October brought blue skies.
Calcuttans heaved a sigh of relief as the pall of grey dissipated. They commenced with alacrity their ritual shopping and planning and dipping into holiday neuroses.
October brought honey-dipped dawns that by noon hour deepened into a rich hot day, the sun stinging the skin ever so slightly.
Women began ticking off items on elaborate lists – clothes to buy for family and staff, lunches and dinners to be hosted for friends. Each had made long lists, from which a few names, depending on insider information, were eventually scratched out. (If, for instance, you bought an expensive sari for a sister-in-law who had bought none for you that year, it would be sticky now, wouldn’t it?)
Men began complaining severely about accelerating acidity and depleted bank balance over the excesses of spouse and children.
The air in Calcutta was festive, bordering on hysterical. Houses were already being festooned with strings of lights; it would be another week, though, before they began to be lit up in the evenings, little red and blue and yellow dots of light glittering like jewels, each teeny bulb surrounded by an orb of dust. But the arrival of Durga, on a palanquin this year, on the sixth day of the month of Ashwin, shasthi, was still a fortnight away. Things would calm down and then burst into electric jolts, only to calm down again, several times before that.
Nancy Housing Cooperative was equal to its responsibilities in the festive season.
The modest park that stood in the middle of the colony, with a pair of swings and a small slide meant for young children, was the venue for the Nancy’s annual puja. Every housing colony worth its salt in Calcutta had its own Durga puja, and, of course, every neighbourhood had several.
There were forty flats in Nancy, eight in each of the five buildings. Only about thirty-two of these flats were occupied – Sandhya made it thirty-three – and so the total funds collected from the residents did not add up to a very grand sum. Nancy was essentially a middle-class colony. Even on paper, it was categorised as MIG: (home to the) Middle Income Group. But the bankers and lecturers and executive officers and senior government clerks and mid-level journalists who lived in Nancy, and were enthusiastic about the puja (though not that all of them were religious), galvanised their contacts and gathered sponsorships zealously.
It was morning. The light seemed yet unused, the air sweet and fresh still. Sandhya paused by the park, and then took a few steps inside. The green grass was moist under her thin slippers. She had been out buying vegetables from the neighbourhood market, and now she rested her cotton jhola, bursting with fresh produce – a bunch of lettuce, half-a-kilo of peas, cherry tomatoes, carrots, and a medium-sized pumpkin – on a bench.
She silently observed the men who were building the pandal. The more fancy pandals in Calcutta, the ones which won awards and attracted hundreds of thousands of visitors each day, were replicas of internationally recognszed monuments or, even better, internationally imagined ones. For example, Hogwarts (though somebody had sued somebody and the thing ended badly, the execution, by popular consent, had been grand).
The fanciest of pandals were fascinating interpretations of folk art or, these days, of recycling.
(Last puja, a neighbourhood had won critical acclaim with a pandal made entirely of discarded plastic water bottles). Nancy, in comparison, had modest aspirations. This year, they were to have a simple, elegant structure, modelled on a Roman ruin marked by a row of prominent Corinthian pillars in front. Mrs Das had picked it out from her younger son’s history textbook, and since Mr Das headed the puja committee this year, it had been selected.
But Sandhya didn’t know any of this background; she knew about the scale of the Durga Puja in Calcutta, of course, and was glad, since she herself worshipped the devi; but she had no experience of the puja here. And she was yet to know any of the residents of Nancy personally.
Sandhya savoured the stillness of the moment – the sense of how every second stretched and exploded, enveloping the precise and relentless histrionics of the men as they scaled the bamboo scaffolding, tossed around ropes, shouted to each other, handled hammers and nails. They built a house for the goddess from scratch with smiling ease. Their thin brown bodies glistened with sweat, though the day had not become warm yet. The leader of the men was a pious Muslim who broke every working day thrice to do his namaaz. Sandhya had noted this from her bedroom window. One of the younger boys would join him on some days. On other days, he would use the break to smoke a bidi.
October progressed. The pujas were but a week away. Little by little, the gold of the day deepened into richer fuller afternoons, temperatures dropping a degree or two to facilitate harried daytime shopping. Dusk came sooner. But even before evening fell in glorious purple swathes, millions of “toony bulbs” – the tiny now entirely-China-manufactured lights in red, gold green, pink and blue – began to glitter in the city, strung on long loops and hung on building facades.
It didn’t matter if the house was a four-storeyed work of art designed by a hip young architect or a glorified shack patched up with other people’s leftovers; it didn’t matter who lived inside. In Bengal, lights were distributed equitably in the season of the goddess. The really spectacular lighting arrangements surrounding the pandals, the elaborately designed and mounted scenes – politics, international affairs, myths and legends, all depicted entirely through the play of lights – would come alive only a day or two before Shashthi.
The electricity bill of every household would double that month. It was common knowledge that the neighbourhood puja would tap into overhead wires; people didn’t really mind.
Mrs Monalisa Das and Mrs Chhanda Mukherjee were not particular friends. The only reason they were thrown together every October was this: both ladies were meticulous (bordering on obsessive) about the puja part of the holidays. While the younger women of the colony were busy planning out each ensemble carefully, beginning with Shashthi evening, when they would favour Western casual to Dashami evening, with sindoor khela performed in the traditional red-and-white saris, Monalisa Das and Chhanda Mukherjee would be drawing up elaborate lists – who would cook the bhog on which day (mostly it came down to the two them and old Mrs Pal of A-2), who would cut vegetables, who would ensure that all samagris had been delivered the night before, who would help the pandit and his assistant at every stage, who would administer the queues for Anjali. They would go from house to house, recruiting volunteers.
This morning, Mrs Das and Mrs Mukherjee were sitting in the community hall of the colony, taking out all the brass utensils that were reserved for use during the pujas. Last year, they’d put these away themselves, carefully matching each item with a numbered list. Ha, how the prices of brass had gone up in the last six years, when they’d bought all these to initiate the puja at Nancy! Both women were highly efficient, and they mostly worked in silence; though their hands would sort and shelve steadily, they would essentially be wrapped in their own worlds.
Birds chirped, a baby bawled somewhere, the two guards chatted by the gate. Mrs Mukherjee and Mrs Das were in a chatty mood today; they were guardedly discussing the new neighbour, Sandhyaji, whose fame had by now spread through Nancy, though in every household it had morphed into a unique cloud of information. The Pals, who were very into Art of Living, said after making enquiries that she checked out, even Sri Sri was her friend. The Sens, whose daughters lived abroad, denounced her as a fake. The Qureishis reported on her Hollywood links – Mr Qureishi was a journalist – but most people didn’t really believe these. The octogenarian Chanakya Chaudhary, scholar and noted contributor to “Letters to the Editor” in Ananda Bazaar Patrika, was convinced she was CIA.
“It seems she is a very famous yoga teacher in America?” Mrs Mukherjee asked.
“Maybe she is famous in America. But I heard she lives in the UK. Oxford, near the university, they are saying.” Thanks to Bablu’s syllabi, Mrs Das’s geography was not vague at all. “Though I hear she has a big ashram in Rishikesh too. Even bigger than Baba Ramdev’s ashram by way of acreage.”
“Oh.” Mrs Mukherjee digested this. “Why is she here?”
“All that I don’t know. But I hear she is very kind and friendly and all that. I was thinking that we might want to involve her in the puja preparations, Boudi. What do you say? We need people. This year Meera Sahai will have to drop out, I think.”
“Oh, yes. Poor thing. She is not well at all,” Mrs Mukherjee mumbled. What to do about Meera? But she persisted with her enquiries, even as she checked the kosha-kushi for the numbered stamp at the back. “So, she is Indian? This lady?”
“That also I don’t know, Boudi. My information is from my maid. Anwara has become her big fan suddenly. Ever since the old lady took that crazy Mrs Matthew under her wing, she is full of her tales. She was dying to get a job at this house-ashram or whatever, and now fi nally this Sandhya lady has hired her. Anwara is becoming too smart, Boudi, too smart for her own good. She didn’t tell me what salary the old lady is giving her. That is the problem with NRIs. They come and inflate the heads of these servants with the big salaries they give, and the rest of us have to suffer. Anyway, apparently her Hindi is accented. But if she speaks Hindi, one way or another, she must be Indian.”
“We should go and welcome her, Monalisa, on behalf of the puja committee. Let’s go today.”
“Yes, sure. But don’t you want to speak to the flower-wallah first? Remember how last year he failed to supply the 108 blue lotuses for the Sandhi puja? God, what a mad scramble that was!”
“I’ll call that rascal right away. Thank god you knew that family who ran a nursery. We must invite them for the Nabami lunch this year, no?”
“That’s a good idea. I’ll reserve a couple of coupons and call them tonight.”
On the four days of the Durga puja, communal meals were organised by the cooperative. Caterers provided a morning repast where people broke their fast after the Anjali – the numbers were dwindling each year as the young people kept late hours these days and never woke up in time for the morning Anjali – and then a somewhat traditional lunch was served: chhanar dalna on Saptami, khichuri on Ashtami and mutton-curry-and-rice on Nabami. Every family was allotted four coupons for each meal. Extras would have to be bought separately. Dinner, though, was not organised in Nancy. People ate out a lot during the pujas.
As the head of the puja committee, Mr Das was de facto head of the food department. Naturally, it meant that Mrs Das had an important role in the selection of menus.
She said now, “In fact, Boudi, we can also explain the whole chanda system to this yoga lady. How she has to pay Rs 2,500 and will be entitled to four coupons.”
Mrs Mukherjee nodded briskly in agreement. “Let’s go after I speak to the flower-wallah.” She had an idea herself; she was quite keen to make friends with the yoga lady.
Excerpted with permission from The Weight-Loss Club, Devapriya Roy, Rupa Publications.