(The Pujas are here, and this is a very short story I wrote a few years ago for a Puja special issue of I forget which newspaper. I think you might have to be from Calcutta to get this, but give it a shot anyway)
Three in the morning. We’re sitting around, four of us, in an empty field dotted with tacky plastic chairs. To my left, the pandal is asleep, empty except for a sleeping security guard. It’s quiet, though the field seems to throb with the echoes of the day’s chaos. The city is aglow, the sky grey and yellow, a dull wave of noise washing over us every now and then.
‘Anyone hungry?’ I ask.
‘I’ve eaten,’ says Purab, a cloud of smoke drifting from his nostrils, the orange glow of his cigarette reflected in his large, round eyes.
‘What did you eat?’
‘Usual. Pandal food. This and that. Just got in from Maddox.’
‘Lovely. Before you ask me what the pandal looks like, don’t; I don’t think I even looked at it. The girls just get hotter every year. Such fit, firm bodies they have now, and not afraid to show them! There was this one chick, my god…she was like a goddess herself. But why do you ask? You’ve not eaten?’
‘No. I think I’m going to go find dinner now, in fact. Want to come?’
‘Not if you’re going South-side. Won’t find transport back at this hour, and I have to be at work in the morning.’
‘We all have to be at work. Come on!’
‘Sorry.’ Purab gestures towards Alok and Subir. ‘You want to go with him?’
‘Depends where you’re going,’ Alok grins. ‘I’m not hungry, but I’m up for some fun. Where will the good girls be, this time of night? Subir? You up for some romance? There’s no point just hanging around with us guys, you know.’
Subir doesn’t say anything. This is because he’s very drunk. But he glares at Alok, and we all laugh, though this is a jibe that gets repeated every year at every possible occasion. Subir rises and burps, indicating his willingness to leave. So we bid our goodbyes to Purab and get into my car.
As I drive off, I see Purab, shaking his head, walk into the pandal, fading into the shadows cast by the lamps in front of the idols, until he’s just a suggestion of a moving shape, grey-green in the light from a huge glowing ad hoarding across the street proclaiming the virtues of some antiseptic or other. We turn the corner and drive on. Alok’s next to me, smiling a secret smile to himself as he scans the streets, marvelling at the new, flashing lights and bright colours of the city we watched change before our eyes. We’re from the north, of course, and we’re all old enough to remember when everything was different; when you could smell the earth and the river, when the pujas, while still a huge carnival, were about people not things, when the lights on the street, the decorations, were wonders to gaze in awe at. When the pujas were a source of faith and mystery. Ah well, we were younger ourselves, then, and you feel things more deeply when you’re young.
‘I want to tell you something,’ says Subir suddenly. ‘I’m gay.’
If he expects us to be shocked, he’s in for a disappointment. ‘We know,’ says Alok. ‘And we’ve always felt bad for you during the pujas – Calcutta’s not really a good hunting ground for attractive men, is it? Still, at least some of them have a little muscle now. If they’d only stop wearing net-vests at pandals, you’d be ok.’ Subir grumbles, and is silent.
Enough conversation. It’s time to eat.
At Ekdalia, we find what we’re looking for – an attractive young couple wandering around in a little winding lane near the pandal. We get out of the car. They don’t even notice us until we’re right next to them. It’s over quickly, without much of a struggle. Subir eats the boy, I eat the girl, and Alok watches, smiling, snacking on a hand. She’s very tasty, though her strange foreign perfume leaves an acid taste in my mouth. Give me old-fashioned sweat any day.
It’s almost dawn now. Time to go to work. Subir and Alok head off towards their home pandals, waving goodbye. I drive to mine, and walk inside, to the divine family and their lion. I assume my position, below the Devi’s spear, in front of the lion’s mouth. I stretch my face into a mask of anger and fear, my fangs glistening in the lamp-light, my body green, strong, well-fed. I freeze.
Soon the day will be here, and so will I. Waiting. Maybe you’ll come visit me, laugh at the silly asur. And I’ll be watching you. Maybe I’ll like you. Maybe you’ll look good.
Good enough to eat.