I’m sure there’s a rational explanation that involves hormonal spikes, external stimuli including cultural conditioning, and the temporary loosening, if not loss, of the leash around one’s neck to explain what happens to me every five days during this time of the year. For most people not acquainted with swimming in this deep end of the Durga Pujo pool, it looks, smells and sounds like a religious festival (‘pujo’ literally being ‘worship’) celebrated mainly by Bengalis the world over with Kolkata as its Mecca.
But like a wedding is much more than just the confirmation of a marital alliance and a Gucci handbag is much more than just a portable receptacle for some women to dump their things in, the Pujos — ‘Pujo’ to describe the five-day festival itself, and ‘the Pujos’ to denote the five days in Lego-set English — are also about much more than just the worship of a ten-armed goddess and celebrating her victory over a bad guy.
Pujo is less about being a symbol of good triumphing over evil and more about being what it literally is: an almost week-long celebration of friends, family, eating and drinking, general loudness, new acquisitions (most obviously clothes) and memories of childhood. It’s also the most familial of all festivals. The idol itself, a mother goddess, isn’t a lonely deity, but a woman who has come down with her two daughters, Lakshmi and Saraswati, and two sons, Ganesh and Kartik, to her ‘parents’ place’ for ‘the holidays’. It’s not for us to pry into what Mahadev may be up to with his pals in Mount Kailash while his wife and kids are away for five days. But what every Pujo pandal holds under all the bright lights and swirl is a family snapshot. With the presence of an interloper in the form of Mahishasura emerging out of the slain body of a buffalo only to be pierced by the protective goddess’ lance.
Durga Pujo was not always such a giant, social whirligig. It was once a homely affair conducted during the time of the year when Rama is believed to have sought the blessings of Durga before going to wage war with Ravana in Lanka (the day of Ravana being slain being celebrated as Dussehra). In the 18th century, zamindars in Bengal started to throw loud parties to augment this otherwise quiet, all-too-formal occasion. In 1757, Nabakrishna Deb of the Rai family of Shovabazar in Kolkata hosted a Durga Pujo in honour of the East India Company’s Robert Clive, who had just trounced the Nawab of Bengal, Siraj-ud-Daulah, in the Battle of Palashi. To impress the victor and future de facto ruler of Bengal, Deb pulled out all the stops, brought in nautch girls for entertainment and alcohol, beef and ham for refreshments. The rock’n’roll surrounding Durga Pujo was born.
In 1790, the Pujos were organised for the first time outside a family set-up when 12 Brahmins in Guptipara in Hooghly district decided to start their own neighbourhood Pujo. It’s this mix of zamindari high-octane pomp and a celebration involving the community at large that makes for today’s Shorbojonin (‘Open to all’) Pujo festivities.
Sitting here in east Delhi, Durga Pujo is not the uninterrupted blast that it is in Kolkata (or even in certain ‘Bengali neighbourhoods’ in Delhi). But since Thursday, the first day of the pujos which will end tomorrow on Dussehra-Dashami, I’ve been awash with childish, nervous energy, a happy delirium tremens that will suddenly, gloomily disappear with the immersion of Durga, her brood and that hapless demon forever frozen in mid-death.
My favourite depiction of the Pujos is the cover of the 1978 Pujo special edition of the children’s magazine, Anandamela, drawn by that magnificent illustrator-artist Bimal Das. It shows a gaggle of kids in costumes and masks playing the roles of Durga and her four divine children, along with one boy wearing a lion mask to portray the goddess’ carrier. But the real hero in the picture is the boy running away in the foreground holding the mask of Mahishasura while everyone behind him looks on shocked or bemused.
There’s an anarchic quality to this boy. He either wants to do something less formal than put up a Ram lila-kind of performance. Or he simply wants to disrupt proceedings. And that is what the Pujos boil down to for those who once fell into its bubbling vat as well as for those who continue to do so today as future grown-ups: five days of glorious departure from the normal. Wishing you all a Shubho Bijoya and a very happy Dussehra.