Saturday, October 20, 2018

An Ending And A Beginning

Today is Vijaya Dashami. Usually on this day, for the past few years, I’ve been taking the flight back to Chennai after spending Durga Puja in Calcutta. This year, however, I did not take the flight to Chennai. That’s because I no longer live in Chennai. I now live in Calcutta, having moved here on August 6, after having spent close to 18 years in what I call Tamarind City.

Why did I move to Calcutta? I will tell the story some other time. Or may be there is no story at all. Ever since I began work on Longing, Belonging, in 2011, I found myself belonging as much to Calcutta as I did to Chennai; and this shift is a mere technicality. It’s like being on roaming: I remain rooted to Chennai even as I connect with my cultural roots in Bengal.

This morning I woke up very late, exhausted by successive nights of pandal-hopping. Before lunch I read a few pages of Bruce Chatwin’s The Songlines; it was a struggle to keep the eyes glued to the pages — so used to they are now to the phone screen. There was also distraction is the form of dhaak beats, being relayed from the neighbourhood pandal over loudspeakers mounted on bamboo poles.

A part of me wanted to be at the pandal: to say parting prayers to the goddess, to take pictures of women applying vermilion on the goddess and on one another’s cheeks. Then an announcement was made on the loudspeaker: women who still hadn’t done the vermilion thing could do so only until three o’clock, after which the goddess and her children would head for the river.

After lunch I hurried to the pandal, just in time to catch the last woman, perched on a ladder, applying vermilion on the fish-eyed goddess. She had barely finished when the men took over: first removing the weapons, then removing the idols, loading them onto waiting trucks. I got into the car and asked the driver to take me to the riverside — I had no particular destination in mind; any place from where I could watch the immersion — it could be even a boat — would do. I was, however, pretty much sure that the car would not be allowed anywhere near the river today.

Near the Maidan I found myself tailing a Durga-laden truck. “Follow this truck,” I told the driver. We curved around the Maidan, past the Eden Gardens, past more Durga-laden trucks, before arriving at the ghat where dozens of such trucks were already parked. The air pulsated with the beats of dhaak — near as well as distant. I switched on my phone camera and jumped out of the car.

The sight, alas, was too spectacular to be captured accurately with phone or even words. The sun — a soft orange ball — was swiftly lowering itself on the horizon marked by the Vidyasagar Bridge. And against its fading light sprouted numerous silhouettes, of the ten-armed Durga — all beautiful, sometimes breathtaking, works of art that were being gaped at at their respective pandals until late last night. And now they were about to be consigned to the river; the clay would return to where it belonged — the riverbed.

The immersion was in progress. People carried the idols down the steps and pushed them, as gently as possible, into the water, and filled clay pots with the water — shanti jal — to carry them back to the empty pandal in the neighbourhood where people would be waiting to have the water sprinkled on them. One moment Durga was there, the next moment she’s gone — another 360 days before she returns again.

Why does Durga have to go — months of labour and excitement washed away in a matter of minutes?

There are people better qualified to answer that. I have my own answers, though. Imagine Durga idols being made of, say, marble, and installed permanently in neighbourhoods — there would be worship but no fun! Not to mention the loss of annual assured income for hundreds of thousands of people — artisans, decorators, labourers, electricians, caterers, it's one long list. And if Durga did not go, how would the Bengali look forward to her arrival, year after year. Looking-forward is vital to human existence.

I have another way of looking at it. Perseverance — yes, Durga's departure teaches you perseverance. When that beautiful face, admired by millions for five days, goes below the surface of the water, a knife pokes your heart: over those five days the clay face would have acquired a life. And then you start from scratch all over again — again and again.

I walked downstream to Millennium Ghat, descended its steps, put my hand in the water and sprinkled a few drops on my head. The water was not only blessed by Durga — it contained many Durgas.