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Durga Pujo to a Calcuttan- Connotations, religious and beyond!

The very first thing every year I do after I get hold of the calendar (the Roman and the Bengali one, both) is to check the Durga Pujo dates. You may call it a habit, a glimpse of joy or a routine…anything. But I am sure that I am not the only one. Bengalis are by birth emotional and the degree attached to my idiosyncrasies is wee bit more. I am the kind who would cry silently in the bathroom after watching a few pictures of my city getting all decked up for Durga pujo on Facebook and then walk out perfectly happy and sane after thinking about the ‘to do’s in a ‘Probashi pujo’.

Frankly speaking, this is not the first time that I am away from home during Durga pujo, the significance of which in the life of an ordinary Calcuttan (and by that I mean all Calcuttans!) can be only understood by visiting the city during the time of the festival. I have heard many comparisons about Durga pujo being almost like Ganesh Chaturthi in Bombay, Hyderabad or Pune or for that matter internationally the Rio Carnival in Brazil. Amongt these I have experienced only the Hyderabadi celebrations and so I may not be qualified to comment but deep down inside, as girl growing up in a South Calcutta neighbourhood where pujo meant the excitement of discussing plans about decoration of the pandal and collecting funds way before the celebrations started, I know that Durga pujo in a Calcuttan’s life cannnot be substituted.

My ‘parar’ Durga Puja. The neighbourhood Puja – one that spells ‘home’. (My own click)

I have no qualms in admitting that Durga pujo for me and for many like me who grew up in Calcutta had connotations beyond being just a religious festival. And there lies the spirit and warmth which makes pujo so unique. I have seen, in Hyderabad for instance, that only people who follow a particular faith as mine, Hinduism, participating in the celebrations for Ganesh Chaturthi and during the day of Visarjan a curfew is often imposed in the old city area just to avert any chances of communal tension. And to think that we Calcuttans mark the beginning of our Durga pujo itinerary by making a mandatory visit to Arsalan and by devouring the mutton biriyani! It’s a pilgrimage, just like the chelo kabab or the prawn cocktail in Peter Cat or Mocambo. And of course the bhog that is served during the pujo days in the neighbourhood. Perhaps the only vegetarian fare which seems tasty to the tongue to the Calcuttan foodie 🙂 Durga pujo is as important for gastronomical delights to be explored as hopping through the makeshift wonders which dot the cityscape for the 4 days. People visiting the city first time during the pujo often wonder that so much of creativity and thought has gone for the preparation…and that too just for 4 days. I think there are already reams of data available on the internent over how Durga pujo celebrations is almost a cottage industry in Bengal ( I am not making a point for Industrialisation in Bengal).

My friends often wonder how can we Bengalis, and also the Calcutta Marwaris, Gujaratis and Biharis, who have called Calcutta home for  a long time now and that includes many of my friends who subscribe to the tought “ghar mein veg bahar non veg” (eating vegetarian fare in the house and non vegetarian outside”), eat non vegetarian food during the time we are celebrating a religious festival. My answer to the often remains that it is the same fervour with which we devour the Biriyani in a neighbour’s house during Eid or eat the plum cake during Christmas. And if I miss out on the Langar food during Guruparab (also Balwant Singh’s dhaba food in Bhawanipore) it will be almost blasphemy and I will not be qualified enough to call myself a Calcuttan. Calcuttans are often called a ‘hujugey’ lot. One who go by the wave. What else will describe the city’s euphoria in descending upon Park Street on the 24th December night every year? There are numerous flipsides in attaching so much importance in celebrating every festival, but somewhere I feel that it attaches a non communal flavour to the city’s diaspora. And the Durga pujo is the biggest among them all. That explains the Councillor of my ward, who practises Islam, taking active interest in making the pujo a success and never missing out on the Ashatmi bhog. That also includes the Sardars who stay near Bhawanipore being an active support in all the pujo planning.

Yes, I pray every year…and piously give my Ashtami anjali, fasting for the first half for the day and planning where to eat in the night. That is in between popping two gelusil tablets (Bengalis and their acidity!) I make wishes before the Goddess and participate in the ‘Sondhi pujo’ where I see thousands gather to pay homage to the mother who saved mankind. The magical moment of celebration all women kind when the 108 lights bloom in full grandeur to express their gratitude to the power of a woman. That is religious for me, extremely religious. That moment often defines the understanding of me being a “Hindu”. A practitioner of the “sanatan dharma”. For me, it is not remotely related to anything including eating non vegetarian food, chowmein, carrying mobile phones, going to pubs and parties, wearing what I feel I look beautiful in, being confident about myself or being friends with people of other faiths or inviting them to share the Bhog.

Calcutta, I have heard and seen, is incrasingly becoming intolerant towards the fairer sex. A year ago also I could take pride in the fact that my city is one of the safest in India, not anymore. But Durga pujo every year gives me hope. A hope that the same people who put up posters about “praying in front of the Goddess” will learn a thing or two about how not to make snide remarks about a woman wearing something you find “sexy”  in the crowd. Let her enjoy the pandal hopping or the adda ta Maddox square just like you do. Or to jostle inside the Pujo pandal just to grope her. Interestingly, it is also the time of the year when a significant number of eve teasing cases are registered in Calcutta. I do not claim I have never faced any during Pujo.

This year, I will be celebrating pujo in a faraway land. I will attend Germany’s biggest Durga pujo and one of Europe’s biggest pujo, in Cologne. I am looking forward to the excitement here…very much palpable among the ‘probashis’. The cultural program, the arrangements, the self cooked bhog….but deep down inside I know I will miss the crowds, the lights, the chant from the balcony while welcoming the daughter when she comes home a day before “shoshti”- “Thakur eshe geche” (“Look the deity has arrived”) and the spirit that is called Calcutta.

Pujo, for us Calcuttans, will always remain a celebration of life- food, friends, adda, nostalgia and planning for the next year 🙂

“Ashche bochchor abar hobe”

Calcutta Home Kalyan Sangha Pujo ebong anushangik bhalolaga

The community pujo.

I was having a random conversation with my cousin brother on gtalk and it was just the usual types -“how was your day?” “so did you finally get a girlfriend types”- until he told me about the pujo pandal coming up in a certain neighbourhood nestled in one corner of South Calcutta. No the conversation didn’t turn into a radical one, but it did overwhelm me with some emotions, predominantly nostalgic. memories, loads of them actually. 🙂

Kalyan Sangha- yes, that’s what my ‘para’ (neighbourhood/mohalla) is called. The pujo turns 39/40 this year (need to confirm this from baba). 40 years since the time when it was a peace loving predominantly bengali locality in an up and coming area of the city. 40 years down the lane (truly! only a lane… is often called the ‘snob’ neighbourhood which sleectively chose only 22 houses/many more households since the multistoried invasion, to call itself a close knit communiy) it has metamorphosed in to one of those very cosmopolitan parts of the city, posh and upmarket. Only the peaceloving bit has been taken to the hilt to the point that we often get to talk to our neighbours on Ashtami morning (and the following bhog ceremony) with the very formal- “kemon achho?” needless to say the rest of the connversation most of the time flows in anglicized bengali. (well, atleast we communicate once atleast!)
I have heard numerous stories from pishimoni about the para love affairs or the drama they used to stage every year for bijoya sommiloni. I have never witnessed anything of that sort in my 21 years of existance. There were sporadic Bijoya sommiloni and I particularly remember one where I was made to dance on stage with Miss Jojo singing (*shrink*), but then theye were very very formal occasions. and bout the love affairs, the least said the better. I guess we had moved into a generation of being very conscious bongs.
But then again I love them, my neighbours I mean…I love them being around, or is it just a habit that we have just grown used to.
My father is actively involved with all the para pujo activities (be it in any capacity), so I have seen my drawingroom turn into a virtual control room before pujo, or the editorial office just before the commemorative issue of that year’s pujo comes up. yeah! we dont even have a proper club-ghor, lol…we have a registered address though. In fact all the utensils needed for pujo are those which my family use for all other religious purposes. similarly the sondhi pujo lamps are given by another friendly neighbour or the Baikali bhog prepared by an always smiling jethi or the jethu-jethi couple I quite like who supervise the entire pujo. Our para pujo is not a big affair. Contributions, even the amount sounds big, do not add up for the entire expenses. So a favourite family of mine sponsor the Durga idol, a kaku sponsoring the Ashtami bhog or people like my baba and others using their official contacts for advertisements. That helps, since our para is very strategically located and the hoardings can be placed at the right places to grab attention. I guess this is the armth that keeps the pujo going in between the continous rants every year in the pujo meeting that its increasingly becoming an exercise of the elderly, with hardly any participation of the younger generation. and with so many new faces in the para these days, very few actually understand the sentiment. But then again, there are a few amongst them who really want to mingle and interact….new blood or not, Kalyan Sangha stays on.
We had won the competitions for best pujo in the area in our 25th and 26th year of celebrations, but the pomp seems to be waning by the day…what remains though is fond memories and warmth. ah! yes, the warmth..even after talking about lack of communication through most of my post. Why so?? may be because this is the place most of us still call home, yes, the proper home….not the multistoried ones……well the giant has nice old sprawling houses falling prey to it every now and then, but may be because of our relative snob status ( :P), am proud to say that my neighbourhood has preserved many a memory of a by gone era. 🙂
Also, for most of us this is the place where we understood what the atmosphere of pujo truly is (pujor hawa). I remember how much i used to bawl ove rthe issue that I have to visit my mamabari to be a part of a pujo where everybody is back home by 9. No, that didnt work out for me. For me my pujo is still being at my para mondop 10’0 clock sharp on nabami night where Baba will do his famous dhunuchi naach. one of my parar dada who stays in hyderabad but makes it a point to return to Calcutta every pujo once told me that it was impossible to think of Kalyan Sangha’s pujo without Baba’s dhunuchi naach on Nabami 🙂 That also paves the way for the younger generation to take over with their forms of the traditional dance form and trust me I also witnessed a certain somebody doing what we termed as the “jog dance”. Just that the young need to come up and shoulder some responsibilities too. will happen…am an optimist you see.
Also, this is the place where you can expect to catch up with your childhood buddies with whom you rarely get to meet these days. Many like me and Masume, my childhood friend, are away from home (both of us dont get to attend the pujo this year. sigh!). Many have migrated to different parts of the city. But whenever you meet them you feel good and happy. May be its all because of the fake pistol firing competitions that we had or the guys v/s girls big fight (seriously we made a vow not to talk to each others groups after that and it does bring a chuckle to think about it right now) or the fight over the microphone about who will make the next announcement. It has all been a part of our growing up. just like those horrible nicknames (i love them though) by which we know each other.
It was not only us. My mom told me about her meeting with a very pretty aunty who was once our neighbour in the metro. She was still very nostalgic about the neighbourhood she had stayed in for 22 years…and it has been some 8 years since she left it.
May be this is the place I first fell in love. May be I did (completely head over heels type :P)
Kalyan Sangher torof theke agoto dorshonarthider janayi sharodiyar preeti of shubhechaa. 🙂