How my Punjabi family took to Chhath Puja as its own
My mother's passion for Chhath raised many eyebrows, and some uncomfortable questions were hurled towards my grandmother who frequented the local gurudwara daily.
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As the hustle and bustle of Diwali wriggle away gradually, an unexplained calm and poise sets in, indicating that Chhath Puja is just a few days away. The loud surroundings of Diwali buoyed up with crackers, cards and celebrations make way for a sombre mood drenched every bit in devotion and faith. Well, Chhath celebrations are meant to be that way as it has intense faith and devotion attached. After all, it’s the festival of purity.
Festivals for Punjabis are always a loud affair with lots of lavishness, noise and extravagance. And it was always amusing for me as a child to see the sudden transformation in my mom as Chhath approached. Jewellery and silky sartorial delights made way for an extremely humble appearance — cotton/taant sarees and long sindoor in her maang. Ours was the only Punjabi family amidst the Biharis in a sleepy mohalla of Jamalpur, a small town in Bihar.
My mom’s passion for Chhath amused the locals no end for they always took her as a loud Punjabi woman with hardly any trace of Bihari sobriety. But come Chhath, and she used to transform into a devout observer of Chhath rituals with all the strings attached. Right from our household helpers to some humble neighbours, all doted on mom during this time, so that their celebrations and rituals could be carried smoothly with generous contributions from her. My mom was a feisty and fearless Punjaban who went out of the way, to make Chhath a grand affair in the vicinity. There were no stops as my father too supported her.
My mom was born and brought up in Lahore. Since my maternal grandfather worked in Railways, they moved and settled at Bhagalpur in Bihar. The family lived in the Railway Quarters and the locality was dominated by Biharis and Bengalis. My nani (maternal grandmother) too was an ardent Chhath devotee. The enthusiasm for the 'Maha Parv', as Chhath is often called in this region, was kindled here. And when my mom was married into a Punjabi-Sehgal family of Jamalpur, she infused the same passion into them. Thus, not just my mom, but each member of our family — from my brothers to dad to my grandfather — everyone had their job well-defined during Chhath that they carried with equal passion and fervour. My paternal grandmother was mostly a silent spectator and my mom took this as tacit support and thanked Chhath Maiyya for this.
Not far away from our locality in Jamalpur, was a mohalla dominated by Punjabis. A good number of these Punjabis had settled in this town for two reasons: one, the Eastern Railway Workshop, which was the largest railway workshop in Asia at that time, had vacancies for them; and two, many Punjabis were into catering and bakery business for the 'white sahebs' who were in high positions in the 'karkhana', as it was commonly called. These caring Punjabis had called their relatives living in Pakistan to Jamalpur, a non-descript town in Bihar, after being ousted from Pakistan as refugees.
A community that has witnessed an exodus and a holocaust holds to its rituals and traditions very firmly and does not let go of its beliefs so easily. My mom’s passion for Chhath raised many eyebrows and some uncomfortable questions were hurled towards my grandmother who frequented the local gurudwara daily.
This period of Chhath Puja was an eagerly awaited annual ritual and a deluge of emotions was witnessed. It was a Maha Parv of mannats, a time when mom was at the feet of Chhath Maiyya with her long list of wishes. My mom waited the whole year, and wishes kept adding to this endless list. She had a strong unshakeable belief that come what may, her prayers will never go unanswered at the feet of Chhath Maiyya. Any problem under the sky, mom knew where to go with her prayers. The most important ones, like children’s Board exams, Dad’s operation, issues related to jobs, etc., often invoked a vow to offer a ‘soop’. And the kind Divine Mother never disappointed my mother and showered her blessings abundantly. So we all grew up with this belief that problems cannot linger for long in the family because Chhath Maiyya was always around for mom. Such was her conviction and belief!
There was a break from this tradition for a few years when I shifted to New Delhi and later got married and started my professional life here. But very soon, I found out Chhath Puja gaining momentum in Delhi, and in a few years, it looked like I was still in Bihar with too many hotspots for Chhath celebrations. I still remember that I used to go to offer Arghya to the Sun God in the Soop of complete strangers, who used to get amused but never offended my sentiments and instead offered prasad. Only a Chhath Puja devotee can understand what value it carries to have Chhath prasad outside your hometown! A few years down the line, my mom and dad also shifted to New Delhi to stay with my brother who had joined a company here. I used to take mom to the ghats in Delhi during Chhath Puja that used to reignite her passion and devotion.
Soon, my brother got married to a Punjabi girl from Delhi who had no clue what the Chhath Puja was all about. My mother used to explain to her the significance of celebrating Chhath and the meaning and importance of the rituals attached to it. To give her practical training, she used to bring her to my home where we had a couple of families doing Chhath Puja in our housing society. She wanted her bahu (daughter-in-law) to carry on with the tradition of Chhath Puja. I am a witness to how a Delhi-based Punjabi girl who was a new entrant in our family started gradually picking up nuances of the celebrations from my mother and by observing people celebrate. The early inhibitions of standing in a queue to pour water over the Soop that is called the ritual of giving Arghya to the Sun God, gave way over the years to the assertiveness of doing things in proper rhythm. The awkwardness of eating raw fruits, vegetables and Thekua Prasad is nowhere to be seen now as she is often seen teaching her two children how to do things properly during Chhath Puja.
My mom is no more as she set off for her heavenly abode, perhaps to perform the rituals up close for Chhath Maiyya, and thank her for all that she believed the Divine Goddess has done for her. But looking at my sister-in-law during Chhath, I cannot resist thinking — another Punjabi in our family and another Chhath Puja devotee, Jai Chhath Maiyya!