Sunday, October 09, 2005

Ya Devi Sarva Bhute

"Come ye, who shun the folly of the East,
Nor court pale midnight at her gorgeous feast;
Who run from tom- toms rattling at the gate,
And view no poojahs crowding by in state"

This is what Lt. GW Wallace said of the Durga Pujas in Calcutta in 1876. Its that time of the year again. Maa Durga has arrived yet again, to dazzle us with her radiance and to spread joy and cheer to millions of her devotees.
I have lived in Calcutta for 14 years, but have experienced the Pujas for what I believe it to be in only in the last 5 or 6 of those. This year, I shall miss it as well, deluged in classes, submissions, work and exams. However, I shall visit the pujas here in distant Singapore, soak in the atmosphere and once in a while close my eyes.
I hope to remember -

- Calcutta. Its many pandals, most based on a theme, a current event even, brightly and intricately decorated, all competing for the prizes that are given out at the end of it all for best pandal etc. The city will be alive for the duration of the pujas, the magic will be visible. There will lights, sounds, traffic jams, incessant crowds, all night Qs and chaos on gargantuan scale. But it won't matter. People will throng, smile, laugh, spread cheer and travel. All will be forgiven. Disgruntled neighbors will present each other sweets, distanced lovers will fall in love all over again and warring families will once more sit together at the dinner table. The pujas can do all of this... and more.

- The mornings. You wake up, still heavy headed and tired from the all night pandal hopping with friends and family. You stumble to your balcony. Its a bit cloudy but the sun peeps through. There's a certain smell in the air. Theres a that light smog cover as well, but now it doesn't bother you. The steady drum beats of a 'dhaaki' floats in from somewhere. Some loud speaker blares the latest Hindi and Bengali film songs. You close your eyes and take in a deep breath. You realise you're not tired any more. The headache has gone. The only thing you look forward to is being with the people you love and doing the same thing you did last night all over again.

- The elders. The various grey haired, false-toothed, elderly relatives who would miraculously descend all at the same time and narrate stories of how the pujas used to be in their time and how things have changed. I will miss listening to them in wide-eyed wonder. I shall also miss accepting Rs. 101 each from them for 'sweets'.

- The all night 'addas' or chat sessions. Not specific to the pujas, but this time of the year gave us the excuse to indulge in conversations of all kinds for however long. No topic would be left untouched. From the plight of the Idol makers to the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden to the two hotties sighted in 'benarasis' at Maddox Square.

Here's an article by Vir Sanghvi on the Pujas, what it means to the Bengalis and his experiences with Calcutta.

"Tell outsiders about the importance of Puja in Calcutta and they'll scoff. Don't be silly, they'll say. Puja is a religious festival. And Bengal has voted for the CPM since 1977. How can godless Bengal be so hung up on a religions festival? I never know how to explain them that to a Bengali, religion consists of much more than shouting Jai Shri Ram or pulling down somebody's mosque. It has little to do with meaningless ritual or sinister political activity. The essence of Puja is that all the passions of Bengal converge: emotion, culture, the love of life, the warmth of being together, the joy of celebration, the pride in artistic expression and yes, the cult of the goddess. It may be about religion. But is not about much more than just worship. In which other part of India would small, not particularly well-off localities, vie with each other to produce the best pandals? Where else could puja pandals go beyond religion to draw inspiration from everything else? In the years I lived in Calcutta, the pandals featured Amitabh Bachchan, Princes Diana and even Saddam Hussain! Where else would children cry with the sheer emotional power of Dashimi, upset that the Goddess had left their homes? Where else would the whole city gooseflesh when the dhakis first begin to beat their drums? Which other Indian festival - in any part of the country - is so much about food, about going from one roadside stall to another, following your nose as it trails the smells of cooking?

To understand Puja, you must understand Calcutta. And to understand Calcutta, you must understand the Bengali. It's not easy. Certainly, you can't do it till you come and live here, till you let Calcutta suffuse your being, invade your bloodstream and steal your soul. But once you have, you'll love Calcutta forever. Wherever you go, a bit of Calcutta will go with you. I know, because it's happened to me. And every Puja, I am overcome by the magic of Bengal. It's a feeling that'll never go away."

Here are some links dealing with the Durga Puja.

1. The one stop shop for all the essentials you need to know about the Durga Puja.

2. A trip around all the Kolkata 'pujo pandals'.



Slice Of Life said...

happy dussehara
wll written post

Medha.. said...

Hey! Extremely well-written post. I so miss the pandal system and night long 'addas' where our moms used to gather together and start chopping the vegetables for the nest day's 'bhog'. Never been to calcutta during pujo, but bombay's pujo used to make up for that. Anyways, hope u have fun during pujo here. =D

Abhishek Chatterjee said...

CP - Thanks. Same to you.

Medha - never been to mumbai during the pujas. maybe u should take a trip to calcutta and check it out sometime. ya hope to check out the pujo here on tuesday.

S said...

Nothing's the same without you around. Really wish u were here! :-((((( WHENNNNN?!!!!

Ron said...

really well written post...its so understand Calcutta you need to have ,lived there, n once you have u can never lose the Calcuttan spirit. Belated SHubho Bijoya.

Saurabh Banerjee said...

Very moving post.

Abhiruchi said...

Superb !! Nostalgic :(