As long as my reminiscence takes off, Durga Puja has prevailed to be a significant portion of my existence growing up in Calcutta. But in the face of the Covid pandemic the impression of Durga puja that we remembered altered drastically. I remember dark empty streets, empty metro during pujas—sight of a lifetime. We knew as a society we were fighting something much greater than our joys and we had to be in it together. There was an order by Calcutta High Court curbing puja organisations allowing devotees into pandals. Though there were people on road and in restaurants, the proportion couldn’t come near what it was previously. There was an idea prevailing that the worse was over and by next summer with vaccines rolling out things will go better. But the experience of that summer is better not talked about, with all the trauma and loss which people including yours truly went through is impossible to pen down.
Durga Puja on the face of Covid-19
Masks, sanitiser, open pandals, no large inauguration or ceremonies, devotees barred from the vicinity of the sanctums of the pandals have been the new normal in 2021. Further, with carnivals banned, with lack of stalls, less revenue generated from advertisements and hoardings left a lot of organizers out of sorts. With one saying that, “ei bochor normal budget ar theke half ar o kom taka utheche, stalls nei taka kom, pujo to the sei rokom bhalo kore korte parlam na (This year there has been lack of revenue, nearly half of usual, with lack of stalls and due to which we couldn’t pull off pujo the way we used to.)” Though the economic climate has been questionable there has been significant footfall in Pujas like Sreebhumi Sporting, which grew over the evening and into the night. Pandals in South Kolkata, such as Tridhara Sammilani, Naktala Udayan Sangha, saw a similar rush over a similar period. With peak hour crowd a reminiscence of pre-pandemic times it seemed improbable to put up with the Covid protocols and the crowd.
Large gatherings over the past few months have been synonymous with the spike in Covid cases in India and beyond. If we look into the recent examples, Covid cases in Kerala rose after Onam in August and there was a spike after Ganesh Chaturthi in Maharashtra in September despite government regulations and curfew. Drawing from these examples, it is highly feasible that there might be a spike in cases in Bengal which at this current juncture records an average of around 700 cases per day. Though a small number in comparison to last year same time of around 4000 per day, what the second wave has taught us is that it hardly takes weeks to get things out of proportion.
Thus with an impending third wave, it’s nothing but imprudent on the part of devotees to not follow the mask compliance and are just being careless about the whole issue altogether. Some have also said, “Why is there is a norm of distance from the idol being followed? Will the Goddess have Covid?”
With a situation like this in midst of all glitters of the festivities, is there another period of gloom awaiting? And who will be held responsible if that happens? It is the state or the devotees? Well, it’s a bit of both added to the current situation. If we look into the government’s message towards the public, we can see a mixed tone. It agreed to the High Court Order and discouraged people to visit pandals via its SOPs, encouraged e-darshan. However, the government also relaxed the night curfew, added more metros late into the night till 11:30, and started ‘puja special local trains,’ beyond midnight, allowing people to commute from suburbs into the heart of Kolkata. But can we accuse the government and end the story here? The government had provided people with the choice of being responsible by wearing a mask and making sure they are vaccinated, and not visiting pandals if sick.
Lastly, none would want others right to religion to be curtailed but that should not come at the cost of another right to life and healthy life. Thus, it doesn’t matter who was or is responsible for the scenario. If the third wave comes, everyone will suffer equally.
The author is a student of Amity University, Kolkata. Views are personal