A man in Delhi once asked me “What is so special about Durga Puja In Kolkata? It’s just as big as Diwali is here in the North”. I simply smiled and replied ‘You have no idea’. You can take the craze of Diwali in Delhi, Christmas in London, Summer Carnival in Rio de Janeiro, Valentine’s day in Paris and then add it to the month long madness of Olympic Games or the World Cup and cram all that into a span of 5 days and you still wouldn’t know what you are missing if you haven’t been in Kolkata during Durga Puja. It is the time when everything came to a standstill in Calcutta ( Kolkata ), not that many people ever worked before or after!
There is a certain basket of values that never escapes Kolkata, a city I frequent to.The city just doesn’t care who you are as long as you, at some time in your life, have been a part of it. Which is why even the empty barstools at the Light Horse Bar at Saturday Club tell you. But has Kolkata really changed? Have the people become smarter in terms of making the best of every opportunity? I think not. The only place where a lunch is incomplete without a Campari; where there is a distinction between the dining room and the smoking room and where round-collared T-shirts still find no acceptance in club bars . There is also a certain panache that Kolkata has with regard to the music you hear. Item girls and Daler Mehndi have still not replaced Barry Manilow or for that matter Nat King Cole. There are hundreds who can still recite their school song and have preserved their College blazers and not replaced them with some foreign brands. Where photographs are in photo frames and not in cupboards, so that you can litter your drawing room with garish vases. Kolkata can erect malls and frequent them without forgetting the Victoria Memorial or the National Library, then more power to its collective elbows. I smile when I see the queue of people trying to enter the American Centre. In no other city are libraries as crowded as cinema halls. And that is because Kolkata still has a mind when all others are busy losing theirs.
Here are 10 reasons why I think the best time to visit Kolkata is during the Pujas :
1) The Pandals : The pandals are the most prominent things in the city. It is not without any reason that kolkata is known as the cultural capital of the world. 3-4 months prior to the Puja,sometimes even more you will see these huge structures coming up in the city building the suspense in the minds of the people as to what ‘theme’it would be this time.
2) Street Food : Durga Puja is also a celebration of taste buds. While the rest of the country goes on a strict vegetarian diet for the ‘Navratri’, bengalis indulge more into mouth watering non veg food. Chicken roll, mutton roll, mughlai paratha, chowmein, jhalmuri, egg,mutton , chicken chops adorn the road side stalls. Not only that biryani, kebabs, chilly chicken , manchurian chicken at unimaginable tastes and prices are made by the road side.
3) Bengali Sweets : After Ganguly, the two most famous bengali products are mishti doi and rasogolla. But don’t be fooled , there’s a vast range of bengali sweets that are still waiting to be explored by the outside world. Next time you are here, ask for nolen gurer sondesh, mal pua, jol shash, mihidana , shitabhog, chhanar jilipi and the list is endless.
4) Bengali Fashion: Women wearing the traditional tant sarees, Shakha pola complete with gold jewellery, red vermillion bindis on forehead, as reflection of the Goddess.
5) The crowd : The streets of kolkata see the maximum crowd on the streets during these four days. The intellectual, the fashionista, the budding politician in starched cotton punjabi, the culturally inclined, the school-goers first time out without parents, the para leaders they are all out there together. Watching the crowd, walking with the crowd , being part of this huge crowd is an experience in itself.
6) The lighting : This has been there ever since I was a child and it’s not just small chinese bulbs hanging from the terrace of the houses. The street lighting put by the puja pandals all have a story to tell, sometimes it’s about current affairs, heroines, heros, mythology or just a social message like plant trees.
7) Exploit the time during the Pujas both for theology and romance. Remember, love is in the air; there is an abandonment which you will rarely find at other times and there is something about the aroma in pandals which is heavenly. And to be quite honest, the Pujas in Calcutta are like no other. In Delhi you will end up meeting some political thugs and in Mumbai some worn-out Bengali actress. But here you can actually romance.
8) Time travel to old Calcutta : North Calcutta has not allowed anything modern to encroach their traditions and erode away their ideologies. The pujas follow no theme, the idols have the traditional ‘Daaker Shaaj’ dressed in pristine white, the pandals are nothing fancy , the old Rajbaris like Shobhabajaar have been doing durga Puja since hundreds of years now. A visit to the narrow lanes of north Kolkata is hence a must do.
9) The city never sleeps : These are the 4 days when Kolkata doesn’t sleep. It’s awake all 24 hours, its celebrating every minute and people just do not get tired.Even at 3 in the morning there will be hordes of people walking in and out of Pandals.
10) Bishorjon – The last day of the Puja is when the idols are immersed in a water body. People march the streets in procession, women have ‘shidur khela”, they put mishti on the mouth of the Goddess and ask Maa with teary eyes to come again next year.
The spear flashes, the demon dies, the rishis and devas cease trembling and effusively sing her praises in slokas that now reverberate in our puja pandals. Only in response to the devas’ final request, “…let the thought of you in us always, always destroy all dangers we may face later,” Durga acquiesces, “So be it,” and vanishes. To reappear again as Aadi Shakti, or the agent of the devas, or the daughter for whom we’ll wear new clothes and whisper into her ears, “Ma, abar esho.”
Sometimes, only sometimes, I wish we could throw the residents out of Delhi and replace them with Kolkatans. The purging would mean so much to all of us. But then when one ponders, one is gratified that Kolkata is still a city of remarkable joy. Of prose and passion. Of poetry and phuchka. Of people and, thankfully, no prejudice.
Calcutta is where all the action is… come and join me. ..