“Five days before Durga Puja, it doesn’t look like it’s going to be possible. Pandals, idols, lighting, nothing is ready. And then, three days later, it’s all done!” laughs Iftekhar Ahsan, the general manager of Calcutta Bungalow and founder of Calcutta Walks, before adding: “The fact that Kolkata can pull off Durga Puja means it can pull off anything.” As one of the connoisseurs of the City of Joy — be it on history, heritage, architecture, conservation or food — Iftekhar calls Puja a testament to the “creativity, efficiency and aesthetic abilities of Kolkata”. At the same time, he also resonates with the festival’s secular appeal, having spent 40 years of his life celebrating something that has no connection with his faith. “I’m a Muslim but I can celebrate Puja because it’s the most secular festival we have. For me, it captures the essence of Hinduism, which has nothing to do with narrow-minded beliefs or xenophobia,” says Iftekhar.
Calcutta Bungalow, which will be packed with guests during Puja, has a special bhog menu this time aroundTT Archives
Sitting in Calcutta Bungalow, which has a special bhog menu in store this Puja, Iftekhar reminisces past Pujas from his formative years, which were spent in Burrabazar’s Armenian Street. “It’s an area that’s jam-packed all the time. When I was growing up — and I don’t know how this happened — all the Hindus would stay on one side of Armenian Street and all the Muslims on the other. But we all enjoyed the festivities of Puja, drinking sugarcane juice, consuming phuchka and churan (Iftekhar rues the gradual disappearance of the churanwala), playing with spinning tops and taking in the first chills of winter. For us, the biggest Pujas in the vicinity were the ones on Tarachand Dutta Street and, of course, Muhammad Ali Park. I used to love the festive vibes and the numerous Puja melas. And also the street performers, who have gone down in both quality and quantity since.”
From Badamtala to Sovabazar Rajbari, Royal Indian Hotel to Sienna Cafe
Sovabazar Rajbari is among Iftekhar’s Puja recommendationsTT Archives
For the past 20 years, Iftekhar, who will soon be taking groups of tourists around Kolkata to “immerse them in the magnificence of Puja”, has been a resident of Chandni Chowk. The transition from Armenian Street has been prominent but peaceful. “Where I stay now is more of a commercial or business district. Earlier, I was mostly surrounded by Rajasthanis and Gujaratis. At present, my neighbours generally include Anglo-Indians, Biharis and Muslims. That gives Puja a different vibe. There’s a beautiful pandal I admire every year in Wellington and also one opposite Bowbazar Police Station. These are the top Pujas near me these days,” explains Iftekhar. Given that offices are shut and pandals are not as frequent in Chandni as in other parts of the city, Iftekhar admits that he prefers the “relative quietness to retreat into at home during the Puja days”, especially after his feet and stomach are exhausted from the pandal hopping and pet puja.
One of the spots Iftekhar recommends for 'pet puja' is Sienna Cafe at Hindustan ParkTT Archives
On the topic of pandal hopping and pet puja, what are Iftekhar’s Puja recommendations for 2023? “There are so many amazing pandals in Kolkata. All the big Pujas are obviously among them. Off the top of my head, I can think of Shibmandir and Badamtala in Kalighat and the Behala Friends’ Club Puja. There are also the bonedi bari Pujas that are exquisite, be it the Shib Krishna Daw Bari or the Sovabazar Rajbari. What’s fascinating about them is that throughout the year, their neighbours look at them with envy for their wealth, but during Puja, once they are let in to witness the goddess in the courtyard and served bhog, those same neighbours feel awestruck!” says Iftekhar, whose food picks include “Calcutta Bungalow (of course!) and Mitra Cafe in north Kolkata, Royal Indian Hotel in Burrabazar, Sienna Cafe in Hindustan Park and Art Cafe near Lake Market. I don’t think any city offers the food that Kolkata does. When was the last time you had a bad phuchka in Kolkata?” asks Iftekhar proudly.
‘Durga Puja and Kolkata offer the correct Indian experience’
Speaking about his favourite Puja memory, Iftekhar describes the river cruise that he and his guests usually take on Vijaya Dashami. “It’s difficult to put into words how you feel when you see the same hands that created something beautiful having to submerge their creations in the water. There’s loss and sadness but there’s also detachment. It’s something special to experience and explain.”
‘We essentially become a boutique city during Puja, which is why so many people want to visit,’ says Iftekhar about Kolkata during the time of its greatest festivalTT Archives
As someone who cannot admire the artisanal and artistic brilliance of Puja enough, Iftekhar laments the fact that Kolkata does not live up to its Puja standards for the rest of the year. “If we always showcase the degree of innovation and industry that we do during Puja, Kolkata can reclaim its position as one of the best cities in the world. After all, we essentially become a boutique city during Puja, which is why so many people want to visit. But the key is not to attract more people during Puja, it’s to attract them throughout the year,” argues Iftekhar. He feels that the city needs to engage the people who create its pandals in giving the public artworks throughout Kolkata a facelift. “There’s some atrocious public art in Kolkata. We don’t need cheap copies of Big Ben and what not when we have the talent that can produce such incredible pandals. The spirit of Puja proves that if we bring our hearts and minds together, we can achieve anything as a city. I want that spirit to reflect at all times, not just during Puja.”
As the appointed hour with Iftekhar runs out and he is about to be swarmed with people who need his inputs on all things Puja, My Kolkata asks Iftekhar what the essence of Puja means for him. For his answer, Iftekhar returns to the cultural capaciousness of Puja. “No person of another faith ever hesitates to enter a pandal. Durga Puja welcomes one and all. That’s the essence of Puja for me. I know many conservative Muslims who won’t enter a temple. But those same people think of a pandal as a secular space, similar to how non-Muslims regard the Sufi shrines or dargahs. It’s because of this that I see Puja and Kolkata as great counterpoints to the political atmosphere prevailing in the country today. They offer what I deem to be the correct Indian experience. When you are in Kolkata, especially during Durga Puja, you don’t have to change who you are in order to love and be loved.”