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In the Puja spirit

What’s life on a Puja committee without a little jhamela' I speak from experience. At most of our meetings, we invariably agreed to disagree.

Sometimes these meetings end with a toast of camaraderie on Bapi-da’s chaad, where the past is forgotten — or at least washed away — and everyone gets into the right spirit! Sometimes it just ends, and another ‘breakaway’ Puja takes place the following year a block or two away.

Of course, like everything else, this too is a part of tradition. Apparently, some time in the late 1760s in Guptipara, Hooghly, 12 angry young men were stopped from taking part in a family puja. They promptly stormed off, formed a 12-member committee, collected chanda and organised the first community Durga Puja. Now you know why your para puja is called a baroari puja (baro — twelve; yar — friend).

What is no less ironical is the fact that in 1757 when Clive wanted a grand thanksgiving service for his victory at Plassey, there was no church to have it in. Here’s how the problem was solved. A golden sofa was placed for him in the open quadrangle in Shobhabazar and the first ‘Company Puja’ was held at 36, Raja Nabakrishna Deb Street. Soon it became a ‘prestige issue’ for family pujas — who could have more sahibs attending the celebrations' Nautch girls entertained; the Englishmen wined and dined on ham and beef; Wilson’s Hotel catered; and religion took a backseat.

Ironically, everything changed drastically 150 years later. At the community puja held at Balaram Basu Ghat Road in 1910 — the year the Indian National Congress session was held in Calcutta — the celebration had a definite nationalist undercurrent. The organisers pledged a fight for freedom, with Durga symbolising the motherland. Swadeshi goods were on sale near the pandals and lathi khelas took centrestage. The ‘fight’ was well and truly on.

And if you think monitoring decibel levels is something new, think again.

Rani Rashmoni didn’t entertain sahibs at her residence near Jan Bazar; her centrepiece was an all-night jatra. The story goes that a sahib complained about the noise one night. Rashmoni led an even louder procession on the street the following day. She was fined Rs 55.

It’s amazing how many of us want to get away from Calcutta during the Pujas. It’s a bit like running away from your city when it’s hosting the Olympic Games — everyone wants to come in for it and you want to run away! Since I found this bewildering and disturbing, I decided to make a few calls to find out why people chose to do something so irrational. Why would anyone want to leave while it was all happening'

My mini survey reveals that people leave precisely for that reason: because it’s all happening. The Mitras of Ekdalia can’t handle the non-stop music and announcements on the PA system, so they chill out in a friend’s baganbadi; the Deb Roys of Kasba don’t know where to park their car because there’s a puja just outside their home, so they drive off anywhere for a couple of days; the Saxenas of Chittaranjan Avenue got into a takkar over chanda a couple of years ago, so they leave town every year to avoid ‘the tension’; the Rakshits of Salt Lake go to Delhi with deeda — there she can go puja-hopping with the family, because here ‘it’s not possible’.

Are these people irrational' Or are they just sensible' I mean, how do you go puja-hopping with deeda who needs to find a toilet every couple of hours' How does your matha remain thanda when the bonnet of your new Zen is being used alternatively as a park bench and a makeshift dhak by some deadly- looking dadas.

The Telegraph-CESC True Spirit Puja movement aimed at highlighting how certain Puja committees had made a special effort this year to make the celebrations safer, happier and more meaningful

Making a difference

Though I never like missing out on the Pujas because that’s when people pack up their troubles and smile, smile, smile, I can understand why many others don’t. The good news is that as of this year, a spirited movement has begun to encourage Puja committees to make the pujas safer, happier and more meaningful.

About a week before the Pujas, we invited the representatives of Puja committees to brief them about The Telegraph-CESC True Spirit Puja effort. Moderated by the charming Bratati Bandopadhayay, representatives from a little over a hundred pujas made a commitment that they would leave no stone unturned to be True Spirit Pujas. Seventy-nine of them were shortlisted.

Inspite of the fact that it wasn’t a contest, Puja committees put in a sincere effort in three areas: safety measures, civic consciousness and social commitment. A panel of assessors comprising representatives of CESC, The Telegraph, PUBLIC, KMC, the Fire Department, the Pollution Control Board together with a group of celebrities and young reporters of The Telegraph in Schools, went pandal-hopping to decide which Pujas were indeed True Spirit ones. They weren’t primarily looking at how elaborate the lighting was and how exquisite the image was; they were taking a close look at fire safety measures, first aid, eco-friendliness, facilities for senior citizens and the physically challenged, whether electricity norms had been followed, decibel levels and anything that could help or hinder the true spirit of the Pujas.

After three days of surprise visits, friendly investigation and meticulous marking, several assessment teams concluded that a few pujas had to be disqualified for reasons ranging from power-thefts to park-damage and para-uncleanliness. They also concluded that 26 pujas had made a special effort this year to make the celebrations safer, happier and more meaningful. Here’s how some of them did it.

While most pujas were being inaugurated by filmstars and cricketers, the one organised by Kalighat Milan Sangha had a 103-year-old didima who sells ghootey, doing the honours. Another in Behala, was inaugurated by 11-year-old Soma, the school-going daughter of a sex worker.

The organisers of the Dum Dum Park 4 Tank Yubak Brinda Puja took great care of their parar chotto park by covering the grass with tarpaulin and then laying the sand to create the authentic approach towards their ancient rock-cave pandal. Thousands of footfalls later, the grass on the park is as fresh as it was on Panchami.

Sarodiya Sammilani, a tiny little puja overshadowed in size by Ekdalia Evergreen, stood tall in spirit through its whole-hearted community involvement. Their para kitchen worked round the clock to feed each and every family in the locality as well as those who visited the puja each night, right through the week.

A puja in Manicktola, when asked why their lighting seemed far more subdued than in earlier years, confessed that after our briefing session they decided not to do what they have been doing all along: consume a greater amount of power than they had applied for. That’s true spirit for you.

The Brindaban Matri Mandir Puja could have done what so many others do: block a street and celebrate. Instead, they allowed a smooth flow of traffic through Sukeas Street and conducted their puja in the cramped confines of a garage.

But the one that lifted my spirits the most was the puja at Tangra Gholpara. They had transformed the unhygenic surroundings of the tanneries into a pristine Purulia village charmed by charismatic chau dancers. What made the effort even more meaningful was that it was put together by a ‘they’ comprising not only Mondals, Mullicks and Mitras, but many Alams, Alis and Ahmeds.

Some of these pujas have been given a star rating and The Telegraph will now join hands with them to take the true spirit of the pujas into their everyday lives in a small but meaningful way: it could be the building of a public toilet, the funding of a dispensary or the running of a night school. It is this that will keep the true spirit of the Pujas alive till the next one comes along; and when it does, I’m sure the Mitras, Deb Roys and Majumdars will be around to experience the true spirit of the pujas. It’s catching on!

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