Puja is one of the best times to be in the City of Joy and we made the most of every minute of our trip last week
My mouth is stuffed with roshogolla. But that doesn’t stop my aunts from feeding me more mishti. With one hand clutching a shingara, I use my other hand to cover my mouth. The aunts shake their heads disappointedly and say, “Keechu khaash na. Ki patla hoye gechish.” That translates to “You don’t eat anything. You’ve become so thin” — a phrase most Bengali children have grown up hearing. Because in many Bong households, no matter how healthy or chubby the young people are, the elders in the family will always believe that their shonas and mamunis are as skinny as Kate Moss.
Coming to Kolkata is always an emotional and nostalgic experience for me because this is where I was born. It’s wonderful to be here every year for Durga Puja and celebrate with the extended family from my paternal side. All the fussing over, shopping for new clothes (one each for the ten days) gorging on phuchka, rolls and sweets, and pandal hopping... oh what fun.
The mornings start with pushpanjali at the pandals, where we repeat mantras after the purohit and then shower flowers on the idols of Goddess Durga and her children. After that is the bhog, the food that's offered to the gods and later distributed. It’s quite a spread. The menu includes khichdi, cauliflower and potato sabzi, sweet chutney, payesh, fried potato, brinjal, raw banana and cauliflower. It’s a lovely experience, dining with a large group of people, some known, most unknown. And there aren’t just Bengalis but also ‘Non-Bengalis’, a term commonly used by natives of Kolkata to refer to all others, whether Kashmiri, Tamilian or Marwari. But that doesn’t stop the bonding.
Since we Bengalis love our siesta, by noon everybody is back home and the afternoons are spent snoozing. After the compulsory evening cha, we start getting ready. It’s time for pandal hopping. A lot like pub hopping, just that here we don’t get to hold glasses of alcohol in our hands and schmooze from one watering hole to another. All dressed up, the entire family takes to the road to visit the nearby pandals. Since mahashtami, the eighth day, is the main day of the puja we choose the next day, navami, to go out, hoping it will be a little less crowded. But we are wrong. The lit-up streets resemble a carnival with food stalls, souvenir shops, balloon sellers, toy vendors, and sweetmeat shops bringing out extra-large vessels containing a variety of sweet delights…
The roads are teeming with people while the loudspeakers blare out a mix of Hindi and Bengali songs and oh, even Kolaveri on loop. There are people immersed in prayers, some catching up on gossip, some vying for attention and showing off their new clothes and accessories, teenage boys and girls coyly looking at each other (they say puja pandals are often the place where many find their soul mates) and then there is us, posing for photographs and hogging phuchkas, it’s just Rs. 2 for five!
Our first stop is a pandal that’s designed like Disney World. There’s Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck blowing kisses and a rather malnourished Pluto holding a balloon. Walking past the Disney characters, we reach the goddess, who is strangely alone because the kids and their parents are busy shaking hands with the animated characters.
Our aim this evening is to see as many pandals as possible but since most of them have long-winding queues, we have to make do with a look from the outside. Each area or paara has a unique design. We pass the Eiffel Tower, the Titanic, a jungle theme with orang-utans and tigers, a house of horrors with dancing skeletons and a sprawling model of the Kolkata Vidhaan Sabha, each competing for the best pandal contests.
After an hour, we finally return to the white palatial mandap we had started from. Finding a few empty seats, we sit back to watch the dhunuchi naach. Dhoti-clad men dance to the zestful beats of the dhak, while holding earthen pots of burning coconut husk and dhuno that lets out a smoky fragrance. They manoeuvre the dhunuchi with great flair, carrying out a host of gravity-defying acts. More people join in to shake a leg — the elderly, the middle-aged, teenagers and toddlers. Clearly, it’s hard to resist the call of the dhak. And now I am back in Chennai, miles away from the City of Joy. All I have with me are vivid memories and joyous sounds still playing in my ear. But it won’t be long before I am part of the festivities again, as the Bengalis famously say during the idol immersions ‘Aasche bochor abar hobe’. (Once again, next year.)