Kolkata has many faces but during Durga Puja there is no space for anything else but celebration ... and a little bit of sadness
What you think of Kolkata depends a lot on how you come to Kolkata. If you come in a train and alight at the Howrah station, you will drive into a city that is a prisoner of its long-standing image — the iconic bridge, trams, hand-pulled rickshaws, stream of labourers propelled into a half-run by the heavy load on their heads, pavements turned into kitchen by poor migrants, crumbling colonial-era buildings giving off a whiff of heritage and decay.
But if you fly down to Kolkata and take the Rajarhat Road into the city, you could be rubbing your eyes in wonder. You will tear through a global-era landscape: upscale high-rises, state-of-the-art offices of IT giants, snazzy malls. North Kolkata, where the city originated, may continue to be a living museum of the olden times, but the metropolis, on the whole, is no longer what you saw in black-and-white Bengali movies. Unemployment is no longer a burning issue. There was a time when high school students, during their exams, were asked to write essays on the subject of unemployment. Load-shedding is a thing of the past. Traffic jam, once Kolkata’s best friend, has now become the principle foe of other cities. And Kolkata today has a night life like no other city.
But come Durga Puja and it does not matter what route you take to Kolkata. No matter what your mode of travel, you arrive in a city where celebration is the uniform civil code. From whichever corner you look at it, you will find nothing else but puja pandals, food stalls and a multitude of people out on the roads until the wee hours. It’s carnival time. It’s a religious event, cultural occasion, music season, literary fair, food festival, fashion show — all rolled into one. Many of the popular songs of R.D. Burman that you listen to today were originally recorded in Bengali as part of Puja albums. And the story for many a celebrated Bengali film had been originally written for the Puja-special edition of local literary magazines.
There is, however, a gloomy side to Durga Puja. Bengalis, even though they wait for it all year, actually become very sad once the Pujas begin. Even while they enjoy the five days of festivity, they are also extremely mournful about how quickly it is all going to end. On panchami, they realise that only four more days are left. On sashti, it strikes them that just three more days are left. By saptami, the heart is heavy. On ashtami, there is a lump in the throat. By the end of navami, there are tears in the eyes. They are left with no choice but to look forward to the next year’s Puja. It is the looking forward that keeps Kolkata going. As they shout while taking the idols for immersion: “Aaschhe bochhor abaar hobey (we are coming back next year)!” It’s Kolkata’s way of assuring itself that the party is not over yet.
Published in The Hindu Sunday Magazine, 18 September 2011.