I first met a Bengali when I was 11. His name was Gogol Ganguli, and Jhumpa Lahiri spoke to me at great length about identity crises and generation gaps. That was the first time my curiousity was piqued by the culture as described in that book. I became increasingly fascinated with their expressive eyes, their ‘well-rounded’ language, their passion, their intellect and of course, their fierce love for Calcutta. The Namesake was my earliest exposure to Bengalis. Before I joined college at Symbiosis, never did I imagine that I would have the pleasure of meeting so many of them and that I would go on to become close friends with some of them.
So when you know as many Bengalis as I do, you’d know how they speak of home with an air of reminiscence and a twinge of nostalgia in their voices. Well, my beloved bongs took it a step further. They organised a feast, which is called ‘bhog’ to celebrate Mahalya.
So I went a step further and tried to find out what Mahalaya is all about. It’s an auspicious occasion observed seven days before Durga Puja. It was originally an invocation. When the demon king Mahisasura was increasingly cruel to the gods, the gods pleaded to Vishnu to annihilate this demon, unable to bear his tyranny. The Trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva came together to create a powerful female goddess with ten arms- Goddess Durga or Mahamaya. Goddess Durga rides on a lion to battle Mahisasura and then slays him. After he has been slayed, heaven and earth rejoice at her victory.
Such a victory of epic proportions would certainly not go uncelebrated here at Symbiosis International University!
First up, we were served Luchi. Luchi is the Bengali name for Puri and I didn’t really find it different from the puris I’ve had elsewhere, but they had less oil and I really appreciated that. The first dish to be served with it was Alur Dom. That’s the Bong version of dum Aloo. A dish that (incidentally) I’m not very fond of, but I bit into it nevertheless and I was pleasantly surprised. The gravy that the Alur was in was full of flavour and spice without being overwhelmingly spicy and the potato actually retained its natural flavour, hence adding a few sweet notes to the dish.
Next up we were served Khichuri, which is their version of Kichdi. I quite liked it because it was warm and I could taste the slightest trace of ghee somewhere there. My friend Jui directed me to eat the Khichuri with Labra. Labra is a mixed veg curry that had carrots, beans and a few other veggies. Again what I loved about the Labra, was how the true flavours of the vegetables came through beautifully, despite the fact that it was cooked with oil and spices. The vegetables retaining their flavours puts a very interesting spin on the dishes and they make them feel so much more organic and beautiful.
My personal favourite was the Bhaja. Bhaja was thin crispy potato fries served with roasted groundnuts and garnished with a hint of chilli powder. The potato melted in my mouth instantly and though one would think that the flavours of the groundnut and the potato would clash, they didn’t. They formed the most beautiful symphony in the simplest of snacks.
Overall, the experience was absolutely magical. It made me feel satiated without feeling stuffed and uncomfortable. I felt a sort of comfort that lulled me from deep within when I finished my meal. I may not be Bengali, I may not understand their language, but in those few beautiful fleeting moments when I was eating food, so lovingly served to me by my own friends, I finally felt like I was home.