Durga Puja is not just about festivities but also a time when Bengali literature asserts itself, with almost every publisher in Bengal, big or small, bringing out special issues for the annual intellectual nourishment of the public.
And while with the disappearance of CDs and cassettes, the much-awaited puja launches of music albums has become history, the puja-special magazines, which launched many a literary career, remain not only in circulation but also in demand. While the demand may not be as high as it used to be during pre-smartphone days, Bengali readers still like to devour short stories and poems along with fish and meat delicacies during the festive season.
“The puja sankhyas (puja numbers) still generate excitement, you won’t find such a phenomenon anywhere else in the country,” said veteran writer Amar Mitra, who won the coveted O. Henry Award this year and was also honoured this month with the Vidyasagar Puraskar.
In terms of output too, the year 2022 has been busy for Mr. Mitra. He has contributed to the puja issues of three leading publications and the issues the 71-year-old writer has touched upon are very contemporary. “For Pratidin, I’ve written a short story called Hanabari, which looks at what happens when the protagonist works from home, remains confined at home, for far too long. For Nabakallol, I have written a long story titled Gour Gopaler Mrityu Hok, about a young man who sells his land so that he can pay a bribe to get a government job, but ends up losing the job. For Bartaman, I’ve written Abhagir Ghar Basot, about old Kolkata houses whose ownership we no longer know about,” he said.
Emergence of smaller publishers
If there is one thing that has changed about puja issues over the years — according to Mr. Mitra and also the writer Parimal Bhattacharya — it is the emergence of smaller publishers, who have practically ended the monopoly of the biggest names in the business.
“What I have seen is the marginalisation of a couple of big publishing houses who earlier ruled the roost, and the rise of countless smaller players. Every year, new magazines are being added to the list with new sets of writers. Content wise, too, there is much diversity, with particular focus on non-fiction and poetry. But how far has this resurgence been able to recruit and nurture new readers, I am not sure,” said Mr. Bhattacharya.
“What excites me about puja specials are the lesser-known authors who still put in a lot of work, unlike the superstar authors who churn out formula fiction year after year”Samata BiswasEnglish lecturer, Sanskrit College and University
His point is supported by the presence in the field of people like Ruchismita Ghosh, a retired banker and a writer, who has been publishing a magazine called Sarbonaam every puja for 12 years now. Only last year, due to the pandemic, its publication became online.
“The number of submissions has shot up ever since we went online. Also, we were able to get a lot of new talent. Before we went online, we were mostly repeating the same writers,” said Ms. Ghosh, who divides her time between Kolkata and Gurgaon.
Having said that, some names remain pillars that sustained many a childhood. “When we were kids, Anandamela and Shuktara were the staple. They were also cheaper than buying individual novels. Later, Desh and Anandabazar Patrika became most coveted,” said Samata Biswas, who teaches English at the Sanskrit College and University.
“Now there must be hundreds of puja specials in circulation, but my eagerness for them have abated a bit, maybe because I can afford to buy books through the year. What excites me about puja specials are the lesser-known authors who still put in a lot of work, unlike the superstar authors who churn out formula fiction year after year,” Dr. Biswas said.