Puja reads

How Durga Puja made reading cool to entire generations

Kolkata’s annual puja numbers are a win win win for publishers, writers and readers.

When I think of Durga Puja in the 1990s, in my school years, oddly enough it is the rented third-floor flat I remember first. In the afternoons, once I had returned from school and we’d eaten lunch together, my grandmother and I would stand in the balcony attached to the room we shared, and look out upon the street of relentless traffic in front.

The roar of the vehicles was somewhat absorbed by the leaves and branches of the huge mango tree that hugged the walls of our house – the tree, which I missed most resolutely after we left that house, was technically not ours; its roots were in the neighbouring compound. Over the years my grandmother and I had come to love the mango tree and the mixed sounds it filtered into our balcony – the differing engine noises of buses and cars and taxis, mixed with the random tang-tang-tang of the hand-drawn rickshaws that still plied, weaving in between the monsters with a gallant abandon.

Across the road from our balcony was a park (it was, for some reason, called Ladies’ Park though “ladies” eschewed it like the plague for most of the year) and where, some time in September, a Durga Puja pandal would begin to snake up. And unlike everybody else I knew, the beginning of the pandal introduced white eddies of extreme gloom in me. We were, collectively as a family in those years, very bad at Pujo. The other festivals we got by, birthdays we were positively good at. But Pujo brought out the worst in us.

My friends in school, au contraire, belonged to these old Calcutta families that boasted of so many Pujo plans and rituals that they would enter a phase of excessive sugar high almost a month before Mahalaya. I breathed a sigh of relief when school finally closed down for a two-week break on Shashthi. In our house, my mother, whose college was shut for a whole month and a half, allowed herself to float into an opaque unhappiness as the Pujas drew close. It was strange and uncharacteristic. My mother was an annoyingly action-oriented person rest of the year, not at all neurotic like me or my father. But something about celebrating the Puja festivities in Calcutta defeated her.

My father used to be tremendously busy those years. An idealistic engineer, in all the decades he spent navigating the corporate beast, he reserved his first loyalty to the shop floor and the workers who inhabited it. Consequently, there was no leave for him, except on Dussheraday, when presumably his company’s many many factories across the country were shut.

My grandmother and I, shut out of the opaque unhappiness and the hectic work life, the collaterals and the flotsam of the middle years of the leading adults, had no big plans; we would probably offer pushpanjali in the mornings, following which we’d sit for a while in the white chairs that littered the park. And then, maybe, in the evenings, we would eat ice cream in Ladies’ Park, hoping feverishly somebody came to visit us. The rest of the time, we would clutch desperately onto our slender silver linings: the Puja Barshikis. Those whopping editions of Bangla magazines timed with Durga Puja.

The Puja Barshikis

The Puja Barshikis were for the two of us the best thing about Pujo. Every newspaper and magazine worth its salt published a fat annual volume that represented every single genre there was being practised in Bengali literature at the moment: poetry, narrative non-fiction, travel, history of ideas, drama, short stories, original novels by the most renowned writers working in Bangla, and even, in a wonderfully outdated section called “Patrabali”, rare excerpted letters (of famous Bengalis, naturally).

I can see the two of us now, my grandmother and I. Let’s say it is 1994. I am ten years old. She is in her trademark white cotton saree, soft, with a discreet colourful border. I am in a gingham Pujo dress stitched by my mother on her sewing machine. (Fortunately for my friends, their mothers have no such talents. They take their daughters shopping to New Market.)

Let us return to my grandmother and me, circa 1995. We are stretched on the four-poster bed we have inherited from her mother, my great grandmother, who had been widowed young and lived out her last years with my parents, wearing our similar spectacles. The sun comes in from the skylights high up on the wall and dances on the floor and the bed.

I am submerged in Shuktara. She is reading the Pujo-special Desh, her favourite journal at all times. Between us is a stocky pile of other barshikis – Anandamela, ABP’s offering for children, that produced its first pujo barshiki in 1971 and went monthly in 1975-76; Anandabazaar Patrika, the extremely popular barshiki published by the newspaper; Shaaradiya Bartaman, the other daily’s smaller, thinner volume; Nabakallol (along with Shuktara, this was published by the venerable publishing house Deb Sahitya Kutir).

And, of course, artfully hidden under the pillows, nestles Anandalok, the glossy sexy annual production of the sauciest Bengali film magazine: Anandalok. My grandmother did not mind my reading it. My mother was strictly opposed to my reading it. As a compromise, I read it surreptitiously and acquired enormous information on the love lives of stars in Bollywood and Tollywood that I had no use for.

Deb Sahitya Kutir

One year (let’s say, for the purposes of this story, in1995) my parents went to meet an old relative who lived alone – opaque unhappiness and hectic work hours did not detract from a deep pleasure-giving sense of duty for them – and they returned with a whole bag of hardbound books for me.

It seems, in their childhood in the late 1950s and early 1960s, my parents would read these hardbound Pujo Barshikis published by Deb Sahitya Kutir, with flowery names and scintillating content. They were hardback books that were almost collectors’ editions, beautifully illustrated and with expensive paper, not the fat paperback magazine-ish volumes of our times with thin newsprint-like pages. These volumes had beautiful names: Shyamoli, Indradhanu, Purabi, Arunachal and Niharika. A different name each year.

The old grandfather they had gone to visit had sent these volumes for me.

My grandmother and I unpacked the canvas bag together, laying out these books on the bed. For the next few weeks, I threw myself into them, which seemed to hold the secrets of my parents’ childhood, the clues to their peculiar predilections. The superb comics by Narayan Debnath. The fine novels and short stories. And most of all, characters who returned again and again in these different volumes – but completely vanished in the later years. The detectives Indrajit Ray or the girl-sleuth Raatri, far far cooler than Nancy Drew could ever be.

It was not the first time that I wanted, desperately, to belong to an older era.

Masterstroke

It is only now, in retrospect, that I realise what a master-stroke of genius the idea of the annual sharadiya special volume is, for everyone involved in the cosmos of Bengali literature: the publisher, the writer, the reader.

While writers in Bengal have been drawing their sustenance from journals for a long time now (Saratchandra Chattopadhyay could never have been a full-time writer without Basumati), the Puja special not only gets writers a tidy sum (and drives them deadline-batty, no doubt), but also, perhaps than anything else, gets them a readership that no standalone book ever can.

Then, by publishing cutting edge literature, with no stupid censoring notions whatsoever, in what is essentially an extremely mainstream and popular volume, the publishers also introduce lay readers to obscure things like philosophy and the plot-less novel or the novel-in-verse, without them feeling completely ripped off (for every experimental novel, there would be a deeply satisfying domestic one too).

And while writers and readers both gained, the publishers absolutely won the day. Not only are the numbers dizzying (as early as 1979, the Anandabazar group printed as many as 350,000 copies of its four annuals Desh, Anandamela, Anandalok and Ananda Bazar Patrika), it is also a wonderful marketing stratagem to showcase younger writers. Perhaps that is the reason that, preserving the democratic structure of the process, the prices have remained competitive. In 1979, Desh cost Rs 12. This year, 38 years on, I bought my copy of it for a princely hundred and twenty rupees.

Afternoon

This year, my parents visited us in Delhi a week before the Pujas. Now that they are both retired and happy, they are terribly involved in the (homely) Puja that is organised in our housing society. My mother supervises all the rituals, waking up daily at the crack of dawn. My father is the president of the co-operative society. They are busy and cleanly happy in a way that is almost impossible for me to comprehend, slap bang as I am in (the beginning of?) the middle years.

Over lunch, my mother tells my husband how she used to be so unhappy during the Park Circus years, and for the first time she volunteers a reason. (I am often surprised at how my parents, separately and together, tell a lot of stories to my husband that have never formally been given to me.) It was because she would miss the Puja of her childhood, she says. She detested the Ladies Park pandal and everything it stood for. She possibly detested many other things about her life then – but apparently, in hindsight, now the details have all blurred into the fabric of the past.

My parents grew up in Ranchi, and the Bengalis there would organise a homely pujo at Harimati Mandir. If I remember correctly, my parents had possibly seen each other for the very first time there, in Harimati Mandir, during the Durga Puja, long before they met again in engineering college and fell in love. My mother, the geek, would have focussed on the goddess and asked for specific academic blessings. My father, the eternal dramaturge, would have elocuted and acted in the evening performances.

The mystery of the unhappiness solved, I return to my grandmother and me on the four-poster bed, surrounded by the volumes, old and new, that filled our Shashthi, Saptami, Ashtami, Navami and Dashami hours, when my parents were anguished by the middle years of householding. It is afternoon now, and the dhakis have gone to lunch. The beat of the dhaak has fallen silent. The sputter and crack of toy pistols has ceased, as has the chanting on the loud speaker. The goddess has also been given an hour or two to reflect on what she will allot this year to her devotees, and what must be left for her children to disburse – and a month later, her wilder other self, Kali.

My grandmother takes off her spectacles and puts away her Desh. She closes her eyes. Two rooms away, I can hear my mother at her sewing machine. Outside, the crows confabulate importantly. I read the adventures of Kakababu, and every other minute, lift my eyes and look out at the blue sky of the goddess. I ache for the future as my mother, possibly, aches for the past. I cannot wait for it to be the future already, full of adventures and excitement, and no middle years.

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