Living for nearly two decades outside Kolkata, I can comfortably say that I don’t miss the city. But every year, as the air starts smelling of autumn, I wonder if I have actually gotten over it. This is the season when nostalgia overrides all logic or practicality and I find myself drawn back to my old hood and the countless childhood memories associated with it. Durga Puja or the ‘Pujo’ as it is locally known, is arguably the biggest, largest, and the most extravagant celebration that Kolkata indulges in. The otherwise languid city suddenly assumes electrifying energy during these days. Starting from Mahashahti (6th day of Navratri) till Bijoya Dashami (Dussehra), the dormant Kolkata comes alive with an excess of everything. So every year, like clockwork, I reach the Kolkata airport, hire an airport taxi and make my way to old gullies of my childhood.
The Pujo prep
But it would be wrong to say that Kolkata Pujo is all about those 5 days- it is a season that starts months prior, when the artisans of Kumortuli- the largest potter’s quarter of Bengal, mould the first lump of clay to shape the city’s favourite Goddess. This northern corner of the city is where the first celebrations start. As the auspicious first day nears, Kumortuli turns into a resplendent live canvas of colourful idols. Durga comes in all forms, shapes, and sizes; each idol with its distinctive persona, waiting to be set up at the altar and worshipped, loved, and admired by us mere mortals.
On the other hand, I discover another side to the celebrations- shopping that increases in frenzy with each passing day. Because let’s admit it, Pujo is all about the finest clothes, the fanciest accessories, that would bring out your best avatar. The streets of Esplanade and the New Market (formerly Hogg Market) are my personal favourite shopping districts and you can be as sure as sunshine to find anything that you can possibly conceive.
The big Bengali celebration
Over the years that I have experienced the Kolkata Durga Pujo, the festival has evolved to become more a cultural event than a religious one, turning the city into one big fairground, adorned in the most dazzling lights and an eclectic mix of colors and sounds. And not to mention, the fountains of lip-smacking delicacies of all kinds. Savouries, sweets, and more sweets overflow every street, every by-lane, and every alley, making me want to rename this childhood home, the ‘City of Food’.
And so, to catch the festivities, I head out to my favourite neighborhoods to catch a glimpse of gorgeous idols, that are beautifully adorned and exquisitely crafted. The 300-year old Shobhabazar Raj Bari, Maddox Square Park, and the Ballygunge Cultural Association are some of the places where I find the old traditions still alive. Like the Mithai Bhog at the Raj Bari- a ritual offering to the Goddess with a life-size platter of sweets of all shapes, sizes, and flavours prepared specially by confectioners from the remote villages of Odisha. Or the Dhunuchi Naach performed by the community women of Maddox Square Park. A traditional dance to appease the Goddess, this ritual was conventionally performed by men. And I find it extremely refreshing to discover the lines of class and gender getting blurred due to the truly inclusive and emancipatory power of the festival.
By Bijoya Dashami, and after all my little Pujo adventures, I am pleasantly exhausted, drenched in an excess of festivities. And somewhere amidst the lights, sounds, colors, and overeating, I rediscover the charm of my city through the eyes of the Goddess- to whom the city prays, celebrating her infinite beauty, wisdom and great courage. Alas, it is time to return. I book a Kolkata taxi and say goodbye to this city for one more year.