May 25, 2020
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Calcutta Diary

"It’s almost like a sleeping megalopolis has been suddenly awakened and people emerge from its gazillion honeycomb cells relentlessly": This week's diary takes you to the streets of Calcutta during Durga puja.

Calcutta Diary
Calcutta Diary
Pilgrim’s Fairy Tales

In some ways, it’s like the city itself. Old and new at once—a warm, familial bonhomie, shot through with surprise and laughter. Puts you in mind of some ancient myth of eternal recurrence. Still, the Durga puja in Calcutta is like the coal of Newcastle. How do you describe an experience that has been lived, consumed, written about, photographed, filmed and feted by millions? Perhaps it takes the fresh initiate’s virgin eye to peel the layers of cliché off, well, a cliché. For a first-timer like me, the encounter comes as a series of jaw-dropping, exotic revelations. Like a haunted house ride in a giant amusement park, surprises and twists in the plot lurk at each turn. Each pandal is a new game. A crumbling building serves as one—the idols housed in what resembled an abandoned palace hall. I wonder at the choice of venue. Then the penny drops! It’s entirely a reconstruction. Oldness has been created anew.

A City Walks By

You’ve always heard about the “Pujo crowds” from Bengali friends but, like a tiger in the wild or a storm out at sea, the first sighting is something truly elemental. For pujos that have built a name for themselves over the decades, like the ones in Mudiali or Ahiritola, the crowds have to be simply seen to be believed. The distinction between street and sidewalk blurs perilously, the cloud-dense traffic and the mass of humanity on foot compete with each other for the last millimetre. At intersections, humanity wins—massed armies of pedestrians flow in waves, simply stunning the traffic into a kind of stupor. It requires superhuman effort each time to get the infantry attacks to ease and allow the poor machines to groan their way back home.

Meet You At Sealdah

Planning a trip to Cal for Pujo anytime? Be sure you do your bookings months in advance. We were lucky to get a pretty good service apartment on Park Street—so we could slip in and out of the crowds. The irony really is for residents who stay around pandals. As one of them confessed, it’s too much of a good thing. They can’t get in and out of their houses, and the noise is 24/7. It’s no longer just their home. When you’re in an unending nightmare, you simply want out. So many of them shift temporarily to neighbourhoods where the pujo fever is lighter, or even check into hotels. Others simply vamoose from the city itself and re-emerge only after the season has sunk into the Ganges.

The Bengali Night

By day, contrary to friendly advice, access was easier. That was a good passage, especially the north Calcutta pandals, even if one missed the lighting. But someone had suggested we pandal-hop at night—11 pm to 7 am. So our cab got ready to breeze through the seething streets. How do you think it went? Well, reaching the first one at Tridhara was easy. But optimism soon got trapped in a traffic jam of epic proportions. Creaking vehicles, white-grey diesel fumes, blinking shop lights, that unending tsunami of biped Calcuttans, and policemen who looked like toy soldiers in a real war. In the next four hours or so, we managed just three more pandals. And those happened because of the generosity of a few locals: realising we had travelled all the way from Bangalore, they helped us through the VIP entrances. What we really saw that night was a city turned inside out—all its houses must have been empty if the entire population was on the streets.

Calcutta, Carnivalesque

The other thing a newbie realises, of course, is that ‘puja’ is a bit of a misnomer. Sure, there are the idols, the rituals and the religious backdrop. But skim through sundry pandals and it’s plain that this is more of a giant cultural jamboree. The air is one of relaxed revelry, rather than of ritualistic solemnity. Non-Bengali minds may have trouble getting this. The carnival spirit takes birth on the street and seeps into the pandals. Almost everyone—pick any shade of non-believer, agnostic or Communist—is within the big tent and part of the pujo. Mutton, fish and chicken beckon you from every stall. Even rituals like the sindoor khela or dhunuchi look like an awful lot of fun. The dhaak is everyone’s heartbeat.

We Have No Branches

Yes, grand and petite pujos dot the world map these days—from Lajpat Nagar to Las Vegas, from Gurgaon to Greenland (yes, really). So, the phenomenon can obviously travel. But can the traveller be brought to its home? Can the Calcutta pujo be marketed for tourism like the Dasara celebrations in Mysore? Snuff out the thought. There’s simply no space here. That’s the ground reality. Even Ma Durga herself can’t do much about it.

(The writer is a Bangalore-based independent journalist)


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