Sunday, October 24, 2004

Durga Puja

How quiet and final a Sunday it is today. The Durga pujas (my first in 4 years) are finally over. The preparations which began well in advance, a few months ago, finally reached their crescendo yesterday with the immersion of the pratimas in the Hooghly.

The pujas officially begin on Mahalaya or the arrival of Durga but the actual celebrations take place a week later and are usually a 5 day affair, shosti to dashami (the from the 6th day to the 10th).

But for me, Durga Puja begins much earlier, perhaps when the paper man rings the bell to deliver the annual (or puja) issues of all the major bengali literary publications. These are too thick to be slipped under the door with the morning paper. The smell of fresh print and the luxury of lying on the sofa, riffling through the book checking out the various stories, knowing the pujas are just around the corner. Heavenly! (At the moment, 6 or 7 such annual issues are lying around and are driving me nuts. Can't figure out which one to start with)!

Then the pandals come up bit by bit. Overnight one finds a bamboo structure up, often on a road, or a field or park (giving little indication of what the final shape will be). Somehow, no one minds the detour these cause.

The crowds swell at the shops to buy new clothes for themselves as well as for giving. Having been away, I have sort of gotten out of that habit (not to say I didn't feel a small pang thinking I'd be going out on the puja days in my old clothes and was thrilled to find couple of sarees from my wedding, still new)*.

Bamboo barriers appear on roadsides to keep the absolutely crazy Kolkata pedestrians off the road. They cross wherever and whenever they want to and don't care a fig about traffic. In fact it’s the driver's onus to keep an eye on the pedestrian making sure he is not run over.

I can't quite explain it but there is this special 'durga puja' air all around, a wonderful relaxed holiday sort of feeling. It is reflected in little, little things. The golden sunlight of sharad, the tuning on to Radio Kolkata at 4am to listen to a special programme 'Mahishasur Mardini', on the arrival of Durga (something began in the 1930s by the legendary Pankaj Kr Mullick and now a must for Bengalis), the orange lights splayed across the frosted window of my bedroom, of the Maddox square puja, the beating of dhak, the clanging of cymbals mingled with the usual sounds of buses and cars honking, the chanting of mantras at the anjalis (morning prayer) and the smell of incense in the arati (the evening prayer).

Being away makes one appreciate old things better. But that apart, the pujas themselves have undergone a sea change. What variety of pratimas and pandals**. No more of those tarp and bamboo structures. The pandals are now old forts complete with turrets, abandoned house, fabulous south Indian temples with intricate carvings, a space ship (where the asur is an ET), cane chariot drawn by cane horses, pagodas, Egyptian pyramids and one was modeled on the huge globe of the EPCOT center at the Disney world in Florida! And they are made of terracotta tiles, jute, cane, coconut shells, sea shells, crushed coal, saw dust and gunny bags, dried cow dung pats and one, decorated completely with toffees. I marvelled at it all and savoured every bit of it even took a spin around the city from midnight till dawn (to beat the traffic jams of the evenings) and it was worth every second of it.

By this evening, all the pratimas will be immersed in the Hooghly, all the pandals dismantled and the lighting taken down by the very same artisans who built it up painstakingly and wait for next year to spin some more magic. It is sad but somehow fitting. It after all reflects the eternal cycle of creation and destruction and all important impermanence of things.

* I went out wearing a sari and promptly spilt some water onto my lap, which trickled downwards through the sari pleats and soon I was sitting in a neat puddle and I had not even seen a single puja yet! Luckily, the pallu was not wet and I pulled it behind me and spent the entire night pandal hopping!

** I had a small point and click camera. I don’t quite know how the photos will look. So instead, here are some Links those who want to check out the pratimas and pandals!

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