Glitz, Glamour and Homophobia

100 minutes into Madhur Bhandarkar’s Heroine, Shahana Goswami proclaims with blithe arrogance, “I mean, for god’s sake, I am not a lesbian.” And in the wee hours of dawn, I am thwarted by the force of a realization. The entertainment industry that has encumbered me since my earliest memories of a sun-kissed childhood has been patronizing homophobia for decades, sometimes with casual mockery wrapped in rib-ticklers, and sometimes rather insidiously.

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Bhandarkar’s Heroine, where homosexuality was openly insulted.

Oh Bollywood! So pretty with your sparkling clothes, your larger-than-life stories and those fantastical songs that have led to every other citizen in this country to dream about romancing with their Prince Charming or Dream Girl in the exquisite beaches of Santorini or in the snow-laden mountains of Switzerland. And like every other parched romantic soul, I too have grown around the colors of Bollywood, having spent a childhood merrily dancing to Sri Devi’s “Hawa Hawai” and Karisma Kapoor’s “Le Gayi”. But the minute when all the pretty facades crumble into dust, its flaws are left for all to be seen, or mostly in our case, sadly unseen.

Take for instance the tear-jerking blockbuster that Karan Johar produced in 2003. Kal Ho Naa Ho was heralded as the film of its generation, with its dreamy montages of New York and the Brooklyn Bridge, Preity Zinta in her pretty red dress, and a charismatic Shah Rukh Khan, as always, stealing the thunder from everyone else as he essayed the role of Aman. However, rip all the fanfare, and you remember a forgettable character that went by the name of Kaanta Behen, the maid at Saif Ali Khan’s apartment, who was openly homophobic. Presented as nothing but a comedic subplot, this woman kept misunderstanding the two men as lovers, and when the homosexual DJ came by in the song “Maahi Ve”, I remember quite clearly the horrible shove she gave to the poor fellow when he was merrymaking with the others. And to think that Johar, an openly gay man at present, would endorse such an instance of blatant homophobia in a film he produced. You can always say that times were different in 2003, but when is the right time to endorse homophobia?

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Johar’s Kal Ho Naa Ho, where homophobia was insidiously promoted as a comedic subplot.

Now fast-forward half a decade into 2008, when Johar’s next venture, Dostana, released. Unlike its sentimental predecessor, Dostana was a slice-of-life comedy where two young bachelors (played by Abhishek Bachchan and John Abraham) are looking for an apartment to settle into in the thriving city of Miami. In a “hilarious” twist of events, they finally rent an apartment with the film’s oblivious female lead, played by Priyanka Chopra, where they pretend to be homosexual lovers, while incessantly trying to win the affections of Chopra in reality. This, perhaps, seems a normal plot for a romantic comedy, until of course Kirron Kher, who plays the mother of Bachchan, appears on the screen. An openly homophobic character, her caricature is presented with item numbers where she sings of the torment that she is cursed with as her son is supposedly homosexual in “Maa Da Ladla Bigar Gaya” (trans: Mommy’s Boy Got Spoiled). And suddenly, the entire theater joins in to this so-called laugh riot of normalizing homophobia.

Perhaps such examples appear almost minuscule, however, the latent truth underneath is petrifying. Bollywood is one of the most thriving industries in India, and its socio-cultural reach and influence is unrivaled by any other. As a peddler of art, I understand that mainstream cinema is the strongest weapon of expression of thought in contemporary society. From its widespread reach of audience to its presentation, cinema heralds a double-edged sword of influence upon the human mind. Identities are often constructed on the cornerstone of its aesthetics. Generations after generations are thus influenced by mainstream cinema in more ways than one. And desensitizing the mass toward blatant homophobia is nothing short of a harrowing blunder in the part of the entertainment industry. Remember that time when Kaho Naa… Pyaar Hai released and suddenly all the barbers where busily snipping away to make sure all the boys looked like Hrithik Roshan? Or the time when Goliyon ki Raasleela Ram-Leela hit the theaters one winter morning, and suddenly, all the shops were bustling with the hoards of cacophonous women, young and old, in their bids to buy the “Leela” earrings that Deepika Padukone wore in the film? That’s the extent of influence Bollywood holds in our daily lives. From the bell-bottom pants that can still be found in the concealed corners of almost every middle-aged man’s wardrobe, thanks to Amitabh Bachchan in the 70s, to that hideous turquoise bracelet that adorns the wrist of every other neighborhood bad boy, thanks to Salman Khan, Bollywood stays inoculated in every contour of our daily lives. So when such a colossal industry endorses, and in some cases repeatedly validates, something as toxic as homophobia, the consequences are grievous indeed.

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Man-hating lesbians and objectification, as promoted by B-grade films like Girlfriend

In 2004, a B-grade film called Girlfriend, starring Isha Koppikar and Amrita Arora, released in India. Perhaps the inconsequential plot was written solely to promote generic hatred for the opposite sex and objectification of a lesbian relationship. The film, although a box-office dud thankfully, has stayed in the minds of the thousands of folks who tune in to channels such as Zee Cinema or Set Max for a lazy afternoon of watching films on television, thanks to its repeated telecasts. In the film, Koppikar’s character is a man-hating possessive homosexual who is hell-bent on destroying her lover’s heterosexual relationship. Hitherto less known about the concepts of homosexuality in mainstream cinema, this film set certain devastating and downright delusional standards about the on-goings of lesbian relationships. Furthermore, the trivialized objectification of women, and thus lesbians, led to a generation of men and women conceptualizing lesbian relationships as nothing but a toxic and lust-driven experimentation between two women. And thanks to its constant telecasts, this insidious delusion still finds its audience in television almost every other week.

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Bhandarkar’s Fashion promoted a delusion that most of all male fashion designers are closeted homosexuals who publicly promote a heterosexual relationship in order to cover up their sexual orientation.

Bhandarkar’s blockbuster venture Fashion (2008) cemented Priyanka Chopra’s position as the most sought-after actress in Bollywood. However, the film also planted the seeds for the pathetically concealed homophobia that Bhandarkar kept promoting in his following directorial ventures. Aside from the fact that the film’s female protagonists instigated their partners to begin homosexual relationships with the designers they wished to work with, the film’s third lead Mugdha Godse had a disastrous plot where she married a fashion designer, who was a closeted homosexual, in order to publicly maintain his appearance as a heterosexual man. In a country like India, with its easily impressionable audience, this acted as the last nail to cement a delusion in the minds of the common man that most of all male designers who worked in the fashion industry were actually homosexuals. This stereotype also led to the shallow portrayals of multiple homosexuals who acted as supporting characters in the film to be presented as effeminate men for the sake of comic relief. In that context, every third Bollywood film in the 90s finds a mention as the go-to comic relief in that era was an effeminate man or a masculine woman (think Raja Hindustani).

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The New-Wave Bollywood Cinema: Aligarh, Margarita With a Straw, Kapoor & Sons

But somewhere, I still believe that all hope is not lost. Our present generation, although influenced by a thousand Bollywood stereotypes, are not as desensitized as their predecessors. Perhaps Dylan was correct, perhaps “The Times They are-a Changin'”, even if the cynical side of my psyche refuses to stake her hopes upon such romanticism. Because for the past half a decade, Bollywood has been flooded by films that speak otherwise. And ever so gradually, they are seeping into the undercurrents of mainstream cinema. Although considered art-house films by word of mouth, these films are finding their youthful audience silently, no longer considered as ostracized celluloid such as Fire (1996). Films such as Margarita With a Straw (2014) or Aligarh (2016) are gradually coming into the limelight, if not immediately, but gradually just the same. There is surprisingly a new-generation audience that is ready to accept films such as these, and they are not shelved into the moth-eaten corners of forgotten films immediately after their screening at some film festival. Even a mainstream jewel such as Kapoor & Sons (2016) starring Alia Bhatt, Fawad Khan and Siddharth Malhotra, where Khan portrayed a homosexual author, received accolades in mainstream award ceremonies such as the 62nd Filmfare Awards.

Of course there is always a backlash, as is always wont to be. Films such as Unfreedom (2014) that was based on Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s poem “Ye Dagh Dagh Ujala” bit the dust when the Indian Censor Board staunchly refused the release of this film . Similarly, Aligarh, based on true events, faced its fair share of censorship and counterblast because of its content about a closeted homosexual professor (Ramchandra Siras) of Aligarh University whose privacy was compromised when two men forcefully entered his premises to catch him having consensual sex with a man. After all, the journey was never meant to be easy. And change always comes at a price.

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Kolkata Pride Walk 2017, captured by Zoya Khan. Saintbrush

Cinema is the mirror that reflects the lives we lead, the choices we make, the desires we possess. And as we choose to change, perhaps it does too. We have come a long way from apologizing for villains, abusive relationships and stalkers from the 90s (looking at you, Shah Rukh Khan), and yes, the journey keeps getting harder by the day. Women with dusky skin are still considered outcasts in the Indian entertainment industry more often than not (Tannishtha Chatterjee, here’s hoping I see you in another wonderful film after Parched), the search for the fairest and the skinniest heroine still continues, and sexual objectification still churns the easiest money at the box-office (Mastizaade, Jism 2, Hate Story 3, the list goes on). You see, there are a lot of problems, and we are only beginning to think of possibilities of a solution.

But the times perhaps change, the faces change, the cities change, and life goes on. And suddenly, you wake up to a reality where hundreds can march proudly in the city streets, the colors of the rainbow raised high for all to see, unashamed, undaunted, and free. And yes, it is not easy, there are still those eyes that look at you with disdain, but revolutions weren’t won in a day and all you have is your choice to still believe. Perhaps that very faith keeps me going on as well. And so I write a thousand words, hoping to connect to every person who reads them, and give this world whatever little I can.

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New Orleans: Memories of a Summer Lost

Summer has long since dwindled into the cold heart of winter, and I have found my home once again. The blues of the skies are now hidden, Calcutta busily robbing me off the luxury of gazing at infinite azures once again, dazed as she is about her overt familiarity. Sometimes it is the trees that I like to blame, the ones that pepper the sky with their mystifying green. Most of the time, however, it is the city’s blasted white noise that wraps me in this unwanted cocoon of ordinariness.

So as I sit in my favorite cafe, unable to differentiate between a Monday and a Saturday, the days now missing their individual gleam, moments chained into infinity loops of the same tasks over and over again, I drift off to New Orleans.

Between copious cups of piping hot tea, my only tether to reality, I travel 8, 801 miles effortlessly, I chase the sound of some nameless street musician’s saxophone as she plays ‘La Vie En Rose’, I chase the street magician who befuddles his crowd with lovable parlor tricks, and I chase the girl that I had been in those sleepless 48 hours in the Big Easy.

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New Orleans, an aging city, where the past lingers in every by-lane of the present, isn’t perfect, far from it. But then again, she never made promises of painting a pretty picture, did she? You see, you can find New Orleans in the French Quarter, in Bourbon Street, in the high roofs of St. Louis Cathedral or perhaps in the blowing winds by the Mississippi river. But then again, you can find her in the unnumbered potholes in her cobblestone streets, in the Southern lilt of her citizens, in the old beagle that sat with her older masters in Jackson Square and in the intoxicated homeless musician who played his saxophone for me sometime before dawn colored the skies.

I am no travel blogger. I cannot give you an inventory of the places you must visit in a city that is perhaps as confused as me. I cannot tell you that you must visit the French Quarters right before the sun sets and see all the voodoo witches reading the palms of tourists, or that the best time to addle your senses is at midnight in Bourbon Street. Because, you see, in my sleepless 48 hours, I have lived an eternity in the Big Easy. I have sat by the steps of some stranger’s house at St. Charles Avenue, only intending to do so for a few minutes, and I have let hours pass by instead, watching a couple in their seventies dance like unabashed adolescents to the blues of a traveling band. I have walked by the cobblestone street behind St. Louis Cathedral when the summer rains had decided to shower upon me, only to be saved by a stranger with green eyes and his red umbrella. I had spent hours standing underneath that crimson canopy and I remember falling in love with him. But when the sun shone saffron, us coincidental lovers had parted once again. And I have lived lifetimes sifting through the pages of moth-eaten yellowed books in the tiny haven of Faulkner Books, only allowing myself the luxury of a recess when the pangs for a Gelato set in. Because I went as a traveler, but New Orleans had made a home for me instead.

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And when I no longer wished to be lost in the crowds, I had walked by the hundred miniaturist shops that litter the city, tiny remodels of the American Civil War standing proudly in their ornate shelves, with my sister. I had feasted on prawns and craw fish in restaurants that charged a fortune, and I had devoured the delightful beignets, those sugar-coated warm pastries, at Cafe Du Monde, a cafe that had once seen the works of Tennessee Williams come to life in her little tables.

And now as I sit scribbling snippets of my memories, I wish I had more montages to travel back to, I wish I had stayed in the Big Easy a little longer, I wish I had lived a little longer. Because I have only a handful to offer you; because spending only an hour at the Saint Louis Cemetery, trying to remember the names of the dead is not enough. Because spending only half a twilight in the river-walk, begging to board that ship which sailed across the Mississippi is not enough. Because spending only a couple of hours standing on the deck of the Carnival cruise ship, the tunes of Ellington’s ‘Star-Crossed Lovers’ fleeting toward you, is not enough. Because a lifetime spent in the Big Easy is not enough.

You see, I am still in love with New Orleans. I am still in love with the stranger with those green eyes. I am still in love with the old couple dancing like the world would end the next day to a blues song. I am still in love with the artist who paints pictures of Mr Rabbit and His Three Red Balloons in the streets of the French Quarter. I am still in love with the three ladies who stood by a pink Cadillac on the Easter Parade. I am still in love with Cecille Robelet, a woman who slumbers in her grave in Saint Louis Cemetery. And I am still in love with the man with the sleeping dog, a man who would pen you a story for a dollar. And perhaps, just perhaps, I am still in love with the girl I used to be in the Big Easy.

Alice in Winterland

The morning comes with the hues of gray,

A silence pervades.

Alice wakes up, somewhere between the dying night and a birthing dawn,

And pulls at the shades.

 

Piping hot tea, or was it a cup of hot chocolate?

The foggy mornings eat away at the memories,

Voices come and go, some happy, some sad,

Each smothered in a sheath of bittersweet dreams.

 

There is no rabbit hole anymore.

The snows have made sure to hide the gaping hole.

No Mr. Rabbit scurries away,

No Mad Hatter comes by to offer a cup of tea,

Even the Queen of Hearts has been blown off somewhere,

Perhaps by the winter winds, perhaps she was never here.

 

The evenings resemble the nights now,

And the nights become the final verses of lost evenings.

Crackling fire impregnates endless silences,

Somewhere, a bonfire rages.

 

The scent of Wonderland is lost now,

Magic dies a sad, sad death.

The Caterpillar no longer blows wisps of smoke,

The moon no longer reminds her of her favorite feline,

And the Cheshire Cat smiles between his riddles in another land.

 

So Alice traipses in reality,

Tweedledee and Tweedledum no longer in toe.

Colors no longer burst like blossoms in springtime,

The fireflies glitter no more.

 

The story has ended now,

Endings, after all, are just endings,

Happiness and sadness entwine like cumbersome strings,

And the Jabberwock no longer bats his dreary black wings.

 

 

The Half-Eaten Sugary Treat: A Review of Projapoti Biskut

Two half-broken people. Spouses, then lovers. A dying sun. The Ganges flowing with her majestic waves in front of them. And a projapoti biskut, the epynomous sugar-encrusted butterfly-shaped biscuit that is a faithful companion to a cup of piping hot milk tea for every Bangali in Calcutta. Somewhere in the ending sequences of Projapoti Biskut, you stumble across such a scene, and you cannot help but feel an inadequate happiness towards it.

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Projapoti Biskut tells a simple story of an ordinary middle-class couple in Calcutta, who have lost their words along the flow of their marriage, their mundane life suddenly bombarded by the appearance of a Karthik idol at their gates.

 

Now what does the appearance of a Karthik idol mean? According to our colorful, and borderline lovably ridiculous, Bangali culture, Karthik is the son of Shiva and Parvati. His idols are left at the doorsteps of childless couples at times, and a ritual for his Pujo is often promised to give a boon that they shall soon conceive a child of their own. However, the appearance of the idol is a conflagration to a chain of irreversible changes that make the aforementioned couple question their identity in each others’ lives, in their own perspectives, and their relationship as well.

 

Projapoti Biskut is a modern man’s perspective of the extraordinary art of living an ordinary life, as seen from the eyes of director Anindya Chattopadhyay.  Shot in interloping montages that overlap the sequential events of the film, Chattopadhyay spins an overtly simple story in the layers of his artful perception. From the imagery of the eponymous butterfly biscuit to the shots of North Calcutta, from train lines to the rusted gates of a house, the cinematography of the film boasts of creating the aura needed for this story, before it drives you into its intricacies.

 

However, that just where it begins, and sadly ends. Projapoti Biskut succeeds in being a beautiful film, as if watching a life in a series of forgotten photo albums, but somewhere, it lacks the heart to drive its point home. From poignant opinions about child adoption to women empowerment, the director tries to sew in every modernist thought into his story, unfortunately creating an utter hotchpotch of mixed messages.

 

Bangalis create a grand vegetable preparation with coconut, milk and vegetables, something called a Shuktoh. But the reason why Shuktoh is such a delight is because it enchants you with its perfect admixture of flavors that intermix and inject its tastes into the bland participating vegetables, the milk boiling to a beautiful dense broth in between.

 

Unfortunately, Projapoti Biskut is no Shuktoh. It is blessed with a plethora of subjects, but neither of them mix or intermix to create a savory homogeneous solution. Instead, every subject, every thought, stands out as a separate sentient concept that holds ground, at the cost of the characters that think of it.

 

Antar, the male protagonist, played by Aditya Sengupta, is an indecisive man beside his wife and the female lead, the headstrong Saon, played by Esha Saha. Their conflicting personalities were supposed to create a magical concoction of grandiose chemistry of epic proportions, however, reality was not that kind. Although an adorable factor in the storytelling, the monotony of their conflicts is predictable at best and monotonous at its most vulnerable. The use of a deux-ex-machina-like twist in the end does not help the plot in any way, and somewhere, even the characterization of the brave Saon falls short as the director forces her to fit into the box of Bangla film making aesthetics, in order to metamorphose the tepid housewife into the bold young woman she is portrayed to be in the last leg of the film. Singularly, however, both the actors try their best to sail true to themselves in the rather undulating plot sequencing, and that is something worthy of admiration, especially when both are making their debut with Projapoti Biskut.

 

In the end, Projapoti Biskut is a film worth watching, if not for anything, but to view the evolving perspectives in Bangla film direction, cinematography, music composing and storytelling in reference to all-encompassing subjects, from marriage to the conception of a child. After all, once the curtain falls, even the inadequacy of happiness is not enough to stop you from humming “Tomake Bujhina Priyo” to yourself, the magic of insufficient melancholia tuning the melodious rendition.

 

 

 

The Grand Arrival: Mahalaya

Somewhere in the wee hours of dawn, when the night melts into the first blues and saffrons of daylight, Birendra Krishna Bhadra starts his litany about the goddess’s arrival.

 

In a city that boasts so much life at every given moment of any day, listen to Bhadra’s magnanimous voice on any other day of the year, and you’ll feel no warmth, no goosebumps that wake something up in you, perhaps, you will feel nothing.

 

And then, come the morning of Mahalaya, the same voice arouses something from the very depths of your soul, and no matter how indifferent you are about Durga Pujo, you cannot help the warmth in your bones, the nostalgia tangible in innocent childhood memories, of waking up to the usually unnoticed radio being tuned to the right frequency by your father, or the one where the Bengali channels begin with a rather long show about how Devi Durga defeated the evil Mahisasur, how she became Mahisasurmardini.

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Mahalaya mornings shall never be complete without catching an early show of the most potboiler presentation of Mahisasurmardini, filled with its horrible special effects and laughable depictions of the gods. (© Image from Google Images)

The story is simple, really. Without bludgeoning you with a thousand details, it goes something on the following lines. A megalomaniac Asura (demon), Mahisasur, wanted nothing more than to rule Swarg (Heaven), Morto (Earth) and Patal (Underworld, not to be confused with Narak, which is Hell). Armed with his glorious ambition, he committed himself to years of Tapasya (meditation) towards the Lord and All-Father Brahma (think, Odin, the Norse god, only stupider and with far less insight about the future, although Brahma is the god of all that is existent and non-existent). Some information here, no one talks about the severe concentration capabilities of Mahisasur, but honestly, it deserves admiration, because, hell (pun intended), I for one cannot even concentrate in a two-hour exam.

 

So, finally, after years and years of austerities, in which Urvashi (the greatest dancer in the heavens) herself came down to seduce Mahisasur and break his concentration, albeit in a futile effort, Brahma finally came to the earthen soils to grant him a wish. And, of course, in spite of achieving infinite knowledge, Mahisasur jumped the gun and asked for a simple wish—“Make me immortal. No man or animal shall ever be able to slay me.”

 

Of course Brahma, being the brilliant philanthropist, granted him the wish, and soon the tyranny of Mahisasur began, as he went terrorizing the gods (Devata) and mortals alike and conquered the earth, the heavens and the underworld with his huge Asura army. Helpless and ousted of their home, the Devatas (something which, in every story of the Hindu myths, you will find the gods, especially Indra, of being) fled to Mount Kailash, where the dude of all gods, the ganja-smoking Shiva resides. Somehow breaking his tapasya (let’s be real, he was just high and tripping on the weed he was smoking), the gods begged the divine ascetic for a solution. Also an information here, although the Hindu pantheon consists of the Devatas, who are basically divine royalty, the real power lies in the trifecta: Brahma, Vishnu and Maheswar (Shiva).

 

So, in this divine conference, where Vishnu and Brahma also come by, and Parvati, Shiva’s wife, is also listening, they discuss about the tyranny of Mahisasur. Finally, Vishnu (who I suspect is the biological father of Tyrion Lannister for his brilliant diplomatic skills) finds a fatal loophole in the wish. You see, Mahisasur mentioned he cannot be killed by any man or animal, but he never said anything about a woman, right? Depend on Vishnu to target on the insidious sexism of most power-hungry folks in the Hindu myths. Using that, the divine trifecta channel their greatest energies into creating a source of ultimate feminine energy, something which is called Shakti, or power. Now, Shakti, in spite of being a source of infinite energy, cannot exist freely, or it shall ravage all known universe. So, Parvati becomes the savior of the day, and accepts this infinite energy source, and becomes the incarnation of Shakti, ergo Durga, herself.

 

In Sanskrit, Durga essentially means that which is invincible or inaccessible. However, the same can be interpreted as one who destroys all durgoti, which means danger or harm. Combining the two, Durga, the ten-handed, three-eyed, trident-wielding incarnation of Parvati, is a symbolic representation of goodness, infinite energy, feminine power, a universal mother and the lesser known concept of the state of motion. The last bit can be explained in the following way: Shiva, Parvati’s consort, is the state of asceticism, mysticism, stability, and rest, and on the flipside, Durga is the state of motion, of uncontrollable power and an All-Mother, hence, Maa Durga.

 

Now, armed with several weapons in her ten hands, from the Sudarshan Chakra of Vishnu to the Trident of Shiva, she mounts on her vahana, the king of the forests, a lion, and rides off to battle Mahisasur. She calls for war with Brahma’s conch and razes his armies first, destroying all that stands in her way with her mace, her sword, and her bow and arrows. Then she begins her one-on-one battle with Mahisasur, who of course underestimates her for her sex (how stupid can he really be?). This battle marks the perennial battle between good and evil, between light and dark, between day and night, between dharma and adharma, and rages until the end of Time. Durga battles the shape-shifting Mahisasur in several incarnations, from the darkness-removing Kali to the blood-consuming Chandi, and finally, she defeats him when she is in the form of Devi Durga, or Adi Shakti, the incarnation of light, as she stabs him in the heart with her trident (as Arya Stark would say, “Stick ’em with the pointy end”).

 

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Chakyudaan: The ritual of painting the goddess’s eyes on Mahalaya (© Image from Google Images)

But the big question lies, what exactly is Mahalaya? The direct translation of the word from Sanskrit literally means grand arrival. On that note, Mahalaya is essentially the onset of the hour of the goddess, something called Devi Paksha, and the end of Pitri Paksha, the hour of the father. It is in this period of time that Durga Pujo occurs in the city, and Kolkata dresses herself up to welcome her beloved daughter home.

In spite of being considered the universal mother around India, West Bengal stands as the one exception to this rule, where the residents of Kolkata consider Durga as their daughter, who comes to visit her baaper bari (father’s home) with her adorable brood of children, Ganesh, Lakshmi, Saraswati and Karthik, from Kailash. And so, the celebrations begin, there are smiles stuck on the lips of the young and old, and food seems to overflow in every corner of the city.

 

But on this day, on Mahalaya, the final austerity of idol making is done, when the eyes of the goddess is drawn as Devi Paksha sets in, a ritual called Chakyudaan. In the heart of the city, at Kumortuli, where thousands of idols are made every year, several sculptors busily paint the three eyes of the goddess, their art and their passion pushing them to give life to an earthen mass of a woman.

And suddenly, the corny ads on the television and radio do not feel so out of place anymore, the silly GIFs sent on WhatsApp from your older family members bring a foolish smile on your lips, the videos that are shared and re-shared on Facebook does not make you think that they are spamming your newsfeed, the sound of dhaak seems like it belongs right here, here in the City of Joy, and the shopping bags filled with meters of shapeless cloth, from sarees to churidar pieces, do not feel so heavy in your arms. Suddenly, the world appears a bit more colorful, like seeing the city with rose-tinted eyes and in high definition, and everything is so very alive, like our home breathes in happiness.

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Kash Phool (wild sugarcane grass flowers), the symbol of Mahalaya and the Indian autumn or Sarat Kaal (© Image from Google Images)

Because, you see, you feel, and you know that she is here, and she will color your home, your soul, with smiles and delectable sweets and recipes. She will not judge if you steal a bit of sweetmeat from the platter, and she will definitely not rain hell upon your soul if you dare eat meat as the city celebrates in full galore. For we Bangalis, we don’t just pray to an unattainable goddess. Instead, we celebrate the homecoming of our beloved daughter. And right now, she is home, and so are you.

For Whom Does the Goddess Arrive?

When I was a child, Durga Pujo did not come with calender dates, not really. It came when suddenly in the middle of a dreary September, the first bamboos were hoisted by the workers, a sign that the pandals would arrive soon enough, when the huge advertisement billboards of innumerable brands were strung up all around the city, from shampoo to food, when the first issues of Anandomela and Anandolok came to fill up the entirety of the newspaper and magazine shops in the streets.

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When I was a child, Durga came with the last half-day at school before the holidays came ringing in, she came when the last pages of the mid-term exams were submitted to a solemn class teacher, she came when my friends and I half-heartedly trudged towards school to attend the compulsory last day on Panchami.

 

When I was a child, Pujo came with bittersweet happiness, with silent excitement, with innocence not yet lost.

 

If someone would have told me then, that the goddess would be strung up in the city, bartered in the name of religion, and questioned for her affiliations, I would have looked at that person with a blank look of astonishment.

 

When I was a child, my next-door neighbor and resident best friend in the locality was a Muslim girl of my age who would always accompany me, along with her little brother, as my father took all of us to buy the endless paraphernalia required to dress ourselves with in the Pujo.

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And then, after the odyssey of shopping was finally completed, my sister and I would curl up with an issue of Anandomela and laugh her heads off as the different caricatures of the goddess with her brood of children colored the pages of the magazine, portraying her as she begun her southward journey from Mt Kailash.

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There used to be so many colors then, the goddess traveling on a water jet with her children, her son Karthik obviously standing like a king on the deck, pictures of the divine family ready to celebrate Pujo with guitars, drums and cellos, and even some where her husband Shiva would come to drop the family off on his bike. I remember how those evenings were the best part of pining and waiting for the Pujo days to arrive, the days where I was excruciatingly excited to wear my new dresses, munch on every unhealthy street food I could get my hands upon, and see as many idols in the pandals as possible.

 

And then there were the newspapers of course, when come the morning of Panchami, the incredibly long list of pandals around the city was published by Anandobazar Patrika, and my sister and I would stoop over, red sharpie gripped on hand, marking which pandals we would be visiting in the coming days, my mother of course muttering something along the lines of how her hooligan children would eat till their stomachs burst.

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But now, the sounds have departed, the smiles have become cajoling diversions and the warmth in the embraces have long left our limbs. Because, somehow, somewhere, someone asked the question: Who does the goddess come for?

 

Is Durga for us Hindus, is she for the Muslims, or is she for the Christians? If she is a Hindu goddess, why does the Muslim children in our localities buy clothes that are assorted for Ashtami and Nabami still? Why do the younglings still visit Bow Barracks and Park Street and gaze at the glittering evening lights? Pardon my french, but why the hell does Chetla Agroni Sangha and Mohammad Ali Park are still allowed to host their own Durga Pujo, when clearly the leader of one community is a Muslim man and the other is named after a Muslim himself? After all, as someone says, Durga is a Hindu goddess.

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So why, I ask, rather plaintively, does Mr Jawed Habib dare to have the audacity of insulting our Hindu goddess in his marketing campaign, and produce a caricature where the goddess and her children are happily getting ready for the Pujo? Why is Durga allowed to wait while Karthik gets a facial and Ganesh a pedicure? After all, Mr Habib is a consumer of beef, a Muslim, a criminal, an utter disgrace to all us great Hindus and their exalted goddess. He should never be allowed to commit the blasphemy of so much raising an eye to our Hindu goddess.

 

I am a sinner too. You see, I have been going to his chain of parlors for the last decade. I started out as a silly brat at fourteen who wanted nothing more than the long flowing tresses of our Hindu goddess and now I actually do have that hair, all thanks to the years of undying persistence of my favorite hair stylist in the parlor. I remember the number of times I broke bread in the shop of this Muslim man, the number of times I drank his water, the number of times I visited every new branch that cropped up in Calcutta during their grand openings.

Furthermore, I remember one of my father’s closest friends, a tailor in the heart of Metiaburuz, a Muslim man, I confess, who would send the most beautiful bunch of colorful frocks for my sister and me, every year, a man who would send the most delectable shimui as his blessings for Eid, and how his son, a man I grew up calling my brother, would come to bless us during Pujo, break bread with us once the austerities were over with the prosad our family cooked for our 150-year-old Durga Pujo. I remember how beautiful his wife, my boudi, had looked when on one year, my mother had lovingly colored her cheeks with sindhur (vermilion) during the last hours of Dashami.

 

And yet, no one in my family, not my loving father, not my usually strict mother and definitely not my crazy-as-the-Mad-Hatter sister told me that I was a sinner. No one told me that Kaku or Dada were Muslim, untouchable, unwelcome, and somehow, I grew up considering them just as we were, humans.

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Perhaps that was my childish foolishness, but in a world where goddesses are cut open, their intestines spilled out to see the color of their blood and count the faithfuls they cater to, maybe the opinion of a child is the only thing that can save us all.

 

And maybe, just maybe, Durga is not a Hindu goddess, maybe her brood of adorable children are not only for the ones who pray to cows, maybe she is for all of us, for our families, our friends, our acquaintances, and even our rivals. Maybe, just maybe, Durga is for every Bangali across the globe. Just think, what a beautiful world that would be.

 

The Curious Case of Durga Pujo

In my ruefully nondescript twenty and three years of life, I have spent exactly twenty and two of it in the city of Calcutta. Yes, she may call herself Kolkata, but until my dying breath, she will always be Calcutta to me.

 

I studied in this city, I played in this city, I fell in love in this city, and I got my heart broken in this city. And amidst all of that, I breathed, I loved and I lived in this city. And after years of living, loving, existing and sometimes, hating this city, I find myself inexplicably attracted to every one of her oddities during the months of September–October, when this city dresses herself in the prettiest lights, the highest pandals, and the most colorfully dressed citizens to welcome the Goddess Durga.

 

Every year I decide that this is it, this is where it ends, this is where I no longer feel the cravings and aches of wanting Pujo to come faster, of the notes of Birendra Krishna Bhadra to stop affecting me physically, with the head tingles and the goosebumps and wanting to wake up at 4 AM, all to hear a now-dead man sing about a goddess who is portrayed in the most pot-boiler depictions in certain Bengali TV channels, not to mention the abominable special effects. And every year, I happily accept my defeat.

 

Because when September comes, the city wakes me up from my haze of just passing through life to actually live it instead. And in spite of myself, every year, I break the promise that I will not buy expensive new clothes, NO SIR.

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The War for the Best Saree

Here is how it starts: My parents abduct me from the safe haven of my beloved cafe (where I sit confessing my sins at the moment, the tea, I assure you, is no balm to my newest wounds) and whisk me away to the most beautiful saree shop you can ever hope to imagine. And by beauty, I definitely do not mean that it appears grand like some Chanel or Gucci showroom. I am talking about a four-storeyed building that is jam packed with people to the extent that if you are kneed in your gut (or unfortunately, a little lower) and ask for an apology, they will knee you some more, this time, definitely a little lower.

 

But in spite of that fresh hell (god help you if you are claustrophobic), shopping during Durga Pujo has its own adrenaline rush. The colors, the feel of the cloth in your hand, the way some Katan Silk sarees melt their purples into the green, like a swift shadow-play of colors solely done by thread, they seduce you. And by the time you are shamefully walking off to the billing counter, your wallet about to be butchered and your self-control already dead and done with, you cannot help that absolutely gobsmacked shit-eating grin that basically interprets into something like this — “YES! HELL YES! I got that Dhakai Jamdani saree that I am so wearing in Sandhi Pujo during Ashtami (the eighth and most glorious day of the Pujo) and making that really cute boy in my para (locality) swoon over me.”

 

And when that adrenaline rush has fallen and the regrets set in, your hands still weighing down with the weight of your wrong decisions that take the form of around four to five ridiculously expensive six meters worth of cloth, the city hypnotizes you with her evening lights, the unfinished pandals where the men toil day and night to finish the temporary buildings on time and with the by-lanes of Kumortuli where the most beautiful clay idols of the goddess are colored the brightest shades of yellow and red, the eyes still left unpainted, waiting for the tithi (time) of Mahalaya.

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An Unfinished Portrait of the Goddess as a Young Woman

And then, Mahalaya comes, Devi Paksha sets in. For years, I myself was no expert in the meaning of such terms, in spite of the 150-year-old Durga Puja that is celebrated every year in my home. I remember in my adolescence, when the word of the most popular student in the class meant holier than the Bible, I hid my belonging, my love for such ridiculous austerities. After all, who would ever want to wake up at five in the morning, only to go all the way to the Ganges banks to bathe a banana tree (Kola Bou, the consort of Durga’s favorite son, Ganesh) and then take a dip in the freezing river? Let me tell you the answer: surprisingly, almost everyone.

 

However, coming back to Mahalaya and Devi Paksha, it essentially means that the hour of the goddess has officially arrived, and the beautiful lady has started her south-bound journey towards her baaper bari (father’s house) from Kailash. Also, before you ask me how she survives in the freezing cold with a husband who is only into tiger prints, marijuana and being partially naked, let me remind you that none of you had any qualms in believing in the dragons of a certain Khaleesi, and let me assure you, Durga is way “cooler”.

 

And so your regrets wash away, like ink on water, and you cannot help the certain sprightly beat on your steps when you look up to the cloudless skies and the somehow softer sunlight skimming through your skin, making you yellow as the goddess herself. The radio channels swing from ‘Dhitang Dhitang Bole’ to ‘E Ki Labanye Purno Prana’ and that little tap on your feet makes you smile a little brighter, feel your head a little lighter, and there is love, love . . . and so much love.

 

Then the Pujo actually arrives, your house bustles with relatives you wouldn’t want to even glimpse upon the rest of the year, and suddenly the crowd is tolerable, the noise almost lovable, and you question whether this is even you. And it is you, oh so much you, only with the extra “muchness” that the Mad Hatter had promised about little Alice. And you are suddenly mad, happy, ecstatic, and you are flinging through the bazillion dresses and sarees and you have to find the right bangles and earrings with that particular shade of red Dhakai Jamdani, and yet, all is well. I promise.

 

So you set off, there are smiles in the lips of your friends, your hands are entwined and you are laughing at the oddity of being children at twenty-three. Why else would your fingers be so warmly clasped on that of the old friend you haven’t seen in such a long while? The one who had not replied to your mails, the one who had not given a shoulder for you to cry upon when the distance between the both of you become all too much. And even the rivals seem bearable, and suddenly, all you wish is to smile, and definitely gorge on the ounces of mishti doi, jalebi and jhal muri.

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The Seduction of Twisted Jalebis © Copyright of Google Images

And as Ashtami sets in, that cute boy in the para comes out, but oh! What do we have there? That quintessentially weird and silent boy in the para whom you have always kept a distance from seems ridiculously gorgeous in that black Panjabi and white Pajama. Also, brownie points for settling that roving eye on Mr. Silent Weirdo while his hands are filled with bits of that annoying genda phool and hibiscus, while bits of bel pata sprout out, seemingly out of nowhere, as he waits for his turn at the Ashtami Anjali. Well, you cannot help but settle that anchaal of your aat-poure a little softly on your shoulders, and squeeze into a tiny space beside him. Oh, young love, whatever would we do without you?

 

The food suddenly tastes better, I assure you, it does. Kaka’s cha is a little too sweet, but you don’t mind, not at all, especially when you see the teenagers are having at their first puff of a cigarette, coughing and spluttering the tea all over themselves. And you cannot help but laugh, because almost a decade ago, that was you. And you remember that same deer-caught-in-the-headlights jittery movements that they have, because what if paasher barir Kakima (the neighborhood aunty) sees you while you smoke?!

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The All-Encumbering Delight of a Bhaar of Mishti Doi © Copyright of Google Images

So you must remove the stench of the nicotine from your mouth, and don’t forget, from your clothes too. Also, you need food, because when are you ever not hungry when Pujo is here? Blame the atrocity of available food everywhere, here is the smell of biriyani, and just a little further, the stinging sound when the besan of jalebi hits the scalding wok of oil, enslaving you in their seductive clutches. And you stride off, friends in toe, because what better excuse is there than removing the scent of smoke in order to spend a ridiculous amount of money on that cafe/restaurant you have been eyeing for months? We all know the little lie, your friends know too, and you are all smiling and laughing at your shared idiocy, but right now, everything is perfect.

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A Mouthful of Happiness © Copyright of Google Images

Yet, moments accumulate into hours and hours into days, and suddenly you realize time has slipped by, and Dashami awaits at your doors. The goddess must leave, it is time to say goodbye, and your heart hurts, hurts because you are now too old to say that it is broken. So you smile, your lips do tremble, and the others see and un-see it just the same. Because everyone shares your brokenness when the sandesh has been stuffed to the goddess’s clay mouth, only to leave a bittersweet aftertaste before you bid her goodbye. You sit beside your mother, your sister, your father, your family, and you see the watery eyes of the goddess in the reflections of a darpan (mirror) on water, and in that minute, you know that she knows, and she is sad too, but it is alright, I promise it is, because she will come home again.

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“Ashche Bochor Abar Hobe!” (“It will happen again in the coming year!”) © Copyright of Google Images

So you rise up, you take that container of sindur (vermilion) and color the cheeks of every friend you find, and you are all smiling, laughing, sharing sorrows in the veils of joy, and when the goddess is immersed into the waters (bisharjan), her beautiful clay face slowly loosing its color to the waves, you know you will be alright. Because in this moment, you have found your home.