Like the charm of old lore that floats in the veins of blue heavens, the glamour of clouds and wind carried a certain magic as it gently stirred the leaves under the blue sky. The cumulus clouds hung onto the air like giant candy floss, adding a very contemporary aesthetic vision. Sunny bright days complimented the city. The beauty of Kolkata rejuvenates in the month of September-October, one hailing from this region can naturally hear the call or awakening for Durga Puja, from anywhere in the world.
Kolkata is special for many reasons, one of them being nostalgia. The month of Durga Puja can make any Bengali person travel back in time when plastic pistols and the smell of siuli wrapped them in an innocence that was hard to defy. Even if one criticized the community for inertia, the pride of traditions and cultures always settled cozily in their hearts. And if one falls in love, the ebb and flow of intense satisfaction will fill up their stomach like the scent of street foods.
Riddhima sat up in her bed. The four days of puja are the most awaited occasion, yet those days pass by like the speed of an express train. The waiting is hard, and before you know it, it’s Dashami. And things have become harder since the coronavirus outbreak. After contemplating for a while, Riddhima decided to get dressed up and go out to the nearest pandal. She felt like being out there, in front of the mighty idol, taking in the essence of power, art, and its vision. It is amazing how the idol stands tall, almost like a metaphor for keeping our heads high every time. Without any second thought, she grabbed the towel from her sofa and went straight for a shower.
In half an hour, Riddhima decided on what she would wear and quickly wore an off-white saree, with a sleeveless pink blouse. She tied up her long hair in a bun and put two white roses around it. Her mother had gotten them for her, as she was aware of her daughter’s craze for flowers. She loosened the sides a little bit to let two strands of hair fall on either side of her face.
A pair of jhumkas and a bindi completed her look. The mirror reflected her own attire with a natural glow. She smiled to herself, not thinking of any moment before or later, just the present. She loved how she looked.
Riddhima took a small handbag that carried the most important accessory of all time – sanitizer and extra masks. The fact that she was going out alone made her feel relaxed yet a tiny bit nervous. Apart from all these things, she wished to choose a path for herself, without being led by anyone else. And what could be a greater way than to start on an auspicious ceremony? With these thoughts in her mind, she slipped on her favorite pair of heels and stepped out.
It was easy to spot a crowd during puja days. But this year mostly affected a major part of the population and left them dreaded. The hubbub of people, packed-up footpaths, and food stalls were considerably lesser than normal. Everything felt incomplete somehow. For a moment her eyes couldn’t believe the scarcity of human beings. Mass entry was prohibited. Riddhima stood outside the entry gate, the mighty idol of Maa Durga was visible right there, with a rope in the middle so people didn’t gather right in front of the mandap. What a tragic sight, thought Riddhima. Another attraction of the pandal was the richly enormous chandelier hanging right above our heads as if we all were a part of a royal fusion.
Riddhima remembered the time she came here with her mother when she was a kid. She hated the crowd for sure, but the present remoteness of the place stood unusual. She conjoined her hands as a rush of devotion ran through her heart upon the sight of the idol, closed her eyes, and prayed for goodwill.
When she opened her eyes, at her right side stood a tall figure, dressed in a black kurti and jeans. Mask covered her face except for her eyes, hair open, she looked at Riddhima with a gaze that seemed to be smiling at her.
“Hi!” That voice sounded familiar to Riddhima. She stared at that female figure’s face, blinking a couple of times, unable to recognize it. A bit of quizzical hesitance flashed in her eyes. The seemingly smiling figure took off her mask, and Riddhima almost tripped onto her, slightly embarrassed and surprised upon recognizing who it was.
“Took you long enough!” The not-so-unfamiliar woman joked, but her familiar voice made Riddhima travel back in time. If nostalgia had a face, it was that of Aarya’s. Aarya Bose. The girl she became friends with before graduating from college. Even before they became friends, Riddhima knew her only by name and face. Somehow her own group of friends didn’t like her much, but she always found Aarya interesting and was curious to know more about her. For Riddhima, Aarya was the definition of being cool.
Riddhima spoke in a voice of surprise, “I thought you were in Bombay? After a long time, how is everything?”
Aarya was all smiles throughout. This tall figure almost seemed impeccable in Riddhima’s eyes. “Hold on, woman. One question at a time. First, tell me how are you doing in this pandemic?”
“So so,” Riddhima replied in a soft voice. “A lot has changed since… the beginning.”
“It has,” Aarya agreed. “But you know what didn’t change? The essence of Durga Pujo. And you.” She chuckled a bit. Riddhima smiled widely at her, no, Aarya remained the same as she was in college. The funny girl who always stood up for the right things, who wanted to study journalism and dig deeper truths, who nurtured a kind soul in them. What’s crazy is the fact that Riddhima noticed and read all her thoughts, in silence. She feared if she confessed anything like that to Aarya, she would laugh it off.
“I think I look good today,” Aarya’s voice took her out of her thoughts. Riddhima laughed, looking away, and said, “Okay, why would you say so?”
Flashing a huge smile, Aarya took a step closer to her, replying, “Because you can’t stop staring at me.” The last part of the sentence came out as a laugh, but Riddhima remained quiet and blushed. God, this girl! She noticed everything but never kept shush. The only contrast between them, and probably the one she liked the most.
“I decided to visit Kolkata for a while.” Aarya continued to say, “I was gone for too long, my mother stays alone here, so I thought of making this homecoming special, you know. I never expected to meet you like this, in the middle of literally nowhere, but I guess here we are.”
Strangely, Riddhima recognized the sparks that had been there between Aarya and her since their college memory. She consciously was careful enough not to read into it or say anything wrong, for she never wanted to ruin the friendship between them. Her mind constantly warned her with the thought that if Aarya wanted to say something more, she would because she’d always been very expressive throughout her life.
As if sensing the trail of her own thoughts, Aarya questioned her, “Do you find it weird that we both are feeling the same kind of things at this moment?” Riddhima’s jaw dropped a little which turned into flushing of cheeks within seconds. Looking at the idol in front of her, she turned toward Aarya and answered, “I know what I feel, but it took you almost ages to understand!”
Both of them burst into laughter. Aarya looked sheepish. As the laughs died down, she suggested an idea. “So if you want to talk more, would you like to have some ice cream with the view of Ganga in front of us?” Riddhima instantly knew where this place was and understood the insistence behind it.
They walked side by side on the pavement, heading towards a place they had already visited before. The sound of dhaak poured in, the alleys of Kolkata anticipated a fresh bloom as well as the recollection of innocence that people leave behind mostly. But the binding love never left the two, it was always meant to find each other, and it did.
For a moment, their eyes locked on each other. Aarya scanned every little pore on her face, the lipstick shade, and the bindi that sat graciously on her temple. Riddhima blushed and looked away, focusing more on the heavenly beauty of Ganga. The flow of the river against the backdrop of the setting sun faded every other mode for tranquility. As if the reflection falling on the water was not about life, but about themselves. That life will go on like this henceforth. And love will always find them.