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Durga Pujo in Calcutta (What ‘Pujo’ means to a Bengali)

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A Vir Sanghvi article on pujo and Bengalis, written a few yrs back in The Hindustan Times. Sure to strike a chord if you are a Bengali…..even otherwise worth a read.

“It’s always hard to explain to somebody who does not live in Calcutta what it is about Puja that makes that period so magical.
Before I came to live in Calcutta in 1980, I was only dimly aware of the significance of Puja. I knew the boring facts and figures, of course. I knew what proportion of annual retail sales took place during the Puja period. I knew that the city shut down for the whole week. I knew that at ABP – where I was soon to work – telephone operators would, strangely enough, take the trouble of coming to work, only so that they could receive incoming calls, shout ‘Pujo’, and then hang up on irate out-of-town callers.
It’s like Christmas, they told me. Imagine Christmas in New York: Puja means that to a Bengali. Others found more home-grown parallels. It’s like Diwali in North India, they said. You know, the shopping, the parties, the festivities and all that stuff. 
Actually, of course, it was nothing like Christmas; and certainly nothing like Diwali in North India.
Nothing, in fact, can prepare you for the magic of Puja in Calcutta. 
To understand what it means, you have to be here.
As the years went on and as I went from Puja to Puja, I tried to work out why nobody could explain to outsiders what it was that made Puja so special. Why was that I failed as completely as everybody else in communicating the essence of Puja? Why did all the time-honoured comparisons not really ring true; with Dushera, Diwali, Christmas, Easter, Thanksgiving and God alone knows what else?
The answer, I suspect – and after all these years, it is still a suspicion, I have no solutions – is that you can’t understand Puja unless you understand Calcutta and unless you understand Bengalis.
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 New York, 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 learnt about true warmth; about simple human decency; about love and friendship; about emotions and caring; about truth and honesty.  
I learnt other things too. Coming from Bombay as I did, it was 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 learnt 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 not 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.”

Even though I am not from Kolkata, I found this article a moving one. Not simply because being a Bengali, I am aware of the emotions attached to the ‘Pujo’. It has more to do with the compelling nature of the language used. Anyone who is seriously into writing must surely bookmark this.


Written by timir

August 18, 2006 at 9:29 am

Posted in Random Thoughts

5 Responses

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  1. Hi
    This is one of the best article have read in my life.It had made me emotional.


    September 28, 2006 at 2:59 pm

  2. loved Vir Sanghvi. Thanks for putting this up.


    August 3, 2010 at 6:05 pm

    • Yeah this one is good one because even after living in USA for 20 years still miss the durga puja in Kolkata

      Gautam Kunar

      March 25, 2012 at 2:00 am

  3. this article is amazing and its all about my feeling for kolkata and durga puja being a bengali. I’m in gurgaon from past 3yrs and frequently face dis sort of question from frnz but today I got the exact answr.

    sumit baidya

    August 22, 2012 at 1:36 pm

  4. With pujo round the corner. this article brings back such good memories. Read it u will love it.

    subhajit ghosh

    October 1, 2012 at 10:49 am

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