We Bengalis don’t really celebrate Diwali.
What we do observe is Kali Pujo.
This is precisely what we were told growing up in Kolkata. Kali Pujo is for Bangalis.
And Diwali is for “Marawaris”
Now “Marawaris”, for those of you not fortunate to have been born in Kolkata, was frequently a generic catch-all to denote anyone who was non-Bengali and did not wear a turban (anyone who wore a turban was, of course, a mandatory Singhji).
“But why does the Marawari family wear new clothes on Diwali and we don’t?”
“You wore your new clothes during Durga Pujo. Did they wear new ones then? No they did not.”
“Okay, but… why do they burst more crackers?”
“Well that’s because they are businessmen. Didn’t I tell you businessmen make more money? And this is their major festival. So..”
“But still why don’t we get one of those rockets that go up and then set off ten other rockets and then all of them come down as glowing parachutes?”
“Well isn’t it a shame buying all these expensive things and setting them on fire? How about that nice cut-piece Tapai got you for Durga Pujo—you can use it for years. Let the rush get over and we will go to Oriental Tailors and make a nice trouser for you from the cloth.”
” I wish I could set that on fire. Come on, you gave that to Tapai last year and this year he just gave us that back, forgetting who he had gotten it from.”
“Now now, one must not speak like that. It’s not that we don’t have anything. Kali Pujo. That’s for us. We have mutton. But they, they still eat vegetarian even today.”
“That’s all well and good. But, tell me, why aren’t we businessmen?”
“You ask too many questions. Really.”
Kali Pujo has always been my second most favorite festival after Durga Pujo (a very close second I should add). I never much cared for Saraswati Pujo—it was too white, too pristine, too sugary, an overtly “goody goody” celebration of the intellectualism that most Bengalis worship every day of the year. Kali Pujo was somehow different, darker, laden with protein, hands-on and strangely seductive, the closest an urban middle-class Bengali boy could come to something akin to danger—-the heat from the hand-charki flowing back on your face or the gust of air from the blast of a big chocolate bomb going off a bit closer than what was safe making you feel alive in a way that anjali in Saraswati Pujo could never do.
Buying fireworks, and I was always preferred the bombs and the rockets and the dodomas (the rocket-bomb hybrid) to the sparklers, the rongmoshaals, the charkis and the tubris (flower-pots) [not that I did not like them] ,was eagerly looked forward to all through the year.
Usually my parents would buy our firecrackers from Gariahat market which was about a ten minutes walk from where we lived. The stuff there was expensive and given the fixed Bengali budget I had, there was not much that could be bought, no matter how much haggling mother did (and she did a lot—-the shaking of the hand, the walking away, the coming back, the whole shebang). I tried to get around this problem by expanding my tax base, something I endeavored to do by begging Dimma for some money (a packet of chocolate bomb please) but even then my arsenal, those years we shopped at Gariahat, was not something I was entirely happy with.
Sometimes, and these were red-letter years, we would go to China Bazaar where the fireworks were sold “wholesale”. Now that was an expedition—serpentine lanes, throngs of customers (including the guys we would buy the stuff at Gariahat from), ceaselessly mind-numbing chatter, shops wall-to-wall with the most wondrous things—-massive designer rockets that reportedly spawned a thousand sub-rockets once set alight, triple do-domas and huge strings of patakas arrayed like ammunition for automatic weapons. And the most fascinating collage of garish firecracker art one could hope to see, surreal like Dali on crack—-the proud red Cock of the famous Cock brand, masculine in its cockiness, several artistic renderings of Sridevi, Bhanupriya and Meenakshi Sheshadri with diaphanous saris and over-exaggerated dodomas holding the sparkler seductively above their eyes, rotund babies wearing commando fatigues and an elephant with a sparkler coming out of its behind (I kid you not). In China Bazar, your rupee went more, way more than it did at Gariahat. The only problem was that asking for a packet of ground-charkis was sometimes met by a polite but firm shake of the head “I am sorry but we sell them in packs of a dozen” at which you would have to try to find a more retail-sale-friendly vendor. Which was easier said than done.
One of my many regrets in life was I never went to Nungi to buy my fireworks. Nungi was a village/townsip a few miles outside Kolkata that could be reached by local train. Nungi was, in the 80s and the 90s, one of the isolated pockets in Bengal that actually flourished because of its local industry. That was because Nungi specialized in making hand-bombs or “petos” (their street name), the demand of which was steady throughout the year in a state that always witnessed record levels of political violence. During Kali pujo, they just made consumer-versions of their industrial products and they were of very high quality, proving a lot of bang for your ruppee. It’s most famous name-brand was the Buri Ma (Old Mother) line of chocolate bombs, favorite principally for the washed-out, black and white photo of the mascot on the package, that of the legendary “Buri Ma” , a stern old lady in a white widow sari. There were many legends as to who Buri Ma actually was—-according to some versions, the mascot was a tribute to Gandhi-buri or Matangini Hajra. Another version was that Buri Ma was an expert local bomb-maker whose late husband was the first person to have experienced her bomb-crafting expertise first hand. Whoever she might have been, Buri Ma chocolate bombs were the best by far and while they would retail at Gariahat (with very high margins), the real macho thing was to buy them at source. Something I never managed to do.
Once you acquired the fireworks, you had to take care of them so that they remained dry and ready to crackle. Which meant putting them on metal trays and keeping them in the sun. I remember those beautiful moments, standing on the verandah, silently admiring the gold-foiled rongmoshaals, the silvery sparklers, the pink “electric wires”, the blue flowerpots, the red-green rockets, the multi-colored chocolate bombs, the ugly black tablets of saap-baaji (they would curl up like snakes when ignited and were called “Cancer pill” because of their noxious, supposedly carcinogenic fumes) and the lines of kali-patkas all getting steamed up.
Kali Pujo was coming. Oh what fun I was going to have.
And I did. My fireworks I set off in two stages. The first one took place on the balcony with my parents and a favorite uncle of mine (favorite not just because he also bought me fireworks). The electric wires, the charkis, the rongmoshaals, the sparklers would be disposed off round about now. The second phase was with friends, up on the terrace, where the heavy artillery (chocolate bombs, flower-pots, rockets) would be brought out.
Even when one had run out of fireworks, one could just stand and soak in the celebrations as Kolkata was transformed into a peaceful war-zone, rockets like anti-aircraft fire lighting up the sky, bomb-blasts shaking the iron grilles of the windows , the overpowering smell of barood. Awash in the pleasant heartburn that a stomach full of mutton brings about, a sensation somewhat akin to falling in love for the first time, in a city overflowing with joy, I would be happy. Truly happy.
But nothing this good lasts for long. As the night wore on, the frequency of the blasts would go down, the light in the sky would dim and the only excitement would be that of two drunks fighting on the road. Then surely but slowly, waves of fear would rise up the spine —-school was going to open, the festive season was done, exams were nigh, I had not done half the work I was supposed to have done and I really shouldn’t have had all that mutton.
Now of course I don’t have exams. Neither do I have Kali Pujo any more. It’s been thirteen years I have been to one. Not that I actually want to go—my friends have all moved on and they outlawed crackers because they cause sound-pollution.
Things, I realize, will never be the same.
And the main reason for that, of course, is I have changed. The carefree kid who would stuff mutton till he burped and dance about as a charki whizzzed past his feet has been replaced by a carb-and-cholesterol-counting, red-meat-wary, middle-aged man. He worries if his health insurance would consider bursting fireworks an “adventure sport” and hence not cover any injuries that occur because of it. He is wise enough now to know that carcinogenic products are not to be laughed at. And experienced enough to realize that in Kali Pujo, as in life, careless people get burnt and there is nothing heroic in that.
Which is why I do not try to recreate my past.
I simply revel in it.