| Les and Glenis with Lesley and James. Picture by Pabitra Das
To unravel the sense of mystique, savour the passion, motivation, the energy and the unbridled laughter —“so rare in today’s world” — of the festive days, to wear a sari to the pandals, to engage in fellowship across continents, to enjoy an elephant ride, take back extraordinary memories…
Their agenda is as motley as could be. Glenis and Les Dickinson and Lesley and James Smith — couples hailing from the seaside resort of Skegness, 150 miles north-east of London — are the first to arrive in town for Mahotsav, an initiative aimed at promoting Durga Puja among a global audience.
“What we have in mind at the moment could at best be the contours of a picture, formed out of bits and pieces of information filtering out to the West. Now that we are here, we hope to fill out the canvas with colours of the Pujas,” smiles James, a member of the Round Table Forty-one Club, who runs his business with wife Lesley from Skegness and Lincoln.
Fifty-year-old James, who has “always wanted to come here”, is keen to capture the intricate rituals of the Pujas in his handycam as well as in his mind’s eye so that he can “enthuse more people back home”. Friend Les, a fellow Forty-one Clubber and an avid sailor at 60, though, relates the Pujas more to a carnival, and would like to simply let his hair down rather than offer pushpanjali on Mahashtami.
“I have been to the Notting Hill and the Tulip Festival in Spalding as well as the Rio Carnival. Those are more about gaiety and glittering costumes. But, the Calcutta Puja is a whole new experience,” says Les.
The property dealer, who has successfully negotiated the treacherous Southampton-Rio-Tasmania-Cape Town-Southampton course on a 14-crew yacht, was drawn to the Pujas after he met A.V. ‘Viji’ Iyengar two years ago in South Africa at a Forty-one Club conference.
Iyengar, past president of Concern for Calcutta and himself a member of the Forty-one Club — the Round Table old boys’ forum — had laid out the loose outlines of this Puja parikrama trip, which Les and James as well as other ex-Round Tablers found “extremely exciting”. Later, Iyengar and his wife went on to form Happenings along with a dozen friends, and Mahotsav — targeted at foreigners and NRIs — was given shape.
The ladies, too, are in festive fanfare groove. “I have heard the Puja is when everyone’s happy and things just happen. People make some weird structures out of tins and biscuits and what not that boggle your imagination,” says Glenis, who desperately wants to ride an elephant before leaving for home.
Glenis and Lesley both plan to wear saris “at least on one day of the Pujas”, with a little help from local friends, and take back some Bengali recipes, “those which tickle the palate”. James, who like the rest of the lot, has never been “this far east” before, is amazed at how “reasonable” (the package costs $425 all-inclusive) the trip worked out.
“There is so much warmth and inclusiveness here, we already feel we belong to this place. It’s kind of sad that Calcutta is not marketed right in the West, and the only images that come through are of Mother Teresa and Ray,” Glenis laments. Most of the 45-odd foreigners and NRIs expected to participate in this Mahotsav, are likely to share her views that lack of proper package push has led to the unfavourable perception of the city abroad.