Durga Pujo pangs – by a non resident Bengali

By Taraa Vermaa Senguptaa

Today is Mahalaya i.e. the day traditionally dedicated to offering prayers for and to our ancestors at the end of Pitripokkho - fortnight of the ancestors. This also marks the start of Debipokkho - fortnight of the Goddess. In popular culture, this signals Ma Durga's advent on earth from her abode in Mount Kailash. Bengalis have woken up at 4 am today to listen to the evocative radio program on Mahisasurmardini (the annihilator of Mahisasur, the demon at the feet of the goddess). Pujo is officially here and I am in Calcutta to welcome it - for the first time in 18 years! It was a chance work assignment that got me here a couple of weeks before Pujo and I could not be more grateful.

With an older generation of wonderful storytellers, we grew up on bedtime tales of Indian mythology and epics from around the world. The triumph of good over evil was always fascinating and we would wait eagerly for this time of the year. For me, that 'Pujo pujo bhaab' (the feeling of pujo being imminent) was a mix of thrills. Buying new clothes (pampered kids!), making plans with cousins and friends even though schools opened to some exam or the other, there was so much to do! The actual Pujo days passed in a whirlwind of pushpanjali (offering prayers with flowers), bhog (eating the simple lunch after it is offered to the Goddess), family, friends, freedom, late night drives to other pandals and lots of food.

Decades have passed and I have chosen to live in a city I fell in love with as a student, far from Calcutta. Pujo, though celebrated in many areas of Bombay is eclipsed by other festivities. But I still feel a sense of anticipation a month or so before Pujo arrives; rue my lack of foresight at not planning to spend this particular time in Calcutta and finally end up having an amazing time in my own city!

Any Bengali worth their salt would be able to wax eloquent about Durga Pujo and associated pleasures. This festival is the equivalent or maybe even sum total of what Christmas, Diwali and Eid means to other communities. Growing up in Calcutta meant having unrestricted access to all things related to the festival.

I was born in Calcutta and spent a few years of my childhood in a large-ish joint family in a 'para' - a locality where everyone knew their neighbours within a kilometer radius. Gates of our homes were seldom closed, kids grew up together, boys played football in muddy grounds, girls hung around in giggly bunches, parents socialized and grandparents met every morning and evening for walks, tea and sundry senior citizen pursuits. There was one 'Parar Pujo' that had everyone hanging around for anjali and bhog during the day and cultural programs in the evenings. The programs consisted of performances by kids and adults of the para and everyone took great pride in practicing for months before the big do. Given that I danced a few times, the quality of the kiddie program was clearly suspect! But then Pujo was a community endeavour; more about people coming together than glamour, glitz and perfection. Bonhomie prevailed to the extent that coy, romantic exchanges between young teens which would normally be frowned upon, were allowed on these days.

The teenage me spent time with my cousin who's building on Southern Avenue had grand celebrations every year. This was an intimate, ghoroa (homely) Pujo with celebrations restricted to residents of the society and their special guests. We would sometimes walk down the tree lined road to neighbouring buildings to offer prayers, eat junk and partake of the merriment on the streets.

Pujo in Calcutta is rather different now. The Parar Pujos still exist but in much grander form with many millions spent on pandals, idols and programs. Leading local dailies and other organizations run contests for the 'Best Pujo' which turns the celebration into a race. The cultural stage is usually dominated by local celebrities and sometimes, budget permitting, performers from other cities. The community feel has been diluted by extravagance, but the eagerness with which the entire community waits for this festival remains untarnished and undiminished.

So here I am, in my hotel room, typing the last bits of this piece while a dozen plans jostle for prominence at the back of mind. I will return to Bombay just before the main Pujo days begin. But I have caught some and will catch more of the pre Pujo madness which is spilling all over the city. People are on a buying spree, markets are wildly crowded, roads are jammed and the atmosphere is electric. My colleagues were fascinated with the energy all around and I did not bother enlightening them about 'Cha khachchhi porey ashun' (please come later, it is teatime) - a quintessential lazy Bengali phrase.

While we celebrate the all-powerful mother Goddess and the supremacy of good over evil, let us also celebrate the women who represent Her on earth and not tolerate anyone who attempts to diminish their shine. May the good in us win, every day, every way


An internationally certified Image Consultant, Executive Coach and NLP Practitioner, Taraa is an alumnus of the prestigious Institute of Hotel Management in Mumbai. An erstwhile hospitality professional, she chose to hang up the corporate hat and pursue her passions after 16 years of work experience in organizations like the Taj Group of Hotels, United Healthcare and Regus Group. Taraa remains an avid reader, writer, closet poet, blogger, learner and above all a person passionate about working with people.