Kolkata’s Durga Pujo: The Best of Times, The Worst of Times


Kolkata’s Durga Pujo: The Best of Times, The Worst of Times

Illustration: Akshita Monga/ Arré

My sari looks like it was blown to smithereens and the rags hastily tucked into my petticoat. My hair appears as if every strand has decided to launch its own mutiny and march in a different direction. As for my feet, I’m typing this out over disapproving looks from my podiatrist.

Shubho Navami, I mutter under my breath.

Yet another year is here and I am back in Kolkata, caught in the centre of the rotating carousel in the great carnival of Durga puja. My parents, especially Ma, who shifted back to their “roots” the minute I got married and left, now blackmail me as soon as I tell them that I will be staying home in Chittaranjan Park for pujo this year. I’d like to retain my sanity this year (this I don’t tell her.)

“So your parents don’t matter during festivals? Only your friends do? Fine,” Ma says sullenly.

Quietly, I head back to Kolkata. My husband doesn’t get my mixed feelings – this unique combination of longing, dread, and melancholy – but I forgive him. He is a Gujarati whose exploration of his own traditions hasn’t even extended to the garba.

Once in the City of Joy, I cheer up a little. There is the infectious pujo air, there is the cha and dimer devil, there are the rituals to look forward to. We begin with the benign “pujo porikroma” or pandal hopping. Cousins get together, wear their best saris and customised sleeveless blouses that Bengali women keep for this festival… and then we choose the oddest of hours to escape the madding crowds for the pandals that are making headlines.

Obviously, we land in the middle of the rush because everyone else had the same brilliant idea. The best pandals can be reached only via the metro – that means putting my lovely Jamdani sari through the human equivalent of an automatic meat tenderiser. Once I manage to get on the train, loud women elbow me, crass men grope me, and by the time I get out, I realise the pins holding my sari have probably bled someone to death. I hope it’s the gropers. Either way, my attire is no longer Insta-worthy.

But I will soon meet Dugga. And she’ll make everything ok…

…Even if she is unable to help me jump this two-kilometre long queue outside the pandal. There is the shorter VIP line, which I can’t join because unlike in Delhi, I am the “visitor” here. I trudge ahead slowly, stepping on toes, being shoved from behind, obsessively wiping my sweaty face and cleansing it of the last traces of make-up. All this, even before checking out the first pandal.

Once inside though, I can’t help but gawp. A pandal based on Mahishamati’s palace from Baahubali is a sight to behold. As is Durga and her four kids wearing gold jewellery worth ₹8 crore. As I take out my phone to capture a photo of the goddess (a hundred blurry heads at the base of my frame is the stock Kolkata puja filter), the guard slams his stick near me. “Tarataritaratari, beron joldi!” (Hurry hurry, out you go) he shouts. I can’t even put together an Instagram story, a 30-second operation, before someone shoves me, saying, “Aage jaan, aar phone dekhte hobena!” (Move it, enough of your obsession with the phone.)

All this happens within two minutes and I am out in the Kolkata sun before I know it.

Another queue, another pandal, this time in the shape of a uterus. I have only 60 seconds to process it before I must relay-race it to the next one. As I stare at the people around me, I see the same affliction – a strange mix of peril and ecstasy on every face as they find it humanly impossible to make it to another pandal and light up when they eventually do.

But the pandal-hopping is the easier part – the bigger challenge is the delicate dance I must perform when wearing jewellery. Wearing junk, oxidised neckpieces means I don’t have enough gold and wearing gold means I am showing off. People don’t even bother to gossip behind my back, so taken in are they by my blasphemy either way. Relatives smilingly point out, “Tui janish na, eita risky,” (You have no idea, this is risky). I only smile. I have nothing to add, just the way I have nothing to say when the adda sessions veer toward the north-south Kollkata wars.

Without alcohol to keep me sober through this craziness, I rely on my first and last Bengali refuge: food. Even our neighbour Tanima mashi’s son Bapi has set up a rolls and biryani stall. Anyone with cooking knowledge of exactly a day is an entrepreneur here, cashing in on our gluttony.

Amid all of this, I realise with a start that I haven’t uttered a single prayer to our beloved goddess. Somewhere between being groped and taking selfies, my pujo has come to an end.

With a guilty pang, I retire to bed, bruised feet and all. I scroll through the timelines of my Dilliwala friends who are posting stories about the bhog in the afternoons, the dhunuchi dances in the evenings, and the addas at 2 am. Once again, I realise that I prefer CR Park’s organised chaos over the sheer lunacy of Kolkata.

My mother, who never gets out of the house during the festival, peeks in to wish me good night, and asks me if I had a good time.

Of course, I tell her. I promise I’ll be back next year.