By Siddhartha Krishnan . 4 Min Read
(This essay was originally posted by the author in Purono Kolkatar Golpo FB group)
‘Ya Devi Sarva Bhuteshu,
Vishnu Mayeti Shabdita,
Namastasye, Namastasye, Namastasye,
Namoh Namaha’ …
(To the Goddess in all beings,
Known as Vishnu Maya,
I bow to her, I bow to her, I bow to her)
The memory of Birendra Krishna Bhadra reciting this ancient hymn, in his inimitable style, on the early morning radio, is still fresh in my mind. His voice, at once, energized all Kolkatans to begin preparations for ‘Durga Puja’. This was true for my Malayali family as well, and we too earmarked the four days of the festival on the calendar at the beginning of the year. We too, on Mahalaya day, readied our to-do lists in preparation for what we believed was the greatest spectacle on Earth. On this Ashtami morning in Bangalore, as I endeavour to write this essay, these and many more fond memories of Durga Puja in Kolkata, flash before my eyes.
I am often asked by people who haven’t experienced Bengali culture — “What is so special about Durga Puja?”. My humble reply to them — “Please experience it for yourself and you will get your answer”. This was the reply to my wife as well when we got married in 2010 and subsequently got down to exploring each other’s culture. She is a Kumaoni girl brought up in Lucknow and I am a Malayali boy brought up in Kolkata. We got our chance in 2012.
However, for me this was a daunting task because I had to step into my father’s shoes and do all the heavy lifting. The thought of being the historian, food connoisseur, art lover and storyteller was giving me the jitters. My motive though was simple; to let my wife experience all that I had experienced as a child. We had 3 days in hand that year — Saptami, Ashtami and Nabami to do all the pandal hopping and our itinerary resembled the one that I used to follow as a child. Day 1 – North Kolkata, Day 2 – South Kolkata and Day 3 – was left to discover the hidden gems within the city. Father’s office car was at our disposal as usual.
As was the practice, we started early in the morning (to avoid the crowds) and reached the Bagbazar Pujo. The idea was to start from one corner and then drive all the way back to Bhowanipore, where we stayed. By the time we reached Kumartuli Park, my wife was brimming with curiosity. She shot a barrage of questions at me mercilessly. I dealt with them cautiously while hesitantly taking dad’s help every now and then. I recollect the secretive glances he traded that day, while sporting an impish grin, as I cleared my wife’s doubts. However, with each passing pandal my wife looked more and more at ease. Her inhibitions (if any) had disappeared into the cool autumn air of the city.
She walked on the little alleys of North Kolkata exuding a child-like exuberance. Her eyes looked wonderstruck. The artistry on display at Ahiritola, Mohammad Ali Park and Santosh Mitra Square had done its trick. As I narrated my childhood stories of ‘Durga Puja’ and shared whatever little history I knew of these places; I was overjoyed to realize that she had bought into my storytelling. Her expression was the giveaway and it evoked a bout of nostalgia. I travelled back in time to when my little finger clung onto my dad’s as we walked through these very alleys. I wondered — “Did I sport the same expression on my face when my father narrated those stories?”.
On Ashtami day we were in South Kolkata, and my wife was quick to spot the change in the cityscape. The difference between the North and South of the city fascinated her. From Adi Ballygunge, to Ekdalia Evergreen, to Suruchi Sangha we covered all the iconic South Kolkata pandals that day. She being a ‘people person’ I knew that the crowds weren’t going to be a deterrent. But when she rebelled to step out for pandal hopping at night, I broke into a cold sweat. Me, not much of a crowd person was now the spoilsport. But I knew I wasn’t going anywhere with my resistance (actually her energy was infectious). So the two of us ventured out that night on foot.
Surprisingly, my wife looked more at ease than me in an unknown city. She bargained with gusto at stalls selling handicrafts, nudged me to beat the crowd and get a cotton candy and insisted on a ‘jhal muri’ at midnight. This was unexpected but I was secretly enjoying it. We merged into the crowd and soaked in the energy. I for some reason had forgotten that the festival was also accommodating of this kind of subtle romance.
At noon, on Nabami, we were at Shiraz for lunch. While relishing a plate of mutton biriyani and recapping all the outlandish concepts and artistry we had witnessed over the last 3 days, I slipped in a question to my wife — what were the most appealing aspects of Durga Puja in Kolkata? After taking a minute to gather her thoughts, she replied — “the sheer love for art and the infectious energy of the people of this city”. I couldn’t agree more!
We were going to leave Kolkata on Dashami morning. So that Nabami night we played all the images we had gathered over the 3 days on a projector. The lights were turned off and we watched the pictures in silence. At once, I was engulfed by a plethora of emotions as images from my past seamlessly blended with those of my present. I shed a happy tear that day.
Siddhartha Krishnan is the author of Two and a Half Rainbows – A Collection of Short Stories. He is also an enthusiastic blogger and on his website www.whatsonsidsmind.com, he regularly puts out his essays, articles, travelogues and film reviews.
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