It was about this time of the year when everyone in Calcutta would be expectantly waiting for the annual festival of Durga Puja to begin. Pandals would be witnessing hectic activity, the markets would be crowded with shoppers, traffic would start getting slower by the day and hordes of people from adjoining towns and villages would converge on the city in droves – wide-eyed wonder gradually morphing into a tired shuffle by early morning when the buses would take them home. By that time, new clothes would be drenched in sweat and cling to their tired bodies, new shoes worn with torn socks would have resulted in painful blisters and many would limp home in bare feet.
The scenario has not changed a bit except for the fact that everything has gone into a maddening overdrive. The pandals are more ornate, far more expensive, themes and material use - disproportionately more important than simple piety. The crowds too have swelled a hundred-fold and instead of their presence on the last four or five days, the throngs of people hit the streets much in advance – sometimes much before the Puja organizers have been able to put their acts together. The roads are almost un-navigable despite the police bandobast and it is sheer chaos for over a month.
On the flip side the dreaded haggling and threatening over Puja subscriptions have become a thing of the past – thanks to corporate funding. But that has also messed up the city. It is cluttered with millions of temporary bill boards and gates. The city nowadays is at its ugliest best. But, since ordinary people like me are not pestered for atrociously high donations, I prefer to look the other way. In fact, I do not even venture out lest my sense of aesthetics be violated. With the government wanting to market the Pujas as a touristic event and planning to fund Puja committees, I would like to suggest that such visual pollution be reined in and a design code be formulated for advertisers and sponsors to follow and any transgression must be heavily penalized.
The scenario was not so in 1983. The Puja ‘spirit’ was all there but the madness and chaos had not yet manifested itself on the collective psyche. I mention a specific year because I have fond memories of it. Our daughter Shohini was not yet three years old then and like any child of that age had an unending list of questions and an insatiable hunger for stories.
|Shohini as a 3 year old.|
We lived on Motilal Nehru Road in a small joint family with a clutch of live-in domestics. The Deshapriya Park Durga Pujo was a short walk away and I had a few friends who were among the organisers. This was the closest I have ever been to any local pujo and that allowed me access to the hallowed pandal. It was the fourth day (Chaturthi) and the maids reported that the Durga idol had just arrived. Seeing Shohini’s impatience I decided to take her there. It was early evening and the little girl almost dragged me by the hand to the park and in we went into the pandal. There was hectic activity and I was concerned about her being hurt by getting in the way. I picked her up and walked around, pointing out Durga and her vehicle – the Lion, the demon – Ashur and Durga’s children Lakshmi, Saraswati, Kartik and Ganesh. This was not an ‘ekchala’ composition, but free standing idols and as I explained things to her I made the mistake of climbing the dais and peering behind the idols. At that very moment everyone present heard this perfectly audible little voice ask, “Oder pyachhoney bnash kyano?” (Why do they have bamboos stuck up their behinds?)
I could feel the eyes of the people around turning towards us. Sacrilege! This was the Emperor has no clothes moment. I heard someone hiss what I was doing up there and that I should leave. I made a fast exit with Shohini in my arms – who was still insisting for an answer to her question. I strode out of the pandal and explained to her that the idols were made of mud and that the bamboos were intended as support. Her expression told me that she was not satisfied with my answer. I tried to divert her attention to the merry-go-round and giant wheel still being assembled and kept up a constant chatter to pre-empt any more discussion on the bamboos up the posteriors of the Gods and Goddesses.
All the way back home and into the late evening I quizzed her - who is Durga’s vehicle? The Lion! …And Kartick’s? The Peacock! ...And Ganesh’s? The Mouse! …And Lakshmi’s? The Owl! …And Saraswati’s? The Swan! By the time I was convinced that my subterfuge had worked and the question of the bamboos up the posteriors of the idols would not come up again, she looked at me intently and said, “Why are they made of mud?”
“That’s the cheapest and the most easily available material to give shape to any form” I explained, thinking that a direct and matter of fact answer would close the chapter. She looked unconvinced. While I was trying to think fast for a more acceptable reason, she grew restless. “Tell me why!” she demanded.
This meant that she was expecting a story. I knew I had to be consistent with whatever I had been telling her all evening and yet a story needed to be concocted.
“You see Durga’s children – Lakshmi, Saraswati, Kartick and Ganesh were very naughty and they always fought among themselves and Durga had her hands full trying to settle disputes. She, despite her ten hands was always at her wits end like an over worked mother,” I started my story.
“What were the children fighting about?” she interjected.
“Oh! Many things, mostly small things like Ganesh licked Lakshmi’s ice cream and Lakshmi came crying to Mother. Kartick shot arrows as target practice on Saraswati’s swan and things like that. They did things that naughty boys and girls do.”
“What else did they do?” she giggled warming up in anticipation of a longer list of naughty things. This would be a long story if I keep adding to the list I thought and the story needed to be concluded fast.
You see this was going on for far too long and Durga knew that this would never end. Because children will be children and the children of the Gods and Goddesses never grow up. Have you ever heard of an old and infirm Durga or a bearded Ganesh? See! They never grow up or grow old! So, Durga was getting tired of all the naughtiness and was thinking of how to put an end to this nonsense.
Then one day Lakshmi sent her owl to eat up Ganesh’s mouse. Ganesh got another one from the pet shop and Lakshmi’s owl ate that one too. This continued for some time until Ganesh found that he had no pocket money left to buy any more mice. So, he finally confronted his sister and they started scratching, biting and fighting. Saraswati and Kartick egged them on from the sidelines and soon it really got out of hand. Durga got the opportunity she wanted and you know what she did?” I asked.
“What? Shohini demanded.
“Durga turned everyone into mud and the potters of Kumartuli started using that mud to make idols! There!” I concluded almost relieved to have pulled it off.
I had to repeat this story often, and I had to repeat many stories including the story of the Fat Queen that lived in the Victoria Memorial.
I intended to write about the people in the “L” pages of my telephone diaries and I just couldn’t begin. That will have to wait until the next post. This is what the Durga Puja festivities do to you. I do not go out pandal hopping because I detest being pushed around and my feet trampled upon, and yet at this time of the year even while sitting at home in front of the computer, the ‘spirit’ of the season gets to you.
Happy Pujas to you all.