W hen the mornings turn a tad cooler, the shiuli starts flowering, and evenings begin to set in earlier every day, my thoughts inevitably turn to the city of my birth. Even though I haven’t lived in Calcutta (sorry, it’s always going to be Calcutta, or even Cal, to me; unless I am speaking Bangla, in which case it is always Kolkata) for two decades, there’s something about early October that always transports me back there, as the memories of Pujos past (that’s Durga Puja to all you non-Bongs/non-Calcuttans out there) bubble up to the surface.
Even as a child, I knew instinctively that there was something special about Pujo. It wasn’t just that our household, holding on tight to our Punjabi roots, celebrated the Navratras by planting ‘khetri’ (wheat) in a terracotta pot in the puja room, feeding ‘kanjakas’ (young girls who are believed to symbolise the Goddess Durga) on Ashtami, the eighth day of the nine-day period of Navratra, and fasting during this period. It was also that something shifted in the air of the city itself, making it seem more festive, more celebratory, and more excited (and excitable).
The first hint that something was up was evident from the roads, jammed with people heading out for their Pujo shopping, making the traffic even more insane than usual. Next, activity started in the communal maidan near our house, where a pandal seemed to spring up almost overnight. And then, one day, all of us kids would be roused at 4am to listen to the Mahalaya broadcast on All India Radio, which signalled the beginning of the festivities.
Our household, for its part, turned schizophrenic during this period. Till Ashtami, we were Punjabis, tending our ‘khetri’ faithfully, staying away from onions and garlic, and eating ‘fast’ food once a day. And then, having broken our fast on Ashtami with our puri-halwa and kala chana, we mutated effortlessly into Bengalis, doing the rounds of the pandals on Mahanabami and Vijayadashami, marvelling at the decorations, the lights, gorging at the street-food stalls doing business near the pandals, having ‘bhog’, and watching goggle-eyed as the ladies of the neighbourhood performed the ‘Dhunachi nritya’ to the beats of the dhak, in front of the Goddess on Dashami.
But while we were a religious family, performing all the rituals and reciting all the mantras taught to us by our grandparents, it wasn’t hard to figure out, even as a child, that Pujo in Calcutta transcended religion. It was as much about faith as it was about fun. It was as much about community as it was about culture. It was as much about prayer as it was about partying.
For me, though, one of the best bits about Pujo was that we got new clothes: a set each for the five days of the festival (beginning with Shashthi and ending with Dashami), so that we never had to repeat an outfit when we went pandal-hopping. That meant endless trips to New Market, many excursions to the local tailor, and a mandatory visit to the Bata store on Chowringhee before my Pujo wardrobe was complete.
It was during Pujo that I tried out my first pair of high heels as a teenager (suffice it to say that it did not go well!). It was during Pujo that I first discovered the joys of flirting, safe within the embrace of my giggly girl gang. It was during Pujo that I attended my first Rabindrasangeet recital (and was blown away by how much better Tagore sounded in the Bengali originals than in all the banal English translations I had read until now). And it was during Pujo that I attended my first music concert (Bappi Lahiri was the star performer, accompanied by his gold jewellery, but thankfully even that was not enough to turn me off live performances for life).
Even after I grew up and began working as a journalist, my inner child would emerge triumphantly every time the Goddess paid a visit to her mother’s place. It helped that the newspaper house I worked for, in true-blue Bengali style, would give everyone four days off for Pujo, so that we could go pandal-hopping at leisure, stay up at late-night addas with our friends, gorge on luchi-dal for breakfast and dine on the most scrumptious of biryanis.
And then, one day, I moved out of Cal and was left with only memories of Pujos past to sustain me over the Navratri period. Which is why for me October always comes with sepia-tinted images of Pujo festivities in Calcutta playing in a constant loop in my head.
There is something special about Pujo in Calcutta. No matter how hard the Bengali community in Chittaranjan Park tries to recreate the ambience of Durga Puja in Delhi, it never quite feels like the real thing. I don’t quite know how to explain it, but I can tell the difference whenever I stop by to get my fill of the Pujo spirit. The pandals are just as beautiful, the Goddess looks as amazing, the beat of the dhak sounds as powerful, the bhog is just as delicious. And yet, there’s something missing.
And that certain something is Calcutta. The city metamorphoses into a magical place when the Goddess comes calling.
So, all of you celebrating in Cal, remember to have an extra rosogolla for those of us exiled from the City of Joy, and forced to observe the festivities from afar. And a very Happy Pujo to all!
From HT Brunch, October 18
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