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In the city of joy

A large replica of the Meenakshi temple stands at a crossing, towering over apartment complexes and palatial bungalows in the posh neighbourhood. Painted in shades of red, yellow, green and pink, adorned with intricately-carved idols, it looks every inch the original temple. A few lanes away, the famous Ambaji temple from Gujarat has come to life in white and gold spires. Its perfect torans welcome you at the gate, even as celestial nymphs dance on the layered white ceiling inside; a fluttering red flag on top completes the picture. At a distance, the Sun god can be seen riding his chariot pulled by seven golden horses. The chariot is decorated with miniature paintings, peacock motifs, arched doorways and marble lanterns. There is also Pegasus, the flying horse, created with terracotta beads, guarding a betel-nut plantation, a large Burmese pagoda standing majestically on a busy intersection, a studio with angels and demons hanging from its rooftop, a tribal village set up in the middle of the city, and much, much more.

It is humanly impossible to describe all the puja pandals in Kolkata; it is perhaps not possible to see all 2,000 of them either, but it is surely worth your while to spend a few days experiencing one of the world’s liveliest art festivals, which comes to life in Kolkata during Durga Puja.

My numerous visits to Kolkata or Calcutta as I prefer to call it, have taught me quite a few things about the city and its people. Being prepared for the Puja frenzy and spending hours on the road – either stuck in traffic or standing in queues in front of the pandals – is one of them. But it has also taught me some shortcuts. To avoid the very first traffic jam – the perpetual one on the Howrah Bridge – I take the ferry across the river. It is not only a time-tested method to beat the taxi queues and the traffic at the railway station, but also provides a spectacular view of the Kolkata skyline. In less than fifteen minutes of de-boarding the train on a busy shashti morning, I am already on the other side of the Hooghly, standing in the shadow of colonial Calcutta.

The city seems to have just had a shower, and every inch of it glistens in the mild autumn sun. The fragrance of orange-stemmed shiuli hangs heavy in the forever-moist air. The blooming of the shiuli flower, incidentally, is also considered the onset of autumn, and in Kolkata , it means only one thing: Durga is on her way home with her children. In this part of the city though, there is no sign of the mother or the children, so I hail a taxi and head to where all the action is.

Your experience of Durga Puja largely depends on which part of the city you decide to go to: the elite South or rustic North. I choose to head South, for it is during my stay here that I started appreciating the festival and what it stands for. Until then, the non-Bengali in me could never understand the madness around the festival. I hop off the taxi at the junction close to my erstwhile home and walk.

Like always, the pandal outside my apartment complex in Hindustan Park is small but based on a contemporary theme – the recent surgical strikes – but the showstopper here, like always, is the idol. Dressed in a thick cotton sari, sans any jewellery, or weapons, the goddess looks like the everyday woman of Bengal. I thank her for getting me here and walk towards some of the most famous pandals in town – Ekdalia Evergreen Club, Singhi Park, and Ballygunj Cultural Association.

It is barely noon, but the neighbourhood is already bursting with colour and bustling with people. The roads are lined with colourful banners and advertisements: on one hand you have Vidya Balan selling jewellery and cream, on another you have Saina Nehwal telling you the benefits of an anti-allergy powder. Here you have Ajay Devgn riding a horse; there you have Sourav Ganguly holding a bottle of cola. There are many others too, but my non-Bengali eyes cannot recognise them. The people, meanwhile, are out in full force despite the rain and humidity, dressed in their Puja best.

Outside the largest pandal, housing a replica of the Meenakshi temple of Madurai, an army of hawkers has already set shop. They are selling everything from puchkas to jhalmuri, from pizzas to burgers, from ice creams to mishti doi, and are doing brisk business too. Looking at people devouring puchka after puchka, I am tempted to try a few too, when the sky opens up and I have to run for cover.

“You must take the cab from under the flyover; it is the closest and the cleanest way to reach Shobhabazar. I always use that road. But then the road may be closed. What about the next signal? Why don’t you take a right from there? I saw some taxis going that way. Oh ho! Why did you not turn? Now we will have to stand here for another half an hour. You should have turned right from the last intersection only.”

I sit sandwiched between my friend and her mother in the backseat of a taxi, as they try to decide on the best route to get to our destination. It is only 5 p.m, but the road ahead is jam-packed; so is the road on the right and the pavement on the left. The driver, an elderly Sikh gentleman who speaks Bangla, has been trying to explain to them that most roads have either been closed down or have been converted into one-ways, but the mother-daughter duo is not ready to believe him. “He’s trying to make money out of us,” they tell me in English. After an hour and a half on the road, and listening to a high-pitched conversation about almost everything related to the Puja, we finally get off the cab in the heart of North Kolkata. Unlike its posh counterpart, North Kolkata does not boast many large-scale pujas. The pandals here are more artsy, less commercial and mostly hidden in narrow lanes and bylanes. The food isn’t fancy either. Huge pots of biryani and korma line the wide avenue. There are large stalls selling Chinese food, kathi rolls and hand-churned ice cream. Meandering through the lanes of the humble neighbourhood, we spot many innovative pandals. One of them made up entirely of scrap, another just with washing machine pipes. Next comes a colourful Eiffel Tower, followed by a jungle and a cave. My favourite is the one with a mammoth Mahishasur pinned to the ground by Durga’s trident. The most famous puja of North Kolkata, however, happens to be at the potter’s colony called Kumhartuli, where all the idols for the festival are created. Owing to its popularity, the pandal is often crowded and queues run into miles. Today is no different. In no mood to jostle with the crowd, I promptly turn back.

If there is one place in Kolkata, where you can expect some peace and quiet even during Puja frenzy, it is Park Street. Having spent the entire day pandal-hopping, all I can think of now is finding a place to sit and getting something to drink. After much deliberation, my friend and I settle for Trincas, an institution best known for supplying office-goers with their daily dose of alcohol. It seems like a safe bet for hiding from the Puja crowd: who would spend the shashti evening cooped up in a bar? What I seemed to have forgotten though, is that no place can escape the puja frenzy in Kolkata.

The bar turns out to be noisy and overflowing with people. My first instinct is to head back, but chances of finding a table anywhere else are bleak, so we take the only vacant table in a corner. Next to us is a group of middle-aged women drinking and singing along to the band dishing out Bollywood numbers, to my left is a young couple with a child, gorging on chilli chicken, in front of me is a family of four laughing and swaying to the music.

As I settle down with my drink, I find myself having fun. After all, what is Durga Puja without the noise and the crowds.

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Printable version | Apr 19, 2021 7:18:03 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/metroplus/In-the-city-of-joy/article16071198.ece

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