Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Oh Calcutta!

Speaking for myself, I hate Calcutta in the pujas. I hate the crowds, the noise, the traffic jams, the din of the loudspeakers, the eternal shuffle-shuffle of feet all night, the bedecked people in "jeaner pant", and the pseudo intellectuals that abound. So each year I try to run away from it all, a few times I have even been successful. But yes, by and large, except during the puja madness, I do love Calcutta, (note, NOT Kolkata) and it is not something that came naturally although I was born here and the city has been my home for the better part of my life. No, this is a city that has grown on me, wrapped itself around my heart, its tentacles created by memories and nostalgia.
Yet, it wasn't always like that. As a child I quite liked the pujas, we had a family friend's place to go to and once there, the few days passed happily enough with me oblivious to the religious sentiments around me. Not being very religious by nature, or having any particular love and affection for the pujas, I never thought of coming home at the time while in college: so lazing on a hill in Pune or lying on a beach in Goa during the two days we got for Dusshera, I never even wondered what the fuss was all about. After I got married I learnt that people actually go for all night pandal-hopping and slt!!!! So I tried it once. Um, after an hour of so of jostling in crowds in the heat and dust and gazing at yet another brightly lit pandal shaped like (surprise!) a temple which you anyway saw better from the cool confines of the ac car, and pushing through endless traffic jams, and yet another Boltu and Bapi and boudis shouting "ei je, Pinku, kotahi geli?" at the top of her voice, and observing Roadside Romeos batting eyelids at Jhinchak Juliets and vice versa, I had had enough. Never again, I vowed! So nowadays even if I am stuck in Calcutta at this time of year, I hide away at home and hope I do NOT have to step out of the house for as long as it takes! But yes, the loud noise and shuffling feet and lights follow me into my bedroom and haunt my nights!
So even though I do not completely agree with all of it, today I came across this article shared by a friend on FB and thought I'd share this write up by Vir Sanghvi on Kolkata and Durga Pujas:

"What 'Pujo' means to a Bengali ?
Most modern Indian cities strive to rise above ethnicity. Tell anybody who lives in Bombay that he lives in a Maharashtrian city and he will take immediate offence. We are cosmopolitan, he will say indigenously.

Tell a Delhiwalla that his is a Punjabi city (which, in many ways, it is) and he will respond with much self-righteous nonsense about being the nation's capital, about the international composition of the city's elite etc.

And tell a Bangalorean that he lives in a Kannadiga city and you'll get lots of techno-gaff about the internet revolution and about how Bangalore is even more cosmopolitan than Bombay.

But, the only way to understand what Calcutta is about is recognize that the city is essentially Bengali. What's more, no Bengali minds you saying that.
Rather, he is proud of the fact.

Calcutta's strengths and weaknesses mirror those of the Bengali character. It has the drawbacks: the sudden passions, the cheerful chaos, the utter
contempt for mere commerce, the fiery response to the smallest provocation. And it has the strengths (actually, I think of the drawbacks as strengths in their
own way). Calcutta embodies the Bengali love of culture; the triumph of intellectualism over greed; the complete transparency of all emotions, the
disdain with which hypocrisy and insincerity are treated; the warmth of genuine humanity; and the supremacy of emotion over all other aspects of human

That's why Calcutta is not for everyone.

You want your cities clean and green; stick to Delhi. You want your cities, rich and impersonal; go to Bombay. You want them high-tech and full of draught
beer; Bangalore's your place. But if you want a city with a soul: come to Calcutta.

When I look back on the years I've spent in Calcutta - and I come back so many times each year that I often feel I've never been away - I don't
remember the things that people remember about cities.

When I think of London, I think of the vast open spaces of Hyde Park. When I think of NewYork, I think of the frenzy of Times Square.
When I think of Tokyo, I think of the bright lights of Shinjiku. And when I think of Paris, I think of the Champs Elysee.
But when I think of Calcutta, I never think of any one place. I don't focus on the greenery of the maidan, the beauty of the Victoria Memorial, the bustle
of Burra Bazar or the splendour of the new Howrah Bridge. I think of people. Because, finally, a city is more than bricks and mortars, street lights and tarred roads. A city is the sum of its people. And who can ever forget or replicate - the people of Calcutta?

When I first came to live here, I was told that the city would grow on me. What nobody told me was that the city would change my life. It was in Calcutta that I
learn't about true warmth; about simple human decency; about love and friendship; about emotions and caring; about truth and honesty. I learn't other things too. Coming from Bombay as I did, it was a revelation to live in a city where people judged each other on the things that really mattered; where they recognized that being rich did not make you a better person - in fact, it might have the opposite effect. I learn't also that if life is about more than just money, it is about the things that other cities ignore; about culture, about ideas, about art, and about passion.

In Bombay, a man with a relatively low income will salt some of it away for the day when he gets a stock market tip. In Calcutta, a man with exactly the same
income will not know the difference between a debenture and a dividend. But he will spend his money on the things that matter. Each morning, he will read at
least two newspapers and develop sharply etched views on the state of the world. Each evening, there will be fresh (ideally, fresh-water or river) fish on his
table. His children will be encouraged to learn to dance or sing. His family will appreciate the power of poetry And for him, religion and culture will be in
inextricably bound together.

Ah religion! Tell outsiders about the importance of Puja in Calcutta and they'll scoff. Don't be silly, they'll say. Puja is a religious festival. And Bengal has voted for the CPM since 1977. How can godless Bengal be so hung up on a religions festival? I never know how to explain them that to a Bengali, religion consists of much more than shouting Jai Shri Ram or pulling down somebody's mosque. It has little to do with meaningless ritual or sinister political activity.

The essence of Puja is that all the passions of Bengal converge: emotion, culture, the love of life, the warmth of being together, the joy of celebration, the pride in artistic expression and yes, the cult of the goddess. It may be about religion. But is about much more than just worship. In which other part of India would small, not particularly well-off localities, vie with each other to produce the best pandals? Where else could puja pandals go beyond religion to draw inspiration from everything else? In the years I lived in Calcutta, the pandals featured Amitabh Bachchan, Princes Diana and even Saddam Hussain! Where else would children cry with the sheer emotional power of Dashimi, upset that the Goddess had left their homes? Where else would the whole city gooseflesh when the dhakis first begin to beat their drums? Which other Indian festival - in any part of the country - is so much about food, about going from one roadside stall to another, following your nose as it trails the smells of cooking?
To understand Puja, you must understand Calcutta. And to understand Calcutta, you must understand the Bengali. It's not easy. Certainly, you can't do it till you come and live here, till you let Calcutta suffuse your being, invade your bloodstream and steal your soul. But once you have, you'll love Calcutta forever.
Wherever you go, a bit of Calcutta will go with you. I know, because it's happened to me. And every Puja, I am overcome by the magic of Bengal.
It's a feeling that'll never go away."

well, then, happy pujos, everyone, let the madness begin!!

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