By Chandrima Pal Feb. 13, 2019
As most of the country grumped their way to work on Monday, West Bengal enjoyed a long weekend to mark Saraswati Puja. After the rampant trade unionism during the Left Front era, Bengali work culture now faces a new challenge — a festive calendar that gets longer and more complicated every year.
February 10 was an important day for Bengalis. It was celebrated as Valentine’s Day or Saraswati Puja, a day dedicated to the Goddess of learning and, as in this case, love. For the uninitiated, Saraswati Puja puts the spotlight on Bengali women, who hit the pandals and lovers’ nooks in basanti-coloured sarees, high heels, dazzling earrings, and blinding makeup, trailed by star-struck young men dressed in crisp kurtas.
No one quite knows how this day-long dating festival came to be associated with the goddess of learning. But the reigning Chief Minister – sensing yet another opportunity to score points with her electorate – declared an extra day off for all state schools and government offices. It was, once again a masterstroke from Mamata Banerjee, who may well go down in history as the CM who declared the most number of holidays for festivals in the state, cutting across communities. Thankfully, it came right at the end of the Global Bengal Business Summit, a showcase event for the ruling Trinamool Congress that never tires of telling the world that “Bengal Means Business”.
The move to declare two days off for Saraswati Puja was meant to appease those who were upset about the festival coinciding with a Sunday. But as always, there is a grand design behind it. The declaration came a day before Uttar Pradesh CM Adityanath drove to Purulia district in Bengal, after being denied permission to land his chopper to address a BJP rally. Adityanath, who was hoping to storm the Bengali heartland, could not have chosen a worse time. On the day of Saraswati Puja, when every Bengali was busy eating khichuri bhog with their loved ones or singing Rabindra Sangeet at a para function, Adityanath arrived with some mistimed sound and fury. He accused Banerjee of neglecting Bengali sentiments about Saraswati Puja and Durga Puja. The BJP, we have been told, will ensure that Hindu Bengalis get to celebrate their festivals in peace. Irony just died and went to mishti doi heaven.
In Bengal, ever since Mamata Banerjee stormed her way to power, festivals have taken precedence over whatever little work there is. Industrialists who bemoaned the poor work culture in Bengal and rampant trade unionism during the Left Front era, now have a new challenge — a festive calendar that gets longer and more complicated every year.
In Bengal, ever since Mamata Banerjee stormed her way to power, festivals have taken precedence over whatever little work there is.
Durga Puja, once a three-day affair, now stretches to almost 10 days, culminating with a grand parade of floats, aimed at silver-haired European tourists, who are usually here on graveyard tourism. Every year, in a bid to appease her electorate and defang her opposition, Banerjee puts in extra effort to make the festival look grander than before.
She has already declared Christmas as a Kolkata thing, with fairs and carnivals keeping people on the streets and away from work for days. All through the winter months, right up to the onset of the mango season, every park and public space is taken up by some fair or festival or event — Subhash Mela (named after Netaji), Manush Mela (celebrating humanity), Sabala Mela (for small and cottage enterprises run by women), Hasta Shilpa Mela (handicrafts fair), Boi Mela (book fair), Pithe Puli mela (traditional sweets fair), Gaan Mela (song festival), Kolkata Festival, Baul Mela, Film Festival, Milan Utsav, Hilsa Utsav, Aam Utsav, three back-to-back literature festivals, yada yada yada. Her cultural ministry is perhaps one of the busiest ones in the country, coming up with clever ways of packaging everything as bullets in the politics of identity, from hilsa to rich fruit cakes, and Durga Pandals to Dutch colonies. And what is a celebration without a holiday?
Bengalis have always been an emotional lot. Puchka is as much an “emosaan” as “phootball”. You cannot ever hope to expect attendance on time at work when there is a league final the previous night. Neither can you expect Bengalis to stay at home when it is snowing in Darjeeling after many, many years. The tourism ministry actually had to issue an advisory for the intrepid Bengali tourist who has been ignoring the extreme weather warning and his boss’s big eyes, to make the most of the bountiful snow in the hills.
So who cares about cut-throat competition, career prospects, mandatory office attendance, and unfinished projects when you can spend your afternoons watching a film at Nandan, strolling through the city’s many parks, having a hearty breakfast at the street-side cafes or teeing off at Golf Club? As if the usual calendar of festivals was not enough, competitive religiosity and the pressure of keeping up with rivals has ensured everything from Janmashtami to Ganesh Chaturthi, Chhat Puja to Ram Navami — all relatively new additions to Bengal’s culturescape — is an occasion to stay back from work and celebrate. Work in Bengal happens in the few days between one holiday and another.
Work in Bengal happens in the few days between one holiday and another.
In Mumbai, an autowallah, a repairman, or a bhajiwallah may charge you a premium, but will get your job done. In Kolkata, paying a premium is never a guarantee of your job getting done. “Money is not everything,” a cabbie will tell you, explaining why he refuses to work during festive days, even when he knows he could make twice the amount in an hour’s work. Time is not money in the Bengali parlance. It is a plate of biryani, savoured slowly, with relish, to the tune of a Bangla band belting out a hit number at the Boi Mela.
In this City of Leisure, life is a fair at the nearest square.
Chandrima Pal is a journalist, columnist, career insomniac and caffeine snob. Loves food. Does travel. Author of A Song for I (Amaryllis) and At Home in Mumbai (Harper Collins).