Note: A ‘probashi Bangali’ is a Bengali who doesn’t live in Bengal.
Durga Pujo is synonymous with new clothes, great food and four days of incredible festivities for all Bengalis. However, pujo in Calcutta is supposed to be an experience in itself. Having grown up outside of the supposed ‘Golden Land of Culture’, Bengal, my pujo was always celebrated in India’s Maximum City, Bombay.
This year, I decided to try something new, and arrived with bags packed full of new clothes to Calcutta, to experience the wonder that is Durga Pujo. This piece will resonate with all those Calcuttans, who are dispersed all over the world, and can no longer return home to the familiar sound of dhaak every fall, as well as with all those young teenagers who have grown up equal parts a product of their home cities – and proudly Bengali – but far away from Bengal.
Despite being born in the City of Joy, I’ve been raised in the Maximum City. A second generation probashi from one side (my mother being one too) with a Calcuttan father, pujo has always been a fairly big deal in my house. I consider myself lucky to be probashi, and am a proud Bombay girl, known to often say she wouldn’t have wanted to grow up anywhere else.
Nonetheless, my mother and I consider ourselves ‘cultured, but not conservative’, and I did all the quintessential ‘good Bengali girl’ things while growing up. This included – 10 years of Rabindrasangeet, 12 years of Hindustani Classical music, seven of Art, five of guitar, and two of piano (with all exams given and duly aced, of course). My sister wrapped up the package with a large number of the above – minus a few – plus classical dance. I was even taught to read and write in Bangla one summer so that I could read Rabindrasangeet lyrics straight out of a Gitabitan!
A probashi herself, my mom learnt to read and write Bangla as a third language in three years at school, and her approach was largely centred around, “it’s hardly difficult. Just learn it.” To be fair, those were pre-smartphone days, where a “Gaaner kotha mone nei Mashi (I don’t remember the lyrics to the song)” response to a “akta gaan geye shonao toh (please sing us a song)” request resulted in a Gitaban being stuffed in my face, which I would then sheepishly smile at and say I can’t read, much to my mother’s eternal embarrassment.
In my house, pujo meant a few specific things. First, new clothes! Lots of them. Who would turn down a shopping trip? Second, four days of immense dressing up, and supreme overeating. And third, of course, pandal hopping. My father, having grown up in Calcutta, has always been insistent on seeing EVERY pandal that there is in Bombay, quite literally. So I am not joking or exaggerating when I say, that we have travelled 2 hours to Kandivali in search of a pujo, only to realise that trusty Google Maps had sent us to the office building of the organisation in charge of the said pujo… and there was no pujo there at all.
Our Ashtami mornings were spent at Anjali at our para’r (local community) pujo, a two-minute walk from home. We were amongst the lucky Bombay Bengalis to have one so close. At night, we’d make groups with our family in the city or the other Bengali families that moved with us from Calcutta to Bombay in 2000, travel hours to the far-off pujos, and eat some terribly oily fish fry, rolls and biryani and catch up with each other on the years’ happenings. We’d give water to the bisarjan (immersion) procession as it passed by our house on the way to Juhu beach, and lament the end of these four days. When they didn’t clash with exams, that is (ask any Bombay Bengali about this, it’s a terrible tragedy!). That was our pujo, and it always was wonderful, and tremendously fun.
In the last few years, I have happened to make a few friends from Calcutta. As they say, worlds converge as you grow up, and particularly when you go off to college. In an institution that truly is a microcosm of the country in terms of the diversity of its student body, I can now claim to have friends in almost every major city in this country.
I came to Calcutta once for pujo, eight years ago. I was in class 6, I had exams right after, and I barely went out. I never thought much of it.
So this year, influenced by my friends constantly waxing eloquent about the wonder that is pujo in Calcutta, and considering the wonderful dates (over a long weekend, during my college vacations, after my sister’s exams!) I proposed to my parents, that we go to Calcutta for pujo this year. They agreed, quite readily, so we arrived, suitcases packed full of new clothes and my dad armed with a list of the “Must-see/ Best/ Award-winning” Durga Pujos of Calcutta.
After the four days that I spent here, I spent some time today pondering just what it is that makes pujo in Calcutta so different from anywhere else. And this is what I came up with:
At the end of the day, Bengalis are a minority in Bombay. There are only so many of us. Even if you put every Bengali in Bombay in a line, they probably wouldn’t match the number of people in the line at Sreebhumi on Navami morning. The surging crowds, the constant “dhakka- dhakki” (pushing and shoving) the “didi aage cholun/ haath niche korun dekhte paachi na/ chaata bondho korun (sister, move ahead, put your hand down – we can’t see, close your umbrella)” is truly unique to Calcutta. Definitely my least favourite part of pujo, but a noteworthy one nonetheless.
In Bombay, pandals are largely a haveli-esque facade/structure of some sort, with (usually) a traditional protima inside. In fact, one of Bombay’s oldest and most famous pujos, Durga Bari Samiti, happens inside a small hall! Being someone who has done art and craft in various forms for many years, I was fascinated by the intricacy and attention to detail in every single pandal in Calcutta. Whether they’re depicting an abstract theme, such as mental illness and disability or child labour, or replicating a famous Thai temple, like Deshapriya park, there is no single corner left unfinished, or imperfect. The quality of craft is unparalleled, and in contrast to the previous point, this definitely was my favourite part about pujo in Calcutta.
Given the severe shortage of Bengali friends I have always had in Bombay, for me, as well as for most everyone else, pujo is a family affair. You go out pandal hopping and to eat with your parents, and it’s always a good time. On the contrary, in Calcutta, pujo is all about friends/your significant other. It’s the best time of the year to hang out, and almost every pandal I went to in Calcutta was overrun by groups of teenaged friends or young couples, all dressed up and gossiping away to glory. I had the chance of going out with some of my new Calcuttan friends too, and it really was so much fun, and very different from pujo at home, in the best possible way.
So, after all of this, what is it that I feel about this entire, opulent, grand affair that is Durga Pujo in Calcutta? The answer to this question isn’t quite that straightforward.
Being essentially tourists this pujo in Calcutta meant that we no longer had our ‘para’r pujo’. You can’t really sit and watch Shondhi pujo at Md Ali Park while committee volunteers and the Kolkata Police frantically blow whistles at you screaming, “egiye jaan didi koto khon daraben(move ahead sister, how long will you stand)!” and what seems like the entire population of Calcutta violently barrels into you from the back.
Standing in queues for hours to see one not-so-impressive pandal (Sreebhumi, I’m looking at you!) when the rain gods decide to have their fun too, can be extremely frustrating, as can getting lost in the never-ending maze of bamboo barricades while the Kolkata Police constantly shoos you in the direction of the crowd even if that isn’t even remotely the direction in which you wanted to head.
At the same time, the entire vibe of pujo in Calcutta is different. Having a pujo at every corner is something we see during Ganpati in Bombay, but never for Durga Pujo. The unmatched artistry, the seamless execution of even abstract themes (who knew you could make a stunning pandal themed around ‘women are not free’!) and the unbelievable attention to detail is truly a sight worth seeing.
So, would I do this again?
Yes. For sure.
The very next year?
No, probably not.
Thank you for your pujo, Calcutta. It has been an exciting, exhilarating and exhausting four days. Thank you for the atmosphere, and thank you for the friends and the culture. I had an incredible time.
Bombay, I’ve missed you. Cannot wait till next year, for your crowd-free, air-conditioned pandals (God bless the Mukherjee family for having their pujo in Tulip Star) and most of all, for the leisure of seeing pujo the way I want to, without having to be in and out within 20 seconds or be pushed out of the way.
Pujo in Calcutta is an out-of-the-world experience, and I loved it. I definitely plan to brave these crowds time and again in the future, because it was a wonderful four days. But this year’s pujo also showed me, that even while living with grandparents with almost your entire family around you, pujo still is always the loveliest, when bred in familiarity from the comfort of home, in your own city.
Shubho Bijoya to you all. May we all have wonderful pujos, year after year, and keep the Bengali spark alive, wherever we are.
A version of this article was previously published on Buzzfeed Community.