that invariably we used to pass out soon after hitting the bed! But thanks to the unfailing internal bio-alarm we never had to miss out the morning procession.

 

The daura, sugar-cane sticks, bananas etc would be all ready and the singing would start much before dawn, on our way to the ghat for the morning arghya.

 

On reaching the ghat, occasionally we had minor skirmishes among the children. The disputes were all about the boundaries of family territories on the sand, earmarked the day before.

 

For me, bursting patakha was the highlight of Day Three. We used to go agog planning how to save our Diwali crackers for this final moment of flourish.  

 

Images of shooting rockets against the dark pre-dawn sky and the wonky trajectories of zameen-chakkas on the sand are still fresh on my mind.

 

After the morning arghya, the fasting for Mai would end with Pitaji giving her a
glass of fruit juice. And then they would trudge back home.

 

Once at home, Mai used to divide the prasad into different thali. Kids would then carry them to the neighbors. Our neighbors were nearly all non-Biharis but they would eagerly await the prasad.

 

Piety is a defining feature of the community spirit in India. Chhath festival celebrates the family. What’s more, it shows how little we need to be happy if we can include everybody around in a festival, any festival.

 

Above all else, Chhath Puja, to me, will always remain my personal festival about Mai and all other women who embody the spirit of giving.

 

– Santosh Ojha.

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4 Comments

  1. Sujeet Sinha said,

    A very touching piece!

    You need to experiece something to understand its meaning.

    I have grown up celebrating “Chhath Puja” so the very word evokes deepest of respect in
    my heart.

    How I wish Raj Thackeray could spend fours days with our families during Chhath Puja to understand what it means to us!

  2. Ek Marathi Manoos said,

    Frankly no one is opposing Chhat Puja in Mumbai… just the way Durga Puja from Bengal, Ram Lila from UP, Ayyappa Puja from Kerala, Karwa Chauth from Punjab and Garba from Gujarat have become integral part of Mumbai culture…

    The opposition is to politicizing this event and speeches by Bihari politicians that “Mumbai is their next target”!

  3. Deepak said,

    Hi,

    As I feel that there are a few people in Maharashtra who oppose chhath pooja. Either they are convinced by political leader (MNS) or other or they don’t know the importance of DHARM.

    I pray go to give those people bless to understand and respect others festivals.

  4. A. Srivastava said,

    Thanks for the wonderful article about Chhath.

    Does anyone know the complete lyrics of the following song and would he(or she) be kind enough to post it here?

    Kaanchahin baansa key bahangiya, bahangi lachakat jai.
    Poochha na Suraja Ram ke kanhariya, daura ghaatey pahunchay…

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