It’s Durga Pujo (and no I will not spell it as “puja”). And that means being struck, once again, by what I referred to last year as the realization of how far away from home I am both in terms of time and space. Of course any walk down the path of Pujo reminiscence for someone growing up in South Calcutta in the mid-90s would be incomplete without a homage to THE Pujo destination—a place where the ethereal beauty of the Goddess in clay and the ephemeral iridescence of the angels of flesh and bone who flitted around Her, the sound of the dhak and the musical cadence of laughter , the smell of perfume and oil-dipped “telebhaja” (pakoras) all combined to cast a synaesthetic, magical spell on all those present—-especially if you were early 20s, male and single.
Yes I am talking about Durga Pujo at Maddox Square which for five glorious days became Calcutta’s trendy fashionable hot-spot (according to the Express, food stalls at Maddox Square now serve “dieter’s sandwiches” keeping in mind their sophisticated clientele)—a place to see and be seen in. Why Maddox Square of all places we know not— Pujo historians opine that the venue being a park gave people a little more space to congregate and wander about as opposed to the Pujos that take place on the street where you fight for every inch of standing space to anguished cries of “Cholun dada cholun” (Move on sir, move on). Plus its location in a transportationally well-connected place in Calcutta together with it having decent place for parking cars (in comparison to the rest of the big pandals) may have also contributed significantly to its popularity, especially among the so-called ‘bhodrolok’ (moneyed gentry) of Calcutta.
Whatever be the reasons, the fact remained that for people like me in the late teens and early 20s too old to be holding Ma’s thumb and asking for a balloon and too young for having someone pulling at my thumb asking for a balloon, one of the single biggest attractions of Durga Pujo was in ensconcing oneself in Maddox Square, along with an all-male group of friends (I was in Jadavpur University Computer Science which had 55 guys and 1 girl), often on the few rickety chairs the organizers had strewn around the pandel and sometimes on the ground and testing the flexibility of our necks for some live “pratima darshan”. Old Calcutta hands will recognize this as the noble art of “jhaari-mara” (English translation: looking at someone of the opposite sex) with the subtle nuances that come with such a developed occular art form: the paraxial, the normal and the angular jhari reflecting different levels of coyness and confidence.
Amidst the “pariyon ka mela” there were the college-going beauties, suitably dressed for the occasion, some bold ones with even with an off-shoulder or a Maggi two minute spaghetti strap, in girlie groups, giggling and talking among themselves— some with astute good-girl detachment from their surroundings and some others intensely conscious of being in focus. There would be the ravishing boudis (married women) with their 15,000 rupee sarees and their god-knows-how-much worth jewelery blotting out the statue of the goddess with the glitter of their youth and wealth. There would be couples meeting on the sly and separating out from their groups discreetly (not that it escaped our eyes) and then there would also be the brazen khullam-khulla twosomes holding hands —-a sight that always made one of my friends, needless to mention burning in the fires of envy, say in a tone of consolation “These girls from Arts may go out with the Arts guys but they will marry us engineers”. Not that it really helped.
And how could I not mention the fashion. If you wanted to see what Calcutta was wearing, whether it be the “Dil To Pagal Hain” neck or the “Hum Aapke Hain Kaun” sari ensembles, then Maddox Square would be the place to be. Of course there were fashion disasters too —women who had white-washed their face or had worn a frilly dress about a hundred years too late but these sore thumbs were the exception than the rule. Or maybe I say that because we were always favorably biased towards the ladies—–mostly focusing our ire on the menfolk, the ones who, unlike us, had beautiful women on their arms or luxuriated in overwhelmingly female dominated groups (a friend used the generic label “advertising-r public” [i.e. people in the advertising profession] to refer to them).
Maddox Square was also unique in a sense that it had a profusion of members of a particular sub-culture of Kolkata [Rituporno (with whom I share the same school and university but nothing else let me add) being the most famous representative of them] wearing ornate dhotis and Punjabis resembling more a red Banarasi sari than anything else (I once heard a snarky comment telling one of these gentlemen to mind his pallu), speaking in stilted Bangla accents who were to us as much a subject of derision as well as of wonderment. Most of our bile was of course reserved for those men (and sometimes women) who just when they came in front of the idol would whip out their cellphones (this being mid 90s bringing out a cellphone was about as much a flaunting of wealth as bringing out a diamond studded Iphone would be today) and pretend to be lost in conversation—–we usually dismissed them with “That’s not a cellphone that’s a pencil box” (loud enough for them to hear) because there was a type of pencilbox made to look like a cellphone that sold on the streets of Calcutta.
Recently in 2005, I visited Maddox Square again after 7 years and it felt strange , though of course nothing unexpected, at not being able to recognize any of the faces or find old friends (in the mid 90s I would be able to find at least one person I knew in the crowd at any randomly selected moment), with the spots that we used to occupy once being now filled by a new generation of young men. Their names and faces I did not know, but strangers they were not. Call me a typical expatriate wallowing in maudlin nostalgia but I saw reflected in them the person I used to be, a long long time ago. With that feeling came the realization that no matter how far I am from home or how old I will have become, a part of who I was shall always remains alive, for those five days in autumn, amidst the glitter and joy of that magical place known as Maddox Square.
[Maddox Square courtesy this flickr page]