My father lost his two front teeth in the upper jaw earlier this year and told me that it’s only when you don’t have them do you realise how much you miss them. It’s the same with Durga Pujo in 2020. Yes, every other year it’s mostly hellish, most men are in embroidered silk kurtas, which the Ministry of Textiles should have long banned for their excessiveness, and the days are usually noisier than a social media influencer’s Instagram page.
There’s a very funny meme I had once spotted of a door sign that read ‘PULLISH’ to imply indecisiveness. But ‘pullish’ can also count as a CR Park pandal-hopper’s primary strategy while trying to enter one of the venues, beating the unmissable serpentine queues. You push your way through the overeager crowd, while praying at the same time that one of your companions pulls you back from the other side. Eventually, you make it to the ground, hopefully with your spirit and Bengali pride intact.
If nostalgia is indulgence, then a Bengali’s nostalgia during Durga Pujo is hedonism on crack. And this year, the withdrawal symptoms are way worse.
Of stale fries and Honey Singh
Whether in Delhi or Kolkata, traffic is constantly preposterous. You park your car or get off the cab at least a couple of kilometres before you’ve arrived and then walk the rest of the way. You almost always have to stand in a queue to get in. And there’s always some smart alec around ready to cut the line.
Once in, the fish fry you eat at the stalls is either piping hot and fresh or made from three-day-old batter, depending purely on your luck.
Many pujo committees even hire DJs these days, to stand with their consoles next to the bamboo structure that becomes a makeshift home for the protimas (idols) for a week or so. DJs who don’t think twice before playing a Rabindra Sangeet right after Yo Yo Honey Singh. And then there’s the dancing. You can probably tell already that I’m not a fan.
The question that then arises is why do we do it? From the selfie enthusiasts to the devout single-minded worshippers to the nonbelievers — why do we all still flock to these places to catch a glimpse of the cacophony and the madness?
In Delhi, it isn’t just the Bengalis of CR Park or those of us who have moved from Kolkata who participate. By some twist of fate, this festival has managed to cut across all religious, regional, and cultural barriers. Surrounded majorly by Punjabi and Bengali homes, these CR Park grounds, in some way, are like museums of memory in a rapidly fractionating world and serve as reminders that coexistence is possible — allowing the wistfulness of ‘Purano Sei Diner Kotha’ to get washed down with ‘Chaar Botal Vodka’.
The absolutely worst part about not being in Kolkata during pujo for me is missing the sound of dhaak playing in the distance all day as you go about your chores unawares… never feeling alone, not even once. And despite all that’s been mentioned so far, after seven months of being more or less isolated from the rest of the world, being present at a CR Park pandal on a grimy, uncomfortable and smoggy evening is what I’ll perhaps crave the most.
While waiting in line once to eat lunch at City of Joy — the hallowed ground for all Bengali cuisine lovers near CR Park’s Market Number 2— on a Saptami afternoon, I remember getting irritable because nobody seemed to have moved an inch even after a good 15 minutes had passed. Thankfully though, I wasn’t the only one. You can imagine the picture fairly easily — a bunch of exhausted, famished and impatient people unwilling to wait another moment for a table inside the restaurant and food on their plate. When the overdressed gentleman in a dhuti-panjabi in front of me in the line noticed this, I remember him turning around and offering me a piece of aamshotto (sun-dried layers of mango pulp, which Bengalis somehow can’t do without!). I would have probably refused on any other day, but that afternoon it would have meant refusing to be a part of this tiny memory of shared hunger and momentary relief. The simplest things in life are easy to hate, but, as one finds out, often easier to love.
Till we meet again
Nostalgia is a silent aching in the heart we have all experienced. American novelist Michael Chabon wrote, ‘Nostalgia is a valid, honorable, ancient human emotion, so nuanced that its sub-variants have names in other languages — German’s sehnsucht, Portuguese’s saudade—that are generally held to be untranslatable.’ These five days manage to bring with them such a unique, and, as Chabon says, untranslatable feeling of romance and yearning because it evokes different memories in different people; nearly everyone has something to ruminate on, to look back at. It could be reminiscing about a childhood love, a reunion of school friends, which really never go as planned, neighbours exchanging bhog or a pujo feast, visiting your grandparents’ home, the weather changing, oil solidifying in plastic bottles, or just homesickness.
It’s that rare religious celebration that goes beyond the confines of religion and seamlessly integrates a migrant worker mother’s experience into the festivities, turning it into a Durga idol so that every time someone bends in front of it, they remember what this strange, recurrent year has been about.
This year’s ‘locked down’, Zoom-call-dependent, virtual tour-heavy Durga Pujo won’t be about a longing for something lost, or something that could have been. It’ll be that brittle, incandescent emotional experience of revisiting all that this time of the year has given us in the past, and being hopeful about all that it will in the years ahead — when we meet again among friends and loud relatives, and the smell of dhunuchi hanging in the air of Delhi, Kolkata, Murshidabad, and Dhaka alike. The year 2020 is an interval point, to breathe, to acknowledge and appreciate the two front teeth in our upper jaws without which all the fish fries in the world would cease to make any sense.
Sayantan Ghosh is a writer and editor based in New Delhi. He tweets @sayantansunnyg. Views are personal.