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Calcutta and the Pujas

If you’re from Calcutta and no longer live there, you will know what I mean when I say that it’s becoming increasingly difficult to display your heartfelt pride in your home city. I really want to indulge in ‘My city is World’s Best’chest-thumping, but the city makes it very, very difficult. Pretty much the only thing left to say is that in value-for-money terms, Calcutta has the best food in the world. Fifty points to us. Them. Whatever.

One thing that Calcutta knows how to do, though, is throw a brilliant Puja, year after year. It’s a bit difficult to brag about this to outsiders, though, because in bragging terms, it’s also a little too specific – it’s like saying that the Americans are the world champions in American football, or that I am the most successful writer in my Delhi flat, where I live alone. But every year there’s an inner stopwatch that starts on Mahalaya and beeps incessantly between Sashthi and Dashami, when your inner Bengali or inner Calcuttan takes control, driving you out into the streets to take part in the festivities. It’s the same inner force that makes people of every religion susceptible to Hollywood’s Christmas movies.

And just like the classic Bengali tourist would go, with his tiffin-carrier, to Mount Fuji and complain about how Darjeeling was both more scenic and less expensive, it  is part of an ex-Calcuttan’s duty to force himself or herself to go through ‘authentic’ Bengali experiences like egg chicken rolls in Delhi’s Chittaranjan Park – or Pujas anywhere outside eastern India – and complain extensively about how they are pale imitations of Calcutta in all its pomp.

I always feel a sense of great fondness when I visit Pujas in other parts of the world, because they remind me quite strongly of really small para Pujas in Cal. Everyone knows everyone else, there are ancient arguments and romances that are revisited every year, and there’s this really warm sense of comfort, of home, of having something to belong to. You don’t have to know the histories, the battle-lines, the synopses of previous episodes; the stories are largely the same, and always fun to observe. Because the Pujas aren’t really about the goddess at all, except when you’re a child and it’s all very grand and the stories mean something. As an adult, the Pujas are all about memories; there’s always something significant that happened, every year, friendships and romances found and lost, huge fights, funny stories that never grow old for the people involved in them and cause active bursts of nausea among their spouses when endlessly retold. If you live far away from home, there’s a great deal of comfort to be found in strange local characters you only see during the Pujas – for example, there’s this really ancient man who comes to my local pandal and sings, horribly tunelessly, a very old Hindi film song. I have no idea what his name is but I didn’t hear him last year and was suddenly very worried. I hope he’s all right, and I’ll watch out for him this year.

I once cured an intense burst of homesickness in London by heading out of my university to look for a pandal. It was cold and horrible and I gave up after ten minutes, but my all-conquering hatred of the British weather drove my homesickness away. And this could be the motto of all expat Durga Pujas – if it works, it’s all good. It doesn’t have to match your memories of Calcutta, because it never can. I haven’t been to the Pujas in Calcutta for eleven years now; I think of going every year, but the real Pujas could never match up to my memories, and why lose the illusion?

It’s not just nostalgia and pressure cookers that Bengalis carry with them when they migrate – it’s their essential natures and idiosyncrasies as well. Centuries ago, when I was in school, a friend was always busy during the Pujas because her local pandal organizing committee needed her to star in their late-night cultural extravaganzas – she’s a brilliant dancer.  She loved performing, but she was always slightly troubled by the complete viciousness of the politics involved in putting para cultural programmes together. She’s now still in demand whenever the Pujas arrive – except she now lives in Singapore.Near where she lives, predictably, there are two competing Bengali pujas, one ghoti, one bangal, and they both want her to perform, inevitably on the same day at the same time.

In Delhi, too, the extent to which a really tiny amount of power can go to people’s heads is incredible. Each of the CR Park pujas – all of which are at best mid-size affairs by Calcutta standards – comes with a cast of characters worthy of a full-blown soap opera, with bitter power struggles, cross-generational feuds and all-out drama. Local worthies who do pretty much nothing for the rest of the year come to life suddenly the moment autumn arrives, and engage in epic battles over issues such as gate passes, antaksharis and cooking competitions. Each year, as I my friends and I stand in never-ending winding queues, breathlessly waiting to be frisked by policemen from Haryana, the sheer joy on the faces of line-jumping local insiders who know someone on the committee is at once heartwarming and really depressing. They know, for those five days every year, what it’s like to be Rahul Gandhi.

And just like every other expat culture trying desperately to hold on to its roots in a fundamentally place, the hybrid Puja that emerges in Delhi or anywhere else is far more conservative and decades behind the real thing, which has grown and evolved in different directions.  Not that there aren’t excellent pandals in Delhi – the Kashmere Gate Puja, the oldest one in the city, is always well done, and full of fantastic Old Delhi food, and the GK1 and GK2 pandals are outside the general madness and probably go the furthest towards recreating the Calcutta experience. But the hub of Delhi’s DurgaPuja is CR Park, where I live, which is pleasant and eccentric through the year, like a slightly embarrassing uncle, but during the Pujas descends into complete chaos, like a slightly embarrassing uncle on tequila.

The most interesting thing about my locality is how hard it tries to recreate Calcutta, and how spectacularly it fails. It has a lot to do with Delhi being Delhi – the city isn’t ‘sarbojonin’ in the way that Calcutta is – Delhi is all about gated communities, restricted facilities, difficult access. But when the Pujas happen, the gates are thrown open and the NCR’s equivalents of Visigoths storm in with a vengeance, blowing their whistles until dawn as they troop tirelessly from queue to queue, engorged with meat, sweating vigorously, wearing clothes loud and garish enough to give Bappi Lahiri a complex, and generally having the time of their lives. And it was only after I confronted my own horrified, muttering middle-class grumbling with the appropriate amount of liberal shame that I realized something about Calcutta Pujas that I never had before; they’re incredibly fine-tuned social experiments, self-regulated gated communities in a way that Delhi’s pandals aren’t.

You know exactly what sort of crowd will be at which pandal when, and sort out your own plans accordingly. In high school it’s completely about which pandals have the finest girls; in college it’s more to do with carefully planned accidental run-ins with other interesting groups of people. If you threw all the pandals in all of Calcutta together, chances are you’d hate the results.

Last year, I found myself feeling nostalgic about my first Pujas in Delhi; this is the human mind adjusting to its new surroundings; if they invent teleportation and faster-than-light travel in my lifetime, I might one day find myself reminiscing fondly about Saptami on Mars. The Pujas adapt and evolve like new strains of bacteria, developing new features along the way.In Bangalore, it always rains during the Pujas, even if it’s been completely dry before. In Houston, they use a children’s swimming pool to immerse substitute idols in, keeping the originals in their temple. I suspect that if you’re lost somewhere near the South Pole when it’s Puja time, you’ll find two rival cliques of Bengalis in really big monkey-caps, glaring at each other over the ice while groups of penguins perform Rabindranitya. Add, for effect, a Japanese tourist with a really big camera taking pictures of it all.

Whatever the circumstances, it’s wonderful to know that the original thrives and survives; that wherever you are, in Calcutta there will always be the sound of dhak in the morning, drop-dead gorgeous women imperiously scanning crowded pandals as flushing suitors fight battles to bring them chairs, bizarrely ornate pandals in Salt Lake with ridiculous current-affairs themes, and flabby men wearing see-through vests at Maddox Square. And wherever you are in the world, there will be food, and fun, and stories, which in the end are what Durga Puja is all about; if it works, it’s all good. World’s Best, in fact.




About Samit Basu

Novelist. Best known for fantasy and science fiction work. Most recently, The City Inside (Tordotcom)/Chosen Spirits (Simon and Schuster)


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Copyright (c) Samit Basu. Images copyright respective holders.
September 2011


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