6 years had passed since I had last been in Kolkata for the Pujos. 6 years is a long time….back then Ganguly was still loyal to his wife, Sachin’s batting was still enjoyable, Abhishek Bachchan was the biggest failure of Bollywood, LK Advani was the future face of BJP, the World Trade Center was an overpriced tourist trap and I was still slim.
Indeed “a long long time”.
I had been away from the city I love for 6 years pursuing my PhD in a land far away missing one Pujo after another. I refused to visit websites with pictures of Durga Puja and indulge myself in that monstrosity marketed as “e-darshan”—-what a load of IIPM.
I also never attended fatuous “NRI Bengali Durgo Pujos” because I knew I would never feel at home in an assemblage of overweight “mashima”s talking about their glittering diamond and gold appendages, overtly serious “uncles” wallowing in self-importance and reluctant ABCD babes and dudes enduring a few hours of “getting-back-to-the-roots” torture from their culturally apologetic parents. (My apologies for this harsh assessment of “Bengali Associations” in US—-I had an extremely bad experience the only time I attended one of their jamborees).
In short, for me it would be the real thing or nothing.
This year was it. My first opportunity after 6 years and I grabbed at it with the eagerness of a teenager who gets his first copy of Debonair/Playboy.
Oh to be in Kolkata now that’s Pujo is here.
You see the reason I like Pujo is the crowds. Not that I am a bottom-pincher or a pickpocket …oh no no.
Let me explain. I am an agnostic—-or more precisely ” I do not believe in God but am afraid of Him”(Usual Suspects). For that reason, the Pujos have no religious significance for me. The pandals and the statues are stupendous works of art no doubt (most of them at least) but no work of art would make me take unpaid leave from my work and rush across seven seas. I did not come back to partake of the purple pleasure of pandal-hopping with my friends —-namely because I never had many friends or brothers/sisters/cousins and my Puja activities were almost exclusively with my parents.
Again let me repeat: the reason I went back was for the crowds. Or more precisely the enthusiasm and joi de ‘vivre they radiate. There can be nothing as exciting as watching millions of people trooping tirelessly all through the night–braving serpentine queues stretching for kilometres with no complaint; waiting to catch a glimpse of something they have seen, with minor variations, countless number of times. I have never seen more happiness in the air than I see on Ashtami night—–and this is what makes Pujo worth everything.
And the small things of course—-the kid with glowing eyes standing in line in 1998 hoping to catch a glimpse of what he called “Titonic” (a pandal constructed based on the Titanic), the eggrollwallah catching a few last desperate seconds of sleep on Panchami night before the deluge of humanity begins, the shouts of “Nescoffee” and “Ashun dada ashun” (Come here sir) from the hospitable stallowners, the muttonrolls of doubtful provenance (I swear I once saw a stray dog go into a Pujo food stall and NOT come out ), the mobile circuses (come see the three headed girl), the deadpan announcements on the public address system :” Kusumkanan-r Panchu…tumi jekhanei thaako na keno office-e chole esho tomar bondhura tomar jonye appekha korche….” (Panchu from Kusumkanan…wherever you are come to so-and-so your friends are waiting for you).
[Reminds of a famous person whom I knew who went with 7 of his friends and got lost in Muhammed Ali Park. His friends realized that the “famous man” was lost once they heard on the PA system: ” So-and-so from Anwar Shah is here at our office and his 7 friends are lost.”]
Some things have surely changed in Kolkata Pujos—-there is more money in them, the profile of advertisers have changed in the big-name Pujas (Gallop Hawai Chappals , glycerin soaps have been displaced from the billboards by Airtel, Hutch, Allen Solly), traffic is better controlled, the eggroll/muttonroll stalls have been supplanted in many places by Arambagh Chicken (our Bengali version of KFC) and Dominoes and the old purutmoshai (priest) now has a cellphone—that too with a ringtone of “Dhoom Macha Le Dhoom Macha Le Dhoom”.
Some have not: Maddox square and Ballygunge Cultural are still chock-a-bloc with beautiful faces, aerodynamic backsides (Maddox Square and the backless choli—-never understood the close relation), giggling college girls, and heart-wrenchingly voluptous boudis (difference: before 1998 I would lust over them as the “mature senior woman” stereotype …..now in 2005 most of the glam boudis were my age) with “nekamo” (faux-femininity) dripping from their exaggerated movements.
And one other thing that has not changed—yours truly. Sure he has become fatter, older, cynical, worldy-wise but the things that moved him many years ago still pack the same punch. He still gets fuzzy from the adrenalin shots of pure joy that permeate the air, still enjoys watching the milling crowds and still appreciates the boudis.
Whether that is entirely a desirable thing — I leave you to judge.