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.
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.
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.
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?!
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.
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.
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.