The very first thing every year I do after I get hold of the calendar (the Roman and the Bengali one, both) is to check the Durga Pujo dates. You may call it a habit, a glimpse of joy or a routine...anything. But I am sure that I am not the only one. Bengalis are by birth emotional and the degree attached to my idiosyncrasies is wee bit more. I am the kind who would cry silently in the bathroom after watching a few pictures of my city getting all decked up for Durga pujo on Facebook and then walk out perfectly happy and sane after thinking about the 'to do's in a 'Probashi pujo'.
Frankly speaking, this is not the first time that I am away from home during Durga pujo, the significance of which in the life of an ordinary Calcuttan (and by that I mean all Calcuttans!) can be only understood by visiting the city during the time of the festival. I have heard many comparisons about Durga pujo being almost like Ganesh Chaturthi in Bombay, Hyderabad or Pune or for that matter internationally the Rio Carnival in Brazil. Amongt these I have experienced only the Hyderabadi celebrations and so I may not be qualified to comment but deep down inside, as girl growing up in a South Calcutta neighbourhood where pujo meant the excitement of discussing plans about decoration of the pandal and collecting funds way before the celebrations started, I know that Durga pujo in a Calcuttan's life cannnot be substituted.
I have no qualms in admitting that Durga pujo for me and for many like me who grew up in Calcutta had connotations beyond being just a religious festival. And there lies the spirit and warmth which makes pujo so unique. I have seen, in Hyderabad for instance, that only people who follow a particular faith as mine, Hinduism, participating in the celebrations for Ganesh Chaturthi and during the day of Visarjan a curfew is often imposed in the old city area just to avert any chances of communal tension. And to think that we Calcuttans mark the beginning of our Durga pujo itinerary by making a mandatory visit to Arsalan and by devouring the mutton biriyani! It's a pilgrimage, just like the chelo kabab or the prawn cocktail in Peter Cat or Mocambo. And of course the bhog that is served during the pujo days in the neighbourhood. Perhaps the only vegetarian fare which seems tasty to the tongue to the Calcuttan foodie :) Durga pujo is as important for gastronomical delights to be explored as hopping through the makeshift wonders which dot the cityscape for the 4 days. People visiting the city first time during the pujo often wonder that so much of creativity and thought has gone for the preparation...and that too just for 4 days. I think there are already reams of data available on the internent over how Durga pujo celebrations is almost a cottage industry in Bengal ( I am not making a point for Industrialisation in Bengal).
My friends often wonder how can we Bengalis, and also the Calcutta Marwaris, Gujaratis and Biharis, who have called Calcutta home for a long time now and that includes many of my friends who subscribe to the tought "ghar mein veg bahar non veg" (eating vegetarian fare in the house and non vegetarian outside"), eat non vegetarian food during the time we are celebrating a religious festival. My answer to the often remains that it is the same fervour with which we devour the Biriyani in a neighbour's house during Eid or eat the plum cake during Christmas. And if I miss out on the Langar food during Guruparab (also Balwant Singh's dhaba food in Bhawanipore) it will be almost blasphemy and I will not be qualified enough to call myself a Calcuttan. Calcuttans are often called a 'hujugey' lot. One who go by the wave. What else will describe the city's euphoria in descending upon Park Street on the 24th December night every year? There are numerous flipsides in attaching so much importance in celebrating every festival, but somewhere I feel that it attaches a non communal flavour to the city's diaspora. And the Durga pujo is the biggest among them all. That explains the Councillor of my ward, who practises Islam, taking active interest in making the pujo a success and never missing out on the Ashatmi bhog. That also includes the Sardars who stay near Bhawanipore being an active support in all the pujo planning.
Yes, I pray every year...and piously give my Ashtami anjali, fasting for the first half for the day and planning where to eat in the night. That is in between popping to gelusil tablets (Bengalis and their acidity!) I make wishes before the Goddess and participate in the 'Sondhi pujo' where I see thousands gather to pay homage to the mother who saved mankind. The magical moment of celebration all women kind when the 108 lights bloom in full grandeur to express their gratitude to the power of a woman. That is religious for me, extremely religious. That moment often defines the understanding of me being a "Hindu". A practitioner of the "sanatan dharma". For me, it is not remotely related to anything including eating non vegetarian food, chowmein, carrying mobile phones, going to pubs and parties, wearing what I feel I look beautiful in, being confident about myself or being friends with people of other faiths or inviting them to share the Bhog.
Calcutta, I have heard and seen, is incrasingly becoming intolerant towards the fairer sex. A year ago also I could take pride in the fact that my city is one of the safest in India, not anymore. But Durga pujo every year gives me hope. A hope that the same people who put up posters about "praying in front of the Goddess" will learn a thing or two about how not to make snide remarks about a woman wearing something you find "sexy" in the crowd. Let her enjoy the pandal hopping or the adda ta Maddox square just like you do. Or to jostle inside the Pujo pandal just to grope her. Interestingly, it is also the time of the year when a significant number of eve teasing cases are registered in Calcutta. I do not claim I have never faced any during Pujo.
This year, I will be celebrating pujo in a faraway land. I will attend Germany's biggest Durga pujo and oen of Europe's biggest pujo, in Cologne. I am looking forward to the excitement here...very much palpable among the 'probashis'. The cultural program, the arrangements, the self cooked bhog....but deep down inside I know I will miss the crowds, the lights, the chant from the balcony while welcoming the daughter when she comes home a day before "shoshti"- "Thakur eshe geche" ("Look the deity has arrived") and the spirit that is called Calcutta.
Pujo, for us Calcuttans, will always remain a celebration of life- food, friends, adda, nostalgia and planning for the next year :)
"Ashche bochchor abar hobe"