It is that time of the year when the traditional Bengali greeting of “Kemon Acchen” (How are you?) bows out to “Kota holo?” (How many?). Not goals or wickets – but new clothes.
The other question asked is “Ki plan?” (What’s the plan?) The answer to this is understood. If you have not claimed your leave travel allowance to pack Tublu-Bablu and their mother off on a holiday, you stay back and eat. You drink. You flirt. You date. You go pandal hopping in new shoes and proudly wear your blisters. In between all this, you also find time to offer flowers, participate in some cultural programmes and cookery contests. And you stay awake. For a city that loves its sleep and can doze off anytime anywhere, it is a wonder that for five days no one cares to pause, breathe or catch a nap. There is so much adrenalin around, it could propel a rocket to Mars and back.
In other words, it is time for Bengalis in Kolkata to take their minds of their miserable existence. It is time for Durga Puja. A stupefying celebration of the divine feminine and epicurean excesses. Of cosmic energies and conspicuous consumption.
The origins of the social and cultural extravaganza in its present form goes back to the Baro Yaaris or community puja first held in Hooghly district in 1790. It saw the coming together of 12 pals or yaars (hence Baro Yaari or 12 Yaars) who sought donations from locals to conduct the first community Durga Puja. The idol found her way out of the inner sanctum of zamindars’ homes and began to be worshipped by the masses and eventually became an icon of the independence movement.
She was the reason why conflict-loving, rationalist Bengalis turned unreasonably sentimental creatures over the legend of Uma (the avatar of Goddess Durga and Shiva’s wife) returning to her maternal home with her entire family. As the warrior goddess, she stirred nationalist sentiments among rebels, and inspired even the most hard-nosed communists to join in the revelry. She has over the years, become less and less about spirituality or religion, and more about celebrating the community. And thanks to the massive corporate muscle over the past 15 years or so, there is also fierce competition, more money to be made and eyeballs to be grabbed on the way.
There are approximately 2,500 Durga Pujas held in Kolkata (excluding the private ones held by the famous families of yore). The budget ranges from a few lakhs to crores. Last year, when the total spend was pegged at Rs 250 crore, a cash-rich puja committee attempted to create a world record by building the tallest durga idol ever at 80 feet and a budget of Rs 5 crore. Even before the puja could commence, a stampede at the venue forced the police to seal off the pandal.
In Salt Lake, a popular Durga Puja pandal gets a few lakhs of visitors every day. Held at a massive playground, this puja has been the darling of corporate sponsors. Some of its committee members revealed that a media conglomerate offered Rs 40 lakh this year just to sponsor the eight gates and a jewellery brand offered Rs 20 lakh to dress up the deity.
On the whole, though, corporate budgets have shrunk this year, forcing many puja committees to go back to traditional idols and simpler artistic innovations. While you do have an idol with a thousand hands slaying a hundred-headed hydra of an asura, and a puja pandal that changes every few minutes, things have been a tad more restrained than last year. One of the most popular themes for puja mandaps in 2015 was the Nepal earthquake. You could walk into a pandal and get a feel of the catastrophe – with lights, sounds, smoke et al. In the absence of natural disasters, the focus this year has been more on dinosaurs, fantasy world, Buddhist shrines, Chinese temples, yoga, environment, recycling and nostalgia. Junked parts of the Ambassador car have inspired an installation at one place, while vanishing postal stamps is the focus elsewhere.
No work, all play
The decibels generated over the magical and macabre themes are complemented by the fierceness with which the timid Bengali goes for shopping. There are long queues outside popular shops. Malls are always buzzing. Kids often get lost in the melee. And husbands pray for sanity. Walk into any jewellery shop and chances are, an army of pancaked women will ply you with so much food that even when you wish to say no to something, you can barely be heard.
And then, there are the probashis – the NRIs and the out-of-towners who come home to give the autumnal city a shot of youthful glamour. Flights from Delhi, Mumbai and Bengaluru are packed. Quiet homes are suddenly noisy. And food and grocery delivery apps run special deliveries.
“We requested the owners to not slot deliveries in the evenings” said a disgruntled staff of one app. “But they want us to deliver all night! They are not Bengalis. How will they understand?”
A peon working with a media house is willing to forgo pay for pujo. “I don’t care for money,” he said. “I refuse to work on all four days.” A plywood company is paying tributes to the unsung heroes – the firemen, watchmen, policemen, cleaners and others who keep the city on its track for those five days of madness. Senior citizens who do not even venture out on their own to visit the doctor, hop onto air-conditioned coaches and go puja hopping in gregarious groups – with their inhalers, alzolams, insulin shots handy.
In case you decide to fall sick on any of these five days, good luck to you. You may have to call for an ambulance yourself, bribe the watchman, crawl into the ambulance and get yourself admitted. If luck is not on your side, you may also have to treat yourself. No self-respecting Bengali will work on those few days. An ad industry veteran shared this: “I had the misfortune of being stuck in the city with an ailing family member who needed emergency hospitalisation. After putting her on drips for five long days, the nursing home suddenly seemed to be in a great hurry to give her a clean chit – so that the nurses could go on their puja holidays.”
Charity hunter’s paradise
The festival, in so many ways, is about a shy, timid, awkward Bengali – who has not had a reason to take off his shirt and dance with abandon since Dada Ganguly in Lords – finding his mojo. Even if for a few days. It is about the legendary Bengali woman taking pride of place in the visual, consumerist and cultural extravaganza. Most men brave the heat and the surge of pandal hoppers, not to look at the deity, but the self-styled goddesses with their makeup on. Ladies’ tailors break out in cold sweat, as blouses and kurtas pile up on their work benches. Television stars and stage performers double their rates to endorse sari shops, boutiques, jewellery and puja pandals. Walk into any salon before the pujas, and you will see rows upon rows of upturned backs waiting to be glazed, arms raised to be waxed and faces covered with layers of seemingly edible stuff. It looks like a cross between renaissance painting and a war zone.
Kolkata, now home to more senior citizens than any other Indian metro, is still a charity hunter’s paradise. There is enough squalor on the streets, enough poverty and joblessness to keep planeloads of do-gooders landing at the swank but sad airport with its empty conveyor belts and unused trolleys. At the same time, Marriott and Westin are setting up hotels here with helipads, private residences and serviced apartments. World’s tallest skywalk sits atop a residential complex here. This is where a mob recently broke through the security wall of a gated community and vandalised 70 expensive vehicles as vendetta for a road accident.
Veteran journalist Shekhar Gupta had once written, “It’s been a decade since Kolkata ceded to Mumbai its pre-eminence in globalising popular culture and serious literature. From Suketu Mehta (Maximum City) to Katherine Boo (Behind the Beautiful Forevers) through Gregory David Roberts’s Shantaram and Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire, Mumbai is our most studied, psychoanalysed, romanticised and feared city.”
Kolkata lost out earlier to Delhi when the East India Company decided to abandon her. And now, it is Mumbai, Bengaluru and the rest of the world that seems to have stolen her thunder (read young people, jobs and investments). For the bhadralok Bengali, who normally detests anything that is loud, comes wrapped in a white and blue saree wearing a hawai chappal, Durga Puja is also an excuse to step out of character. This is the time to channel their inner North Indian – but tempered with Panch Phoron (the Bengali five spice). So bring on the booze, the rambunctious parties, the nightlong adda and unbridled revelry. Because every (wise) Bengali deserves to feel grand, for at least four days a year.