The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Women power shakti puja Worship and friendship

Twenty-five years to this month, a group of women in one part of New Alipore’s Block B decided they’d had enough of the local hoodlums taking over their dead-end lane to indulge in unholy revelry in the name of Kali puja. So, they took matters into their hands, raised the funds and held their very own puja. Today, Sarba Shakti Shyama Puja is bigger and better, a hub of harmony (partnership of saas and bahu, Bengali and non-Bengali) and a model of woman power (the mothers and wives run the show, the sons and husbands playing the supporting role).

“When we started, the young boys had threatened us with dire consequences. But the police provided us with protection, and nothing happened. We told them they could help, but they wanted the money. That was the end of that,” recalls Bani Roy Chowdhury, one of the women who started it. She was the committee president for the first puja, and is back in the hot seat this year, “to relive some of the old memories”.

While her generation gave up direct involvement about four years ago, the women passed on the baton to their daughters-in-law. “Their daughters are mostly married and have moved on,” explains Suchorita, Bani’s bahu, and the treasurer of the puja committee.

Although there have been many changes, the spirit of a barir puja remains the same, says Bishakha Basu Roy, secretary in 1978 and once again this year. “There were far fewer houses and people then. But the increase has only added to the event,” she smiles.

For four days this week, the B-Block blind lane has come alive with sounds of music, laughter, non-stop chatter, kids playing, fighting or shouting. There are men dressed in shiny new kurtas and women bedecked in the finest saris and sparkling jewellery. Snacks and tea are being passed around. A colourful board in one corner carries the timings for the anjali, bhog, events and immersion.

A little girl shouts out: “Thakuma, ekhane esho.” Her grandmother is busy getting the evening’s entertainment organised, while her grandfather watches the show. Here, that’s the way it works for the Diwali days — the women do the organising and the men only lend a helping hand, if required.

It’s the joint effort between the young and old, men and women, Bengalis and non-Bengalis, that makes the affair such a success, year after year. The women do it all, from decorators and protima, to food and licences. The young men collect the donations, bring in the goddess and take her for immersion.

“I was practically born into this — running around, following the women’s orders,” says Pinaki, 29.

The puja is also an example of worship and friendship crossing cultural barriers. The bulk of the puja chanda this year came from the Marwari homes in the para, from where the women join in wholeheartedly — be it naru pakano, cutting fruits, serving bhog, or playing a part in sindoor khela. And, the vice-president of the Sarba Shakti Shyama Puja is a non-Bengali.

For the special silver jubilee celebration this year, the event is a four-day affair, with musical soirees in the evenings. Some money has also been set aside for the Eastern India Women’s Association centre in Kasba, and Ahead, in New Alipore, for physically-challenged children.

“When we started, some people told us that women do Lakshmi or Saraswati puja, not Kali puja. But we have enjoyed proving them wrong,” says Bani, before rushing of for some last-minute management.

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