All around was a buzz of activity. People coming and going under the star-lit sky. And, this was odd, here was a loud-speaker, asking the owner of car no WB 01 C4587 to step forward to prevent his car being towed away.
I was in Salt Lake, Kolkata, and this was Shashthi, the sixth day of Durga Puja 2007. It was a manufactured world, transplanted paddy saplings and fake mud huts in the muddle of an urban neighborhood in Kolkata. We had left a busy, double-parked street behind us to tread into a timeless world, where the Goddess waited, done up in her finery, eternally punishing the forever evil Mahishasura.
Of course, what really caught my attention when we reached the altar was how blue the demon was. Isn't he usually a very ruddy colour? And, he was clean-shaven. That really bothered me. I mean, no villain is ever complete without the curling mustachios and even the compulsory mole on the cheek. Delhi does way better Mahishasuras. This one looked like Krishna making a cameo. I mumbled a bit about it, but was drowned out in the general oohs and aahs of admiration over the decor.
And how can you not admire the creativity at play here? An ancient-looking temple that could have fooled me, realistic right down to the mould dulling the frescoes. Little shelves gouged into the walls, with images of gods and goddesses filling them. Clay pots - normally used to drink tea and then smashed in eco-friendly disposal - made up an entire pandal, shaped like a banyan tree, near the Shiv Mandir.
Cut to the next morning. We left at 7 am to get on to a tour bus. Our tickets had been booked for the 'Traditional Kolkata' tour conducted by West Bengal tourism. We arrived at the venue really early. The usually crowded streets of Cal were deserted and I actually got a good look at the roadsides, street-lights, and the road itself, which is usually eclipsed by cars, rickshaws, trams, buses, autos, taxis, and, the ever-present pedestrians, saggy-armed mashimas in sleeveless blouses streaking across busy crossings, intellectual, kurta-clad, jhola-toting old bhadraloks munching solemnly on jhalmuri and sipping 'ek piece cha' (one 'piece'/cup tea) at the Maa Tara Jhalmuri stand.
So anyway, we arrived, with a good 40 minutes to spare. 7.30 am, the streets being swept, and through the dust haze of yesterday's litter we could see many, many people, obviously wearing new clothes, waiting to board any of several tourist buses. With a lot of fanfare, some walkathoning men hurried past, hoisting the 'kola-bou' on their shoulders. That is Ganesh's wife, a tender plantain tree draped in the traditional white-with-red-border saree, who is only placed beside Ganesh and the rest of her in-laws on the seventh day of the Puja.
Since the tour was to begin in 20 minutes, Anando hurried towards what we were told would be our bus. But a man, obviously in control of the situation, said 'Dada, jaaben na, nongra aache.' (Don't go right now, it's dirty.) Of course, there was no mention of when it would be cleaned! We could see through the bus doors that plastic packets lay on the floor, little white specks on a questionably grey metal floor. The people who'd taken the tour yesterday had left behind proof that the tour included a meal. My mother-in-law found an interesting seat to rest and wait while we prayed the bus would be cleaned soon.
In another 10 minutes, the bus started up, and there was a twitter among the crowd. Would we have to board a dirty bus? Despite the reluctance to do so, no one wanted to be left behind in case that became necessary. Why risk someone else getting the best seats? But our gent-in-command raised his hand and said 'Petrol bhoriye aaschi.' (I'll get petrol.) Perceiving our anxiety at the obvious delay he said calmly, reassuringly, 'chinta korben na, ja bola aachhe, tour-e ta shob hobe' (don't worry, all that has been promised will be covered in the tour.) Obviously, time was not of the essence here. The surging crowd sagged and fell back as the bus trundled off.
At 8.30, still busless and contemplating a coup, we realised that the tickets did not state the exact departure time anywhere. That part had been word-of-mouth, to evade any liability later. Eventually, at 8.40, after some running up and down that long stretch of road, our bus was located, boarded, and we set off. The entire bus-load united to help a gentleman whose seat had been reclined and now refused to straighten up its act. Loud suggestions. 'Pressure deen' (apply pressure) (Hope no patients of constipation were on board). Finally the chair reluctantly, lazily, sat up, and everyone retreated.
I have never seen such a phenomenally useless tour guide. I am convinced he was reading lines written for him by someone else in an illegible hand. He spoke in Bangla after confirming that everyone understood it. He needn't have bothered - no one paid him any attention anyway. They were busy looking out the window, exchanging notes on what the lunch would consist of, how hot it was getting, how these things never start on time, hadn't we got the little badges to pin on? They had. Hadn't we been told to pick up our lunch vouchers from the office? They had. Didn't we know it would be a buffet lunch at the Shobhabajar Bari? They did. I half-thought we were on the wrong bus.
A bit of history, not culled from the tour guide. Some old families of Kolkata began the tradition of a Durga Puja in their own home. The practice has been in place for two-three hundred years. Most of these families got rich after the British came to Kolkata by doing business (sometimes legit, sometimes under the table) with them. The new money means big spending. The houses testify to this - traditional Bengali structures, sprawling buildings, large, greenish shutters on the windows, high ceilings, an inner courtyard surrounded by rooms for all members of the big, joint families, the children rushing around their home which magically turns into a tourist attraction for 4 days each year, the women dressed in their finery bustling around, cutting up fruits to offer as bhog (food for the goddess). Most of these homes are in the oldest parts of Kolkata.
This tour was supposed to take us around some of these pujos, of historical interest. It was rather weird to go trooping into people's homes with cameras and a tour guide, look around, peer at the wrinkly descendant of a once-famous family of Bengal, and shuffle back out. It soon began pouring, the bus would park far away and we would plod in single file along the ridiculously narrow lanes of time, trying to keep our eyes fixed on the guide's bald, shiny head to make sure we didn't get lost.
All along, the man grated on our nerves till there was a thin string of it left. He would preface every historical fact with 'perhaps'. And end every sentence with 'mota-moti', (more or less). He'd been testing our patience for a bit. Misled, misinformed, confused, drenched, the last straw came when he led us into a large home, promising that this was the home of the famous Duttas of Hatkhola. We sloshed in, and were greeted with large portraits of the musically named 'Latu babu - Chhatu babu', whose home had been listed on our agenda as a later stop. We gave him a substantial piece of our minds ('tis the season to be generous), he shouted back something about 'adjusting', and moving on 'with mutual saapport'. We'd had enough. We flagged a taxi and headed straight home, for some good old posto-baata for lunch and a solid nap thereafter.
My first pujo in Kolkata as a (still) new bride (though much of the gloss has worn off). Enthusiastic in-laws, a blossoming family tree that defeats me like Rowling's Whomping Willow, several feet to be touched, several trite conversations and polite smiles. All this time I kept my faulty Bangla grammar in check, alert to even the hint of a smirk on Anando's face in case I'd slipped up. The mandatory visits to relatives who don't really count, but who 'keep count', of who came by and who didn't. The doddering aunt who showed us around a newly renovated part of the house and all its imported bits and pieces, right down to the fancy toilet flush (which she hasn't even seen in America!). Look, these kitchen racks are from Italy. Look, the bathroom (oops, 'powder room' tiles are from Australia. Look, the screws in the botto drawer of the right-handside cupboard are from France. And then, ruefully, the fridge is from India. Poor, lonely fridge. A stranger in its own land.
Stammer, gulp, hiccup, answer. And so it goes on.
But this was a Kolkata I have never seen before, though this was exactly the Kolkata I have always heard about. In the time during, and immediately after the Pujo, I saw all that Kolkata is stereotyped for. Angry, excitable people still brooding over Nandigram, as evidenced by giant posters of Buddhadeb (the CM) with splotches of blood-red on his face, and the word 'Cheee' (shame). The city screaming for justice for Rizwanur Rehman and his smiling face on posters asking you to remember him and fight for him. The newspapers spewing venom about the ration scam. Smart ad lines. Tongue-in-cheek traffic warnings, about how even children should wear helmets.
Potholed roads in the centre of the city where only a month ago, in torrential rains, people caught surprised fish that had floated into the city's network of flooded roads. A simmering resentment against the CPI(M) in a metropolis that ought to offer a smoother life. Mamata Banerjee's repeated (and successful) calls for bandhs to protest this, that and the other. Old houses holding their own despite the burgeoning malls and a yuppie culture of superficiality that has begun to take over this still-resisting hub of intellectualism and genuine scholarship.
And, in the middle of it all, life carried on. Pandals were erected, livened up, and torn down. The dhaakis (drummers) came, played in a a trance, and went back. Queues formed outside every restaurant. No self-respecting Bengali takes time to cook in her own kitchen during Pujo! Jewellery was worn and discussed - one's own and that of others.
Park street buzzed and people shopped. The goddess was immersed and people re-immersed themselves in regular life, broken temporarily by worship of the Goddess of Wealth on Lakshmi Puja. And the constant refrain was: Aasche bochhor abar hobe. (This will all happen again next year.)
And so the wheels of time carry on. And I, back to cosmpolitan Bombay, can think back, laugh, remember, and prepare my stomach walls for next year's assault.