Ok. I may have got a little carried away here.
So it might not be as choreographed or organized or as commercial as the headline comparison. But it is a carnival for sure. And much more than just a religious festival. It is a time when the whole city decides to have fun. Together. Unlike Diwali, where people move indoors post the crackers, to celebrate with friends and family in little get-togethers, Durga Puja sees a mass movement out-of-home. People are outdoors. Dressed in their finery. Making friends. Loaded with a zest only this season or football can bring out in this city. Walking on the streets, from one pandal to another. All day. All night. And then some.
This carnival has art. It hasn’t found it’s way to displaying this art in a mega float on the opening day, but it has the craft to make international headlines. Or pull out many a long drawn whistles. Every locality and every tiny lane has a pujo of its own. And the preparations begin almost 6 months in advance. From deciding on the design of the pandal, to ordering the ‘protima’ [ the goddess/deity’s statue], to chandeliers, art and craft, community lunch, raising money- there are committees who do this for a good portion of their lives. And when the time comes, it shows. The city transforms into a walking gallery. A hop and walk across some of the famous pandals of the city will reveal the most imaginative and the most meticulously done themes. I have come across pandals and deities from simple yet resplendent village themes, haunted houses to the much more bold skulls & bones, Star Wars or even Harry Potter themes. Social issues, current news, disaster awareness- all are reborn and brought to forefront in their creative avatars through these themes.
This carnival has music. From free for all open air concerts. To blaring loudspeakers from every corner of every lane. You cannot escape it even if you want to. All one needs to know is which part of the city to flock to. And you can find some of the most popular bands lighting fire amongst an already charged up lot. But the signature tune of this festival is the sound of the famous ‘dhak‘. The reverb of these drums fill up the air, almost summoning people into its frenzy.
This carnival has food. And that is an understatement. This carnival has feast. And my favorite remains the street food. That grows to mega proportions of a beast with a hunger this time of the year. Chowmein, phuchka, fish fry, rolls, fried chicken, biryani, bhel puri, mutton chole…the list is as endless and as creative as the pandals. And as satiating. And it seems like no one is eating at home. The queue in front of the restaurants, specially around Park Street, is snaking and chattery. And then there is the ‘bhog’. The prasad dished out in communal lunches, where friends and strangers sit and eat together. Catching up on everything.
This carnival has lovers. Walking hand in hand. From one pandal to another. Taking a cooing break or a boat ride on the ganga. There are pandals unanimously marked out for young lovers to hang out. Or for wannabe lovers to sit and ‘bird watch’ and hopefully make acquaintances with young women out in their best threads. A much louder and colorful version, but this piece of the pujo seems to be picked right out of a Jane Austen novel. With the many debuts that young women make into the eye of the love storm.
And for the devout, this carnival is still the pujo to quench the parched soul. Where the goddess is anointed in all her splendor and offered prayers for 5 days. From waking up early, to staying up late, from the many aarti to the famous ‘dhunuchi naach’ [ the dance with the coal fire], the worshipper does not go dissatisfied.
And when it is finally time to say goodbye to the goddess, different parts of the city bid their own deity a loud colorful goodbye in unison. Where women in their white saris with vermilion border take to dancing on the streets. Where the dhaks build up the grand finale of a 5 day teaser, and where the crowd chants out “asche bochor abar hobe” with full faith and fervor. It crudely translates to ” will do this again soon this coming year”, but doesn’t capture the desire one bit.
For people like me who left this city a decade and a half back, this is one time that pulls me back with a big tug. Many a children of this city living in different parts of the country and the world feel the pinch every day when they do not make their way back in, if just for these five days.
I have often wondered the drug called Durga Pujo. If only a scientist could figure how to tap in and collect this energy in the air, ISRO can fuel another mission soon. At least half way.
Footnotes : For people who do not belong to this city, it is very easy to still come and be a part of this celebration. People here are inquisitive enough to get involved with you or pull you into their lot. Stay in the thick of things, read up on the newspaper which is shouting out the top 10 places to visit/eat/hang out in. Visit the open air concerts. And do some shopping towards the top part of puja. The whole city is on discounts. The biggest deal will still be the charge you feel, pick up and take back with you.