"... But isn't that why we came back to India in the first place?" I ask my wife rhetorically. We have a stereotype breaking sort of marriage, the two of us. I am the emotional one and she is my rational counter-balance. Every so often, I come up with a half baked spur-of-the-moment idea and she patiently points out all the ways in which it is impractical, irrational, expensive, unnecessary and actually rather silly. Yeah, yeah, I retort impatiently, but it would also be fun! I am not the impulsive, spontaneous sort either, don't get me wrong. But compared to my super deliberative wife, I am practically Richard Branson.
So here we are, discussing the latest idea - that we should go to Calcutta for Durga Puja. It is going to be crowded like hell, tickets would be exhorbitant, and our daughter will tire of it all before we even get started - comes the rational argument. "But isn't that why we came to India in the first place?" I go, "To be a part of it all, to add to the crowd, to soak in the din?" Nope, head still winning over the heart. "And we could have bhog every day at the pandals!" A glimmer, a softening of the expression. Is it ... is that ... the beginning of a smile?
Durga Puja is big in Calcutta, so I thought. ("First of all, it is called Pujo", she reminds me) I have only been here a few hours and I know this much already. I was way wrong about it being big. Pujo in Kolkata (yeah, I am talking the talk now) is beyond 'big'. 'Big' feels puny as a descriptor for this. Pujo is Kolkata. Kolkata is Pujo. Sorry Dev Kant Barooah and your silly India-Indira slogan.
It starts right at the airport. You know this isn't just another day. The entire airport is decked up in lights, there is a throbbing, buzzing crowd outside, smiling and laughing for no particularly apparent reason. No, this isn't just another day. This is shoshti, the day after Mahalaya. The sixth day of the month, the first day after the mother goddess Durga has been placed for viewing. The beginning of the five days of festivities known as Pujo.
What strikes me the most is the scale. The scale of everything about Pujo is so much grander than just about anything else I have witnessed. It seems to dwarf Diwali in South India, Ganesh Chaturthi in Mumbai or Christmas in Virginia. It seems more like Carnival time in Brazil. Why, you ask? Well, ...
First off, everyone has the entire time off from work. Every workplace around is closed for the 4-5 days in question. Which means everyone and their seventy year old uncle is participating in the celebrations. Or at least all those who haven't run out of town fearing the dizzying numbers of out-of-towners who descend this tiem of the year. Like a certain newly desi family that shall remain unnamed, which was walking around with open mouths gaping at the pandals.
Ah, the pandals. The Bongs pronounce it pan-dell, which starts off sounding a bit pretentious to me, but I get with the program soon enough. The pan-dells are these massive works of art. Now, back in Mumbai, when I walk into a Ganapathi pandal, I expect to see a tent of some sort, a host of hoardings hawking assorted local businesses, some food stalls and a stage with the elephant god on it. The key distinguishing feature between one pandal and the next is probably the size of the idol. Not so in Pujo. Every pandal is unique. And I mean truly, undeniably, to-the-naked-eye unique.
It all starts with a concept. Each pandal has a concept, and is built entirely around it. The pandal in Salt Lake's IA block was built to mimic a Buddhist temple in Bangkok. So they build an entire edifice like the Bangkok temple right here, in the middle of Salt Lake, Calcutta. The artwork inside mimics the Thai style, even as the content is local. Or there is the pandal built to show the 108 forms of durga. Or the one that is built like an underwater coral reef. Or the one built entirely of bamboo baskets. Or the one that is designed as a celebration of the iconic palki chole song. Or the one that ...
So much creativity. So much art. Artists working in the hundreds, creating sculptures out of half a million ice-cream spoons in one instance, toiling for months. All for five days of viewing. To be dismantled after less than a week and never seen again. Perishable art, that lives on only in memories and poor 2-D representations.
Most Calcuttans don't seem to cook during Pujo. Home kitchens are shuttered as everyone flocks to the local pandals for bhog. The line at our local pandal is long, snaking its way around on itself. "But it is already two in the afternoon", I protest to my wife. How could so many be queueing up for lunch? Then of course, these are Bengalis. Late meals are just part of the I-Card. Khichuri is on the menu. And beguni. And aloor dum. Yum.
Communal meals aside, another thing that seems to distinguish Pujo from Ganesh Chaturthi in Mumbai is the near absence of visible politicization. Mumbai last month was drowned in hoardings of local politicians of all colors raining down their 'shubhechha's from every vantage point available. With white kurtas, folded hands and empty smiles, politicians were overtly and brazenly linking themselves with the celebrations and with the elephant lord. Pujo seems, at least on surface, to be somewhat different. There is the odd hammer and sickle flag at places. Or the pandal supposedly designed by Mamata herself. But by and large, Pujo does not appear to be trigger happy time for local politicians.
If it's worth doing, it's worth over-doing, some wise guy once said. And so it is with Pujo. It is too much of a good thing. And everyone within a few hundred kilometers seems to know it. So they all land up, these entertainment impoverished masses. For a week of pandal hopping and adda (the inimitably Bong version of shooting the breeze). The crowds are maddening. Our solution to the problem has a seriously South Indian flavor. "Let us go early in the morning", I suggest. Like I am the first guy in the world that has thought of that bright idea. Yes, we are told, there is a good chance you will avoid the crowds if you go at adequately off-peak times. But we are keen on seeing the pandals with their lights still on. Which means it needs to be dark outside.
For the third day in a row, the alarm rings at 3 AM. We get dressed in double quick time, and are off. By sunrise, we have seen about 15 more pandals. That makes our Pujo tally about 40 pandals. Not bad for three days, huh? "So have we seen most of the big ones?" I ask our driver innocently. He laughs, then grows confused and silent as he realizes this was not meant as a joke. "Just in Salt Lake there are 207 pandals, sir" he says, and gets back to his driving, trying to snuff out a snigger.