It started with the pronunciation. “Pujo,” said my husband. “Puja,” said I. “You peasants will never learn,” he muttered irritably as we packed for a long weekend in Calcutta. This was three years ago. And even though we’d been married for quite a few ourselves, we’d never managed to visit the city of Dilip’s birth during this magical period. The usual problems — kids, no holidays, work pressures.
But from his vivid and passionate descriptions of Pujas long past, I had a vision, a pretty good idea of what it meant to be alive and well in Calcutta celebrating the festival of festivals with friends, family, neighbours, loved ones.
Dilip’s commentary started at the airport itself. I looked at his animated face, his shining eyes as he devoured the sights, sounds and smells of his beloved city. Dilip was a transformed man. Transformed and transported — to his childhood, to an idyllic and idealised time. It was time for nostalgia and joy. Exuberance and sentiment.
Even as he explained the significance of “soshthi”, I knew it wasn’t just the rituals he was describing, it was a vital part of his life, his essential self. The very core that defined the person he is today.
We spoke to our children from the hotel room. Dilip could barely contain his anticipation (we were going pandal-hopping later). Our time was limited but our enthusiasm had no such constraints.
We donned new clothes with all the innocence of children bestowed with rare and precious gifts and set out to check the pujas at Teyish Palli, Ekdalia and Gol Park.
We were on a mission (“educating a peasant”) and it could not fail. My first impressions were casual… a bit too casual. So... how different was this great experience going to be from the Mumbai one'
Pandals are pandals. Fine, the décor varies, the images change and the locality determines who visits, who doesn’t. Pretty much like our Ganpati festival. Or the watered version of Durga puja in and around Mumbai. On one level, my responses were entirely accurate. But soon... very soon, I realised I’d missed the point altogether. It wasn’t about aesthetics at all. It was about passion… emotion… devotion. The fervour Dilip had frequently talked about was so palpable, it got to me the moment I stepped out of the car and into the first pandal. It was a moment I shall always cherish.
Because I wasn’t prepared for it. Because of the unexpectedness of my own reaction. Because in that single instant, I understood more about the power of puja that any explanation or description could’ve provided. And I understood even more about its hold over Dilip. For a person who has not been raised in Bengal as a Bengali, it’s perhaps a little difficult to relate to the “Puja mania” that grips Calcutta.
I used to wonder why a sprawling metropolis had to virtually shut down during this period. And ask: “Is it necessary'” I used to shake my head in disapproval and say stupid things like “Imagine… So many man-days lost… What a colossal waste… Don’t they care about productivity' It must cost the government a few crores at least…” Today, I realise how foolish my old reservations were. Puja in Calcutta is a life-transforming ritual. It represents all that Bengalis value and treasure — tradition, poetry, beauty, art, romance, music, dance, food, community… even competition. What is four days or even a week in the life of a people' Absolutely nothing, when you think of the limitless joy these days (and long nights) bring to so very many homes.
By the time we were ready to leave for Mumbai, I had seen and felt something powerful and extraordinary. I had absorbed it, internalised it and understood it. It no longer matters whether I can make it to Calcutta again during the Pujas. For Durga is now with me… an integral part of my life. And I feel blessed and comforted by that knowledge. For now, it is enough. It is enough.