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This October in Calcutta

Pujas! What a feeling. The streets in Calcutta seem to throb with life, and the words 'Festive Spirit' seem to add a new dimension to themselves. Every single thing that you do seems larger than life.

So I went home for the Pujas. After six years. I mean, I went to Cal in between, but I went specifically in time to see and experience the Pujo after a period of six long years. The journey to and fro meant I read two books, both by Indian authors, both very different from each other, and both surprised me - they were not the typical 'Indian author' literature. First was 'The Hungry Tide' by Amitava Ghosh. The last creation I had read by him was quite some time ago, called Calcutta Chromosome, and though crisp, it wasn't really strung together. To call it vague is an understatement. Going by my usual antipathy towards Indian writers, I expected the hungry tide, a fat book with a green cover and silhouette of a small boat and its rower on the cover, to be as depressing as other Indian authors are - moving from one tragedy to another in the tale of the unlucky main character. Thankfully this was not another tale of Indians in another land so I would be spared the misconceptions about an India that does not exist (or perhaps never existed, but I wouldnt know that) and the useless hindi mixed with wrongly spelled language smattered in between. No thanks, Ms Roy and Ms Lahiri, your writings dint move me.
So back to the tide that was hungry. Why did I pick up the book if I dint want to read it? Well, thanks must be given to M, who handed it to me - and since she is not usually the one to thrust fat books into other peoples hands, I took it and read it on this day-long journey. A beautiful book based in the Sunderbans, it spans intermingling events in the life of three very different individuals. One, a Bengali who is poor and lived in Sunderbans all his life, another a Calcutta Bengali who is affluent and a third (OK here it comes) a bengali girl born and brought up in USA who has come to India (Sunderbans) for some specific research on Gangetic Dolphins. But there is no unnecessary language intrication, a few Bengali words here and there but inserted quite naturally, and a moving tale, which is essentially optimistic. I liked it. A first for an Indian authored-book.
On the way back I read one of the books I bought. From the Gameworld Trilogy, the first part - the Simoqin Prophesies. Ok, so initially the book was a difficult read with confusing names and complex stories behind the plot, but soon I got the hang of this Indian-named mythology-based-fiction and quite enjoyed it. At parts it was distinctly Harry Potter and at others (yes, coming from me, its objectively true) like Lord of the Rings - but both mixed equally. In fact, I found quite a bit of it using Terry Pratchett's Discworld as a convenient base, not excluding the smart quips. However, most of it was well written and original. The best part was, I dint feel like I was reading a book with Indian names and mythology - it was well written, the story was tight and I did not realise I was reading a work of fiction by an Indian author - of course, the names came easily to me since not only were they Indian, they had a tinge of Bengali to them ;) Also, the story was quite predictable with smart quips here and there calling the man who would be the hero for the tale a "Hero" and adding lines like "Maya was attracted to him due to forces much stronger than she had ever known. The Law which states 'The Hero always gets the girl". (The line is from memory, so may not be an exact match to that in the book)

So I reached Calcutta. The excitement in the air is palpable. There was no loud noise, or excessive decorations two days before the actual Pujas began. The malls were as they usually would be, nothing as large and garish as the Diwali decorations - you saw a couple of diyas here and there, but nothing garish or large. But this was just the malls.
On the roads it all seems the same - the shops open, people running around, usual vehicles running, no decorations on shops etc, except the odd bamboo pole sticking up on the road. Then you notice there is a method to the madness. The people seem to be running around from shop to shop, purchasing, pulling their children - and they move fast. Something not very common in the shopping areas of Calcutta. The shopkeepers are extremely busy catering to an unending stream of customers, selling their special Puja wares - some on discount and some at extraordinary prices. The buses and trams (yes, Calcutta has trams which people use for travel) are full to the brink. The bamboo poles have people on top of them fixing electric lights and converting them into massive decoration pieces, just for four days. The excitement in the air was palpable, feverish. The Pujas were here, and the preparations just did not seem to get over.

The Pujas are celebrated in Calcutta as what is called "Sarbajanin" or "Baroari" - which essentially mean 'community affairs'. Durga Puja being too difficult to be performed by one small family. The families which perform the Puja at home are essentially joint families with extensive branches. So the neighbourhoods get divided into communities who then fund the Puja to be held there, with anything ranging from Rs10 to Rs 1000, depending upon payability and size or esteem associated with that particular Pandal. And the gap between the collected amount and the cost of the lavish festival is filled up by sponsors. This year it seems the gap had increased too much to be filled by even sponsors thereby making the Pujas a comparatively tame affair with smaller, not so lavish Pandals. Darn Economy! ;)

The Pandals! Made with bamboo, cloth, and other items like thermocol (or jute or other innovative substances and sometimes papier mache) these are made over less than 5 days at the location. The planning for what is to be made can take up as much as 6-7 months (and top secret). And they are broken down within two days, right after the last day. Sometimes I wonder, if the Pandals were kept intact over the years, considering no two pandals are similar, and there are new ideas every year, and they are all spectacularly beautiful with amazing attention to detail, what would the place which stored them look like? Every year the community decides on a 'theme' if they are big enough, anything right from a small village to even Hogwarts Castle replete with the famous train.

And to go with the pandals, are the idols of Durga and her sons and daughters - Lakshmi, Saraswati, Ganesh and Kartik. Not to forget the most important person - the Asur. The reason the Pujas happen. It used to be the other way round sometime in past - where the idols were more important than the Pandals, but I guess you can only do so much with innovation over five human figurines compared to the place that will house them. However, it is a wonder to watch what the innovations can be! Faces are different as are the placement - sometimes standing alone with separate backgrounds, sometimes under a common background. Sometimes they look Aryan, sometimes Burmese, sometimes plain normal. Dresses vary from the real cloth saris and dhotis to 'daker shaaj' - clothes made of shola which is basically think slices of tree bark, ornately carved and extremely fragile (the much thicker variety of which can be called thermocol). Then there is the art of bringing paintings to sculpture. A paint artiste may show Durga in forms where the whole family stand atop the horns of the buffalo horns only and then that is brought out by the mixture of hay and clay - what constitute the idols - into a 3D pasterpiece. Sometimes Durga looks serene and happy, sometimes she looks blazing angry. And so people flock from Pandal to Pandal - called Pandal hopping, getting high on food and drinks (no Bengali celebration is complete without food and drinks) through the day and night to look at her varieties and temporary houses.

The festival demands everyone gift clothes to their relatives - no one buys for themselves (rare) and one is supposed to wear new clothes on at least two days - shashthi (first day we start celebrating) and Ashthami (the most important day as the Fight between Durga and Asur gains intensity). However, we like to dress up every single day, including Mahalaya - which happens seven days before Shashthi.

The atmosphere everywhere in the city becomes tense. All revelry has to be crammed by people in those short four days. They need to look their best, travel, socialise, see as many pandals as possible, eat as much exotic food as they can, say hello to people known and unknown. Soon feet are sore, stomachs are full yet there is not a moment to waste, because its just four days. People are radiantly happy and roads are full of human beings walking. There are also tempers on the verge of exploding - it is not uncommon to hear mothers scolding and men-women having verbal fights over small issues while pandal hopping - the excitement does it all. There is almost no point taking a vehicle around - most roads will be either chock full of people or half blocked by a small pandal. Four times in a day one gets to hear the Dhakis belting out peppy traditional beats off their huge Dhaks (drums) laden on their back and and highly adorned to the accompaniment of conch shells. People stock up in afternoons with the bhog from the nearest pandal - a simple fare of khichudi and subzi (called laebra) followed by chaatni (usually of Indian olives) and payesh (not the usual elaborate meal still served everyday at my grandparents). The evenings are spent in stocking up on rolls (chicken, mutton, egg), 'fish chop', fish fry, etc. - bengali junk food. Not to mention the phuchkas and churmurs! (yum!)

The pitch gains a feverish intensity by the second last day - the navami. It is afterall, the last day that they can spend in the festivities. By the last day people are tired and only too happy to make social calls, wishing each other the happy Bijoya (Victory) of good over evil. I went out on the roads on the afternoon post Dashami. It was as if the lights had been extinguished in a large party hall after the party guests left. The electric energy keeping the city up 24x7 had died, and the roads were suddenly empty. Those going to work had gone, and those staying at home were sitting at home - relaxing their tired feet and alimentary systems. The builders were back to the pandals - dismantling their lovingly created, delicate creations. With the last dhaak beats of 'thakur thaakbe kotok-khon, thakur jaabe bishorjon' (how long will God stay, God will go away and be immersed) people had bid adieu to Durga for another year, and they slowly walked back to normal life.

If you have ever been to a grand wedding, the Pujas are something like that. Feverish excitement leading to the deadline with shopping and mega preparations for the place of event. Loads of logistics, planning and re-planning. Uninhibited enjoyment for the duration of the event with loads of eats, and then picking up the leftover pieces, limping back, trying to remember what it was like before the event happened. A part of you is born, and given away with the end of the Pujas. And unlike a wedding, here the effect is visible not on one small family, but the whole metropolis of Calcutta - sweeping away those who visit the city, and even those who do not believe in God. Because more than religion, more than the Goddess, more than the worship - the Pujas is about enjoying yourself with your near and dear ones, any way you want to. Nothing is taboo. And for one of the few times, it is really, about family and friends and not the events.
Tags: books, calcutta, pujas

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