Memories of Kali Pujo

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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.

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77 thoughts on “Memories of Kali Pujo

  1. Arnab – trust me, I have been to the Burimaa factories at Bally every year as a kid ( must be 25-30 years back) where her grandchildren ran the factory. Can’t trust wiki always 🙂

  2. Hi GratBong,

    Though I’m not from Bengal (From Orissa actually)..It was so much same in my hometown as well!!..

    Thanks for posting this..Being in US and with same as group as yours, I too share these emotions..

  3. Ten minutes from Gariahat? That’s dangerously close to the paara I call my own now – I am neither from Kolkata nor Bangali, but it is 2nd home. Look at it this way – Sarasvati Puja is Sattvik – education and all that; Durga Puja is Rajasik; all the finery, scultpure and color and gaiety; Kali Puja is tamasik, the dark, the fireworks, the compulsory consumption of maangsho and mathya. But being a Madrasi (not those guys from Rashbehari/Lake Market/Komala Vilas) but the real thing from the city of Madras; I am used to Dipavli also!

  4. God, you brought back quite a few memories. I lived in Kolkata for a couple years when I was a kid (about 95-97) and I remember the walk to Gariahat to buy the diwali stuff. I also remember at times you could get discounts nearer BallyGunj (close to PC Sorkar’s place and a video rental shop that we used to frequent). I used to live in Swinhoe st. and went to school in South Point BTW.

    It’s amazing how much stuff you can remember years later.. Thanks for the memories.

  5. Very very nostalgic indeed! In Durgapur, where I grew up it was of course not very different except that we had to pay evener higher price than Gariahat. And oh yes, there was a very strict budget indeed! That “Tapai’s cut-piece” was also eerily similar. Have you heard of something called “Bachchu bomb” similar to a chocolate bomb but it was housed inside a paper box casing instead of the aluminium foil. Our favourites were “Burima, Dulal, Shivshakti/Amarshakti”

  6. A lot of memories rushed back. 🙂 I had managed to go to Nungi just once in my whole Diwali career( I still hope it’s not over yet ) and boy was that the best Diwali I’ve had. My favourite was always the packs of 100 of kali fotka that you could get. The other more macho bombs required a bigger empty space but with kali fotka it didn’t matter.

    Every Diwali my school would have a serious trouble with kids setting “time-bombs”(mostly incense stick based) in the bathrooms that were timed to precisely go of during the school assumebly when we were focusing on the prayer. The had to come up with anti-bomb squad whose task was to go around with buckets of water trying to find and extinguish these. Never really helped because the squad consisted of students. 😀

  7. Wow, awesome as usual.. Brought back so many memories all at once.. One omission though, ‘cept a passing mention to mutton, the ritualistic ‘luchi mangsho’ reference is totally missing? Not fair…

  8. so selfish of you to deprive your son of all that fun. when i have kids, i am going to supply them with all the artillery on Diwali (I am sorry, it is not Kali pujo for me, though i am not a true blue marwari, only distantly… and not at all a businessman) which can defeat even china.

    oh i just love each and every memory of my childhood Diwali … it has and will be my most cherished childhood memory.

  9. Wow! All of us Bengali middle class kids have such eerily similar experiences of Diwali/Kali Pujo while growing up especially that “Why do “they” burst more crackers than “we” do?” and then getting the obvious answer “They’re a business community”. Kali Pujo was indeed more fun than even Durga Pujo just because it allowed more direct participation and the whole excitement of lighting fire crackers as the late autumn/early winter evening drew close. It just had an altogether different aura.

    BTW, an absolutely unrelated question for Arnab. When will we get the Ra.One review or will we get it at all? I know the film’s horrible but really miss those good ole reviews.

  10. Love your writing, Arnab da. Brought back memories of the golden days. Kalipujo was and will always remain special. Simply loved those Baji-s! Once I nearly fractured my wrist on the day thanks to a mistimed chocolate bomb. Needless to say, it was Burima’s. And guess what? I was so delighted with the half-yearly knocking on my door.

    Just wondering:
    ‘Usually my parents would buy our firecrackers from Gariahat market which was about a ten minutes walk from where we lived.’

    — I always had the impression that you were from Behala or somewhere very near. May be because of IIMC 🙂
    Which erstwhile para are you from, Arnab da? 😀

  11. Can understand Kali Pujo being the second favourite, but not liking SAraswati Pujo!!! Despite it being the official Bong version of Valentines Day (that too long before Archies introduced India to V-Day)? Which school did you attend? But then school would hardly matter, Gariahat is a feast for sore eyes that day particularly.
    Also, Sanny is right about the Burima factory. It’s at the Liluah-Belur border, not too far from Belur Math. My pisi lives in the neighbourhood. Local legend goes that Burima’s husband used to be a poor hawker at the local market and sold homemade firecrackers from Pujo-Kali Pujo. The year he died, his stock got wet in the rains. By the time the funerals etc were over, it was nearly Diwali and she was in desperate need of money. She needed to dry out the “moshla” in a hurry, so mixed a few ingredients of her own and got a few hawker friends of her husbands to sell them. The rest, as they say, is history.

  12. As a Marwari who grew up near “Nungi” , brings back old memories…btw Nungi is how it is pronounced, it is spelled thus: N-A-N-G-I. Really, the name itself was the butt of many jokes in my teenage years…..

  13. After reading this post, I want u to know that just yesterday on kali pujo, after lighting the “mandatory” lamps on our veranda and in each room including the bathrooms [:)], i was telling ur baba that on this day i realize to the core how much our life has changed after our only child has left the nest.
    Btw, one thing u forgot – it was also “mandatory” to have bowl ( not the usual tray ) full of ice just in case somebody got burnt and buckets full of water just in case a rocket lands up in any of the rooms! How i wish i still have to do those chores
    Ma

  14. Ma,

    I forgot it because I was not responsible for keeping that bowl of ice. You were :-). These kinds of safety precautions were then “adult problems” I couldn’t bother myself with. I was more concerned about my actions. As for the consequences of those actions—that’s my parents’ headache.

  15. I grew up in Batanagar, a township near Nungi. We bought our baajis from Chingripota. I don’t recall a Burima factory there. There were many home-based fireworks units.

  16. Deepavali/Kali Pujo isn’t something that I’m familiar with, but thanks for sharing your nostalgia with us. It’s been nearly 17 years since I celebrated Diwali at home in Delhi and not a single year goes by that I don’t miss celebrating it there. It was always fun to do the Tamil “DHEE-BAA-VALI” thing in the morning for the sake of ‘Shastras’ and saving the bulk of the fireworks to do the “DIWALI” thing with the rest :). Joyous moments!

  17. I am from Dover Lane. Knock me down with a feather!! Darn! I know my way around that place blindfolded. This is way too close! Maybe we will meet in Dover Lane the next time.

  18. That was a really nice post..i had a big smile remembering my diwali when i was a kid..the rangoli we(me and my mother)used to put outside our house with lots of diyas..it was more like wedding..i used to stand wary on d balcony watchin (tough/macho) kids igniting powerful bombs,placin my hands on my ears protectin my ear drums,watchin the rocket go up in the sky(even if it meant tilting my head 90 deg or even more up) and admiring it..
    Thank u for such a lovely post
    P.S.- I am not a bengali

  19. Contrary to all the “happy” memories talked about here, Diwali in the 80s-90s Kolkata used to be a harrowing experience for me, a “Komala-Vilas” Tamilian. The horrendous bombardment from both sides of the narrow street where we lived, goodness, just lighting a Flower pot on the middle of the road used to a battle of survival for me. Try as I may, I could never be a Bomb-throwing-kid because of the horrible memories of a Chocolate bomb bursting on the feet once and a rocket bursting on my thigh once. Worst part, I could not simply stay indoors during the Bombardment lest I be branded “Bhitu Meddu” or something by my Bong “friends”, monsters all of them!!!
    I found a smart way out once. Be the first on the street as soon as the sun sets and finish off my Charkis, Tubdis etc before the heavy artillery arrives :). When there was a ban on Bombs in the late 90s, you can guess who would have been the happiest!! Sorry all, somehow I found Bongs a bit too wild with their fireworks in those days.
    By the way, I was also a Pointer and yes, Tasty Corner is very still very much there. In fact its a 2 minute walk from my Sasurbari. My yearly visit to Kol continues to be memorable for the Hing Kachoris and Samosas of TC.

  20. Sighh… Kali Pujo in Calcutta. The visiting of the Kali pandals, the ‘prasad’ of mutton and the crackers!
    Awesomely recreated post. Took me right back

  21. i have been to nungi!!! yay! however i have also been to kolkata on diwali regularly (being a marwari) and the beauty of those night fireworks are all but finished

  22. And this is why I love reading your blog. Man! I relived Kali pujo. Of course these days I frown when people burst loud crackers – how I have changed.

  23. I didn’t have any internet access during diwali while visiting parents at a place not so far away from Kolkata. However after more than a week since diwali reading this post certainly brought up some good old memories which apparently the new set of grossly inflated fire crackers I bought for the kids couldn’t.

    Great writing as always.

  24. I went to Nungi once. The cool thing about the place was that one could test the bombs in a “field” outside the village. Except it was not a field but a dried out small pond (doba). That was just awesome.

    Did you ever make it to a Dover Lane music festival? I met some epic characters there.

  25. GB, lovely post as usual. I would stick to fuljhuri etc, never could never muster enuf courage to even play with ‘cap’bonduk. Gotta share one story… one classmate got a mini-peto after Kali Pujo to show off to the other boys which accidently slipped out of his hand during the Literature class with the closet gay teacher reading Julius Caesar aloud – what a commotion, fun and off course the thrashing!

  26. Loved the recollections, brought back many fond memories. I spent most of my adolescence at RKM Narendrapur and usually spent the puja holidays at home. One of my favorite recollections is the “time-bomb” prank we played on our unsuspecting maharaj once we returned to hostel after vacation. Dhupkathi-stacked chocolate bombs were set alight in various corners of the hostel. Different bombs had different length dhupkathis, so went off at different times. We had a blast as the poor maharaj went running around the hostel, trying to catch the pranksters who were long gone.

  27. Whaaat ……. the girls look spectacular during Saraswati puja …… but yeah Kali pujo is better …. lots of fun …..

  28. aylamrin – I am from durgapur as well.. and Bachhcu bom was big hit there 🙂 Y even I liked Dulal alongside Burima… the story around burima passed on to us from our elders was it was some belur and had some link with Ram krishna mission charity… but not sure. Who cares.. the product matters .. not the producer 🙂 Thanks Arnab for bringing back Kalipujo alive for me again. Missed it here sitting thousands of miles away … 😦

  29. Nice post. BTW I saw someone asking if Tasty Corner is there or not..I think it is still there or I remember seeing it the last time I went to Kol a few months back.Used to study at South Point Junior but then left Kol,but I know that area pretty well as I keep visiting my Pishi’s place bang opposite to SOuth Point High School.

  30. What nostalgia, Arnab! Thank you! Somehow missed this post earlier ….

    My favourites were: Buri Ma-r chocolate bomb, kali photka and dhani photka (a smaller cousin of kali photka, green in colour). I was kind of a little wary of the dodoma-s, you could never be sure where the second ‘do’ would land. And we also used to make tubri-s. Actually make from scratch after buying all the ingredients! My brother and I, 2 other siblings from the adjacent ‘flat’ and our ‘darwan’. Ours was better than commercial grade, could have made a few bucks if we sold them!

    Last attended Kali Pujo in Kolkata in 2003. Don’t think another one in Kolkata is going to happen anytime in the foreseeable future. But what fantastic memories. Thanks again.

  31. The last few lines made me nostalgic.
    “Now of course I don’t have exams. Neither do I have Kali Pujo any more”
    So true..

  32. Very interesting blog. One which every bong kid of early 90’s could relate to.
    Btw ” Burima” s real name was Annapurna Das. It was her son Late Sudhir Das, who invented or rather modified chocolate bomb to sound like the way it were then. Sudhir Das named his brand of fireworks after his old mother Annapurna Das whose nick name was burima, as given by the local people for her role as an advisory guardian to all in need for some domestic advise. Burima died in 1995 and later that year chocolate bomb, dodoma, kalipataka and every other fireworks producing a noise over 90 db was banned. But her grand son Suman Kumar Das kept the brand alive by quickly switching to sound less fireworks or Atas Bazi and made a name for the same.
    My name is Sumit Das, i m great grand son of Burima. And i am excited to let you know that chocolate bomb is back due as the ban on fireworks producing noise over 90db has been shifted to 125db.
    People will once again enjoy the same amount of bang with less amount of money as original Burima chocolate bomb will again roll out in the market from its Belurmath warehouse.
    I request you to visit our fireworks shop once so as to provide you with some free chocolate bomb samples as a gratitude for keeping the BURIMA brand name alive through you blog.
    Thank you
    Regards
    Sumit Das

    • Thank you, I shall definitely make it a point to visit your fireworks shop and ask for my free chocolate bomb samples. Appreciate your comment and I am also glad that chocolate bombs will be coming back.

  33. U r glad that chocolate bombs are to hit the market this year? Have some mercy on us, the older generation! The fact that u were with us gave us the impetus to withstand those nightmarish battlefield type sounds. Besides at that time we were younger too – not anymore! 🙂
    Ma

  34. Great article, memories refurbished!

    Some little things still I remember and not mentioned here … dewal potka.. We used to throw them at the walls and used to explode with high noise! Exploding bombs and kalipotkas’ on bare hands was one of our “heroic” showoffs! And then Bisharjan possession, dancing with the “Banjo” (the electric string instrument that looked very much handmade by the player himself) and throwing chocolate bombs on water (challenge was that they have to blast before touching water or the bomb gets obviously wasted, literally was a competition to show skill and timing! 😀 ) and time bombs that we used to make with dhupkathi.. used to hide them at unsuspecting places and used to scare off people like anything.. 😀 .. we used to collect all the bombs that failed to explode and take their “barud” out and burn together making a huge blinding fire! I miss these.. I still dont care about being carcinogens or noise pollution n stuff.. but life has drifted me a long apart not to let myself sway in that wave anymore.. Wish I could still do those! Kalipujo is not same anymore!

  35. I am reading this today ie. More than 2 years after your post and I must say that I have not read such an entertaining piece for a long time. I grew up in Kanpur , but strangely all details are in tune. Probably you missed out Chatpati, which were small flat pieces of inflammable material which we scratched on the floor or walls to ignite. If you did not release them from your fingers in time, you were in for a painful burn. These were later banned.

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