The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Splendour and the underbelly

It is a truism that poverty and opulence are just two sides of the same coin in Calcutta. Perhaps that applies to all Indian cities. But whereas in most metros such as Delhi and Mumbai the underbelly is not really visible, in our city we don’t bother to sweep the embarrassing details under the carpet. So it is a haven for people who live off the street, on the street, and those for whom the street is the only shelter and possession as well as for those just rolling in it. The middle class lives contentedly wedged between the two.

This is brought home on no other occasion more strongly than this festive season. After the gorgeous and moving immersion ceremony on Tuesday evening, I was leaving Prasanna Kumar Tagore ghat. I could not help noticing the rows of hovels alongside the circular rail tracks. The labourers who live here lead a barely human existence.

If that was bad there were horrors ahead. The lowest regions of hell exist under Howrah Bridge. This is a huge shed under which transport agency trucks are parked, and without the benefit of a single electric light it is pitch dark here.

Yet human beings live here amid the garbage, sharing the accommodation with herds of swine. The only source of light here are the tiny homemade kerosene lamps. And in that barely discernible glow they cook, feed their babies and even entertain themselves by playing transistors, and I am sure worse.

It was so difficult to reconcile this scene with all the splendour I had witnessed earlier that day. I was at Har Kuthir on Pathuriaghat Street.

The thakurdalan is crumbling and even the fresh whitewash could barely mask it. But the people of the house rolled out the red carpet for visitors. This being the last day of the puja, after three long days of strict vegetarianism, the married women (excluding widows) of the house are allowed to eat fish, and all the guests were invited to partake of this feast that included many sweets too.

A little before four, the daughter of the house, Suriti Ray, began to dress up to bid adieu to Durga, whom Bengalis have turned into the girl who comes home once a year from her in-law’s. Not surprisingly, Suriti did not dress up the way puja adverts would have us believe women from old families do.

The goddess and her brood were “fed” sweets and offered paan. Then the women whispered an invitation for next year into Durga’s ear. The rituals over, Suriti walked back to her room.

The mutiyas held Durga aloft. The dhak became deafening, and finally the goddess was out on the street. Suriti’s husband, Ashok Ray, a scientist, along with a motley group, followed the image. We ran to keep up with the mutiyas, while other family members followed in a car.

The Durga images of Khelat Ghosh and Manmatha Ghosh, too, were out on the street. But since Har Kutir is a Brahmin home, the others could only bring up the rear. At the water’s edge, they fussed over Kartik and Ganesh. The image made a splash as it disappeared into the river.

The Ghoshes followed. Jagmohan Dalmia, married into the family, was the star attraction. But everybody was disappointed because the nilkantha (blue jay) they release to carry the message of of Durga’s return journey to Shiva could not be procured this time. Thanks to Maneka Gandhi.

In quick succession, the Laws, the Mullicks, the Ghoshals, the Dattas…all came and left. From the Second Hooghly Bridge, the ghats dotted with lights looked like a Gaganendranath painting come alive.

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