I’ve said this before (many times) but I’m going to say it again anyway: I never cease to be amazed by the extraordinary kindness of people in India and the everyday willingness of complete strangers to open their hearts, homes and recipe books to me – particularly in Old Delhi.
On Tuesday Dean and I were extremely touched to be invited to an intimate family Navratra celebration. At the home of the Arora family (Amit and his mother Kamlesh) in Old Delhi, a world away from the mayhem of the Durga Puja pandals, we took part in a quiet and dignified Ashtami Puja.
Ashtami is celebrated on the 8th day of Navratra and is a moment many families hold a special ceremony to offer prayers to the Mother Goddess or Durga/Kali. For the Aroras, Ashtami is a particularly poignant time because it is a time memories of Amit’s father Ashok (of Ashok and Ashok fame) who died suddenly in 1997, come flooding back.
As in Ashok’s day, nine little girls from the neighbourhood are invited in to represent devi, or goddesses.
The girls, some as young as 2, all sit perfectly still throughout the proceedings. First, Vijender, from the local temple, lays out offerings for Durga: coconut, almonds, sugar, walnuts, almonds, raisins, burfi and puris topped with chick peas and halwa.
Kamlesh leads the puja, emotional as she remembers her husband, a picture of whom can be seen in the shrine. In his day, Amit tells us later, everyone was invited and his father used to take Polaroid pictures of everyone to hand out.
When the prayers are finished, and Dean and I have taken a turn at offering prayers, Kamlesh gets to work in the kitchen, frying up mountains of puris.
As the room fills with the smell of ghee and incense, Amit ties sacred threads round each child’s wrist.
The devi are then served their food. On Ashtami it’s traditional to eat chole, (spiced chick peas), sooji halwa, (semolina halwa) and freshly fried puris (puffed, deep fried bread). The food looks and smells wonderful but it’s our turn to be patient as we watch the devi devour their food.
Soon the plates are clean and the girls revert to being a little less heavenly. Perhaps they’ve been on best behaviour too long or a sugar rush from the halwa suddenly kicks in but when they realize Amit has a stash of chocolate and crisps a stampede ensues.
When the snack supplies and 20 rupee notes have been exhausted, the children clatter off down the stairs leaving us to savour our own plates of Ashtami food.
In the Hindu calendar, this is the time of year blessings are bestowed and counted. As I walk slowly back through Sadar Bazaar, Khari Baoli and Lal Kuan I marvel for the millionth time at the great good fortune that brought me to India then led me to Old Delhi.