It was the year 2010 and I was standing, in trepidation, in front of my boss of three months. Until that moment I had naively assumed that my request for leave would be approved with minimal fuss, given the occasion at hand. Durga Puja was a few days away – my first since I had left Kolkata to find work in Mumbai.
It wasn’t simply the fact that I wanted to go back to my home, my city, during the festival. It was that I could not conceive an alternative scenario. I could not imagine a reality where I was not in Kolkata during the festival. I had convinced myself I would be granted leave. But conviction, I was soon to learn, does not sanction leave requests.
My boss reminded me that as a three-month-old employee I was on probation and not entitled to casual leaves. The horrifying consequence of being stranded in an alien city as Kolkata revelled in its annual cultural frenzy mattered little when set against the cold, stark terms of company policy. The despair I felt must have shown on my face because my boss’s tone softened and she offered an escape route. I could leave the office early on the relevant Friday and spend the weekend at home. Two-and-a-half days of pujo in Kolkata seemed infinitely better than no days of pujo in Kolkata. I thanked her and resolved to apply for a week’s leave next year.
One would expect that the trials and tribulations leading up to that particular festival holiday to have ensured sweeter memories. The details of a visit snatched from the jaws of stern corporate rules should have shone brighter and been cherished for years. But I remember little of that weekend. I imagine I spent those two-and-a-half days, in much the same manner as I (and many others) spent every Durga puja in the preceding years.
A couple of hours would be earmarked for the local celebrations, the para (neighbourhood) puja. What they lacked in grandness, they made up for in familiarity. They were also the sites where one would attend rituals – the anjali, or prayer meeting, on Ashtami mornings, for instance – but the sense of community these events fostered, went beyond religion. Indeed, these perfunctory prayers were the only thing that marked Durga Puja as a religious event. The moment they were concluded, Durga Puja transformed into an iridescent, all-inclusive carnival.
One of the evenings during this carnival would be reserved for the family outing. Depending on the number of participants, a car may have to be hired. Lists of the famous, award-winning puja pandals would be drawn up and there would be ambitious plans to visit a dozen or more of them. The elder members would issue jovial warnings of having to pull an all-nighter and the younger folk would indulge them with a smile.
After a few hours of battling with road traffic and serpentine queues to enter the pandals, spirits would begin to flag. One by one, members of the travel party would start yawning – typically around midnight – and people would wonder if the next seven pandals on the list would really be that different from the six we had already seen. A decision would be made, the car turned around, and we would head home for the night, telling each other that come next puja we would definitely stay out till sunrise.
The remaining days belonged to one’s friends. Friends from school, college, tuition classes and other varied origins had to be accommodated in a calendar overflowing with engagements. Sometimes these groups would overlap but this rarely presented any problems because spending time with friends meant milling about in a convenient location, chatting, eating street food, and attributing meaning to the careless, infrequent glances that girls would offer in our direction. These activities were, after all, common ground for all teenage boys. Puja merely accentuated these pursuits, heightening our love for phuchkas and deepening our need for romance.
In 2010, when I had asked my boss for leave to go home, it was this itinerary that I had wanted to relive. Now, over a decade later, it is almost as if the memory of this itinerary is what keeps me away from the puja.
During my last Durga Puja in Kolkata, in 2017, I had been assailed by a sense of dissonance. In my memory, the crowds, the traffic jams and the queues had been minor blips – quaint interruptions in the joyous week-long celebrations.
Reality hit harder than I had anticipated. The jostling of people was rougher, more aggressive, than I recalled. The honking induced splitting headaches and the humidity made standing in queues feel like running a marathon. Barely any of my peers lived in Kolkata any more and the times of juggling multiple plans with different sets of people were replaced by the formality of scheduling meetings with the few who had journeyed home from other cities and countries. Even the street-side egg-chicken rolls felt oilier, leaving an unpleasant, greasy aftertaste. I did not recognise this puja and the realisation was at once disappointing and devastating.
Perhaps I have stayed away from Kolkata pujas ever since because I am afraid of what I will find if I return. Perhaps I am worried that new puja experiences will corrupt and erase the idyllic memories I have preserved from my childhood. Or perhaps, I do not want to confront the question that lies at the heart of it all: Has pujo changed, or have I?
Rohan Banerjee is a lawyer in Mumbai.