Thursday, October 18, 2007

Durga Puja in Kolkata

On Monday, I answered the doorbell to find three men at my door. Once again I was being asked for Durga Puja money. This time it was for meals. I asked what the last 400 Rupees was for and they replied that that was for building the pandal only. Now they wanted money to pay for our meals. I told them we hadn't made plans yet and asked if we could purchase them if we decide to go. They replied no. I said we weren't going and closed the door.

On Tuesday another group of three women showed up at my door. This time they wanted Durga Puja money to pay the security guards tips. They wanted another 400 rupees so that everyone got their share... At this point I was pissed off. I told them I would tip the guards myself. They insisted that that was frowned upon, that everyone should get an equal share. There are some workers here at the building that have been very nice and have helped me since I moved in. I insisted that the men who worked harder should be compensated accordingly, and that they didn't seem to have a way to accurately account for how the rupees were distributed. At this point, the discussion became more of a debate between political theories, so I just said no and closed the door.

Wednesday evening couldn't get here fast enough. My whole team had finished all of their projects earlier so they were basically watching the clock as well. Many were loitering outside smoking cigarettes or talking on their cellphones. I had wanted to let everyone go early but HR wouldn't allow it because they said it wouldn't have been fair to other groups. I won't comment on that, but as soon as their time came to leave, I pushed them out the door.

I took the car to Santoshpur to pick up DVDs and supplies for the long weekend. The traffic was absolutely crazy. There was a sea of women dressed in their finest sarees and salwar khameez. Men were dressed in their finery as well. I saw many of them in traditional kurtas and pants. A lot of people were wearing western clothing as well. There was loud drumming and music coming from every pandal.

Durga Puja is the celebration of the Goddess Durga, who comes to earth to save us from evil. That, unfortunately is all I have learned so far. Thursday evening our cooked arrived at 6:00 to take us pandal hopping, a traditional activity here. Will wore his black kurta that we'd bought at City Centre in Salt Lake - a good friend had suggested we get one and helped us select it. Wise decision. The cook was very pleased to see him in traditional dress.

Pandals are temporary structures with displays of the goddess within. There are typically a few other goddesses and gods, like Ganesha, and sometimes an evil dude or two along with animals and other decorative elements. They are not small, typically four or five feet tall, sometimes much larger in size. We tried to get a cab outside, but ended up getting into an autorickshaw for the first mile or so, then we switched over to bike rickshaws for the rest of the trip. We traversed down tiny little backstreets and between buildings, finally getting to our first pandal.

The pandal was three stories tall. There was a lot of gold and yellow. There were intricate carvings of gods all over the exterior of the building. There were people everywhere, and the crowd was controlled through the use of thread. Two guys held the ends together, letting people through at regular intervals. The crowd would surge toward the line, the guys with the thread would move back to the safety of the sidewalk, then fight their way back to the center with their thread to keep the crowd at bay. When it was our turn, we just let the wave of people push us through rather than fight the storm surge. We entered the structure; it was brightly lit. Inside, it looked like a small theatre. There was a group of musicians playing music in front of the stage. Above them was the Goddess in all her glory with animals and attendants. The crowd them pushed us out the side door. In all, we waited about 30 minutes to spend about 20 seconds looking at the Goddess. We then walked to the second pandal.

It was a magnificent structure, looking like a woven basket with rich details added to the intricate weave pattern of the exterior. There was a carefully landscaped walkway guiding you to the entrance. Two bright yellow barriers restricted movement down to a six foot span in the roadway. Two guards blocked any forward progress. The crowd here was much bigger and the crowd tighter. I used my elbows to keep people from stepping on me or pushing me off balance. Will was a few people back and I focused on not losing the cook in the crowd - she was a few people in front of me. Once the guards moved, the crowd streamed in. We walked past beautiful water features with lily pads and lotus flowers, then entered the pandal itself. This one was different. Inside the lit interior was a 20 foot tall column in the center of the room slowly spinning with images of the goddess on all its sides. We walked around the walls of the pandal and ended up outside again. We then headed to my cook's house for dinner, after which we spent over an hour trying to get a cab, then another or so taking the cab home. I gave extra money with a cheery "Shubo Durga Puja!" He smiled and said something back at me in Bengali. When we got into the house, both of collapsed onto our beds and were asleep in mere seconds.

Friday began early with a few hours of more pandal hopping, but by now I'd done all I could do with them. I loved looking at the mendi-wallas' stamps and there were plenty of items to purchase to perform the puja, like flowers and offerings, but at this point I just wanted a cup of coffee in an air conditioned room.

We hit the CCD (Cafe Coffee Day) in GolPark. They had a special menu just for Durga Puja and all I wanted was a cup of coffee. Apparently I wasn't going to get one unless I wanted chocolate ice cream and flavoured syrup. I spent maybe ten minutes convincing the waiter that I just wanted a simple cup of coffee, no ice cream, no syrup, no sugar. Eventually, he complied. While waiting for the coffee to brew, we watched Hindi music videos.

The woman dancing in front of the pack was wearing this shiny pleather jumpsuit all sliced open horizontally across the front of her legs. "Shania Twain called, she wants her pants back." This cracked Will up. Finally coffee arrived. Three cups of coffee and three snacks cost us just under 600 rupees. "Must be the Durga Puja rate," Will offered, when he saw my look of surprise.

We decided to just go home after that to watch DVDs. Maybe we'll venture out again tomorrow.


Anonymous said...

Being a regular follower of your blog, I was waiting quite eagerly for a post on Durga Pujo. It's nice to read and watch Kolkata from a person's viewpoint who is not native to it. But this time I am a bit surprised seeing you not wondering at the most intriguing aspect of Durga Pujo. It's not the sea of people, or the intricately decorated pandals, but to me, the makeover of the localities, which make even the regular walkways seem like a part of the childhood wonderland.
Every city has its own festival. Like Ganesh Chaturthi of Mumbai and Carnavale of Rio, Durga Pujo is of Kolkata. And like every other city, KOlkata's festival represents the city's spirit. And it is about enjoying life to the fullest, no matter how short it is.
Each "Pandal hopper" knows very well that the celebration will end after four/five days, and will not be seen before 12 more months, still they erect the intricately carved pandals, they sculpt out the 10feet tall idols. Just because they want to celebrate the homecoming of their daughter, Durga.
Yes, still in this cyber age, people believe and love the Goddess not to be a celestial power, but more like their own daughter, who has come to visit her Mom-and-Dad's house from her In-laws', for a few days, with her kids along with her. Just like every other Bengali woman visits.

Anonymous said...

I hope you enjoyed and you could put up with the rushing crowds, the pollution and the maddening traffic to have a glimpse at the most important celebrations in the Bengali Calendar.

If you can manage it, try visitng Shillong during Christmas - you'll like it. Christmas in the hills is LOVELY.

Unknown said...

I was seriously looking into spending the Christmas season in Darjeeling. I have a great fondness for that particular hill station, something I really want to show my son. I will look into Shillong, but this first may be just to reach pack to revisit a time gone by. Thanks for the suggestion.

Anonymous said...

I too was waiting eagerly to read your comments on Durga Puja in Calcutta... something that has become so famous that it warranted a front-page article on NY Times on Monday.

In line with your plan to visit Darjeeling, I would suggest to add Kalimpong to your itenary and also spend a few days at any of the tea estates in the dooars.

It would be a shame thought to miss the Christmas celebrations in Calcutta and the great breakfast at Flurys in Park Street and the rich chocolate cake at Nahoums...


Unknown said...

Darjeeling holds a special place in my heart and I have waited 30 years to revisit it. We'll go this year, hopefully. We'll still be here next year to experience Christmas in Calcutta. :-)

Anonymous said...

I feel bad that some people annoyed you for money. You should have reported to the police.

If you wish to have a glimpse of the best pujas of Kolkata you can try the following links.
(Step 1: Click on "Options" at the right hand bottom of the screen
Step 2: Tick on the tab "Always show title and description"
Step 3: "Save" this setting
Step 4: Enjoy... )

(Step 1: Click on "View as slideshow"
Step 2: Click on "Options" at the right hand bottom of the screen
Step 3: Tick on the tab "Always show title and description"
Step 4: "Save" this setting
Step 5: Enjoy... )

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