Bengal is famous for Rosogulla, Macher Jhol, Mishti Doi, trams, hand-driven rickshaws, its artistic people, and a lot of things that make up what is also known as the Indian Modern History. The food items can be cooked using the right ingredients, fish can be exported, clothes can also be exported, and people can always migrate, but one thing that remains unique to (West) Bengal and cannot be replicated elsewhere is Durga Puja. The enormity of this festival dawned on me when I called the owner of a Laptop-repair shop and I was told that my laptop would get repaired only after the Durga Puja vacation. Yes, it’s a vacation in this part of the country. Schools, colleges, offices, and other work places remain closed for a long duration ranging from one week to one month. Shops remain open only to cater to the workload of the festivities, which is anything but a small feat. Durga Puja is a source of employment for many a decorator, sculptor, painter, potter, and other categories of artisans. It can be termed a huge business, but there is much more to it. What makes it special is the dedication and devotion of the people towards the Goddess. Most of them are staunch devotees of the Goddess Durga, and this ‘vacation’ is a great time for them where the Bengalis worship her by either fasting or feasting. One would wonder what is the best part about Durga Puja in Bengal, and I would say it is the pandals. It is as if the Goddess is the VIP (of course) and she gets so many choices for her long stay that she chooses to reside in each one of them, albeit dressed differently.
There’s a lot of difference in a pandal elsewhere and a pandal in Calcutta, and one has to be here to understand what I mean. Since the city gets even more crowded during this time, Papa and I chose to walk to the pandals in the vicinity. In short, we went ‘pandal-hopping’. Papa thought I should make use of this opportunity while I am here in Calcutta. So, we went down the stairs, crossing the noisy streets, making our way to the quiet lanes where the pandals had been set up. I might not be able to do justice to the descriptions since I’m already falling short of words, but if I had just one word to describe the beauty of those pandals and of the idols, I would say “mesmerizing”. Even if I were an atheist, such beauty could not have escaped the walls of my (dis)belief system. In Bengal, Durga is worshipped in the form of ‘Shakti’ (as Papa explained to me, her fierce form is worshipped instead of the soft, composed form), and I am not exaggerating when I say that she transmits her strength to the crowds which gather to worship her. It was a strange combination of calmness and courage that I felt growing inside of me, as I looked at her. Some pandals were extremely innovative, some were eco-friendly, and some were traditional. But all of them were colourful, classy, and artistic. The Goddess looked comfortable with almost every change of colour, every change of concept. Her aides, Ganesh, Lakshmi, Saraswati, and Kartikeya represented an ensemble cast, and glorified her presence. I could not help admiring the effort that went into making all of this a reality. For all the so-called disrespect that ‘idol worship’ faces, it seems that Durga Puja thrives on this form of worship. The idols are the result of an intermingling of sweat and blood of those who earn their bread-and butter by being part of the ‘behind-the-scenes’ projects. Calcutta seemed to be dressed exquisitely, as I looked at the pandals in every direction. This is the season when people usually pull their best clothes out of the wardrobes, or else, they go shopping 😀 It was an amazing experience to just stand there and look around. The pandals were definitely a photographer’s delight. And needless to say, both of us turned photographers, trying to make the ensemble cast fit into the small frame of the cellphone camera.
It was a long walk, stretching till Kalighat. It was raining mildly as well, and we took shelter at a sweet shop for a while. That’s where I noticed something that was true of most Indian cities. A red, low-lying building made of bricks was juxtaposed beside a newly built high-rise. I noticed the inscription on the red building, and I realised that it was a 20th century building, one of the offices during the British Raj. The contrast brought a smile to my face, for I’d have chosen that building as my residence over that high-rise, anyday. Funny how we always think that the grass is greener on the other side. We resumed our walk, and I soon realised that in Calcutta, Old is Bold. The street was lined with houses dating back to 20th century, and I could not hear even a single sound from the main road. It was as if I was back in time, and I told Papa that this could well be a scene straight from those times, when there was no technology being steered on wheels, and the only sounds that were familiar were the pitter-patter of the rain on that blue shed, or the rustle of the green leaves, the mieow of that fat cat trying its luck at gymnastics over the building, the conch shell and the bells in the temple, and the sound of Rabindra Sangeet, and the occasional sound of the cycle-bell and trains in the background.
It was as though the two centuries had been morphed together, and the result was a city struggling to retain its “old soul” inside new bodies. It has, somehow managed to do that, but the result is also a chaos. The result is also a city which sleeps in denial mode, refusing to move on with time. The result is a city which displays something that seems like a facade, until you take a walk deep into its hidden alleys and ways. That’s where you meet the real Calcutta. The real city, among other things, saves a part of itself inside these pandals every year and refuses to part with it, for that forms part of its identity, part of its “old soul”. The real city echoes through the conch shells, “May the Goddess bless everyone”.