When Kolkata loses old world charm and the Pujo isn’t the same anymore…

Walk past the stretches where towering billboards loom over you on both sides, advertising everything from paan masala to entertainment apps, and you are sure to feel claustrophobic. The quintessential azure sky with white cottony clouds is now invisible.

This has been on my mind for quite some time now, as it has been on the lips of so many friends and relatives with whom I shared my plans for this Durga Puja.

“You are not going to be in Kolkata for Durga Puja?

You are going to Bangalore of all places?

But why?”

For me personally, the question has not been “why” so much, as “why am I not feeling worse about leaving Kolkata during that one time of the year when I always found the city to be magical?”

For the 13 odd years that I was out of my home state, every Durga Puja that I was not able to come home was emotionally torturous, irrespective of how well assimilated I was where I was. Or how ‘happening’ it was.

The pining started as soon as the skies turned blue and started to shower us with that typical autumnal gold. During the five days of the Bengali celebration, it would inevitably be the strongest. Whether in Phoenix, or Mumbai, or Bengaluru — all cities where I have had a lot of fun during the Pujas, for as long as I lived in them — the beat of the dhak could somehow never match the rhythm of the beats that played in my mind, from memories of pujos past. The smell of the air, no matter how joyous, was not as intoxicating as it was ‘back home’.

And then three years ago, the homecoming happened. Not to Kolkata perhaps, but at least close enough to be able to be in the city during its annual carnival. Believe it or not, as I prepared to leave a very well-settled life and step into a completely new and different one, the one fleeting thought that never failed to cheer me was: “Now, at least, I shall be in Kolkata during Pujo, every year.”

In these three years, however, life has taught me that nostalgia is always sweeter than reality. That just as one moves on in life, so does a city, its life and times. Its celebrations.

Each has its own impact.

Personally, I have realised what made Durga Puja in Kolkata special was the people I spent it with and the abandon with which. Both are missing now. Some of the people are simply no more, while most (friends and contemporaries) have just moved apart — either in spirit or physically. Life on its part has inevitably brought on a thousand responsibilities. In Kolkata, at least, gone are the days when Durga Puja meant four days of pure freedom, when I was free to do anything I wished. This has robbed the festival of many of the carefree pleasures that it once held for me.

The second reality that has hit hard is the change in the celebration itself. Call it middle age or the pitfalls of awareness, I can no longer take the crass transformation of festivities and the utter, unabashed disregard for basic civic needs and responsibility.

I cringe at the way roads are blocked for weeks in advance, the way pavements (encroached anyway even in normal times) are rendered completely out of bounds for the pedestrian. I have an elderly family member returning from the UK on one of the evenings during the festival, but she has to spend the night somewhere else instead of coming directly home. Guess why? Because the street — a predominantly residential one, which also has a nursing home — has been completely taken over by a community Puja. Not even one who resides there and has luggage will be allowed to bring in a car any time between 3 pm and 6 am the next morning. Strangely, no one seems to bother, and even if they do, they certainly don’t feel that the local authorities will care enough to tweak anything.

Forget personal inconvenience. I shudder to think what will happen should there be a sudden medical emergency when an ambulance needs to be called in. Or if there is a fire accident. I know, on paper there are no restrictions for fire engines or ambulances, but over the last three years I have also seen how utterly impossible it would be for one to get to the site when hordes numbering thousands descend on that one narrow street, made narrower by the food stalls on both sides.Which brings me to the stalls. And the pandals themselves.

At a time when there is so much by way of public discourse on waste generation and its environmental impact, the level of ignorance in the city (or at any rate, the level at which it is ignored) never fails to amaze me. Durga Puja in Kolkata has always been more of a carnival rather than a religious festival, a spectacular display of indigenous art and craftsmanship. But the traditional simplicity and minimalism of pandal making as we saw it in our childhood and youth are lost in the excessively lavish and ornate decorations of the day, much of which completely overlooks the ecological implications.

There is a sea of waste, not least in the mounds of thermocol plates and plastic cutlery strewn all around. Yes, I know this is a Bengali festival and we take great pride in the fact that it has always been as much about gastronomical pleasures as anything else, but seriously, since when did every single street with a Puja pandal start to have these rows of food stalls with zero accountability for the waste they generate? After the nightlong revelry at the peak of the festival, it is a walk through hell the mornings after!

And then there are the billboards and banners. Even if you have no history of claustrophobia, I can assure you a feel of it. All you have to do is walk through certain stretches where you are literally fenced in by giant, towering billboards on both sides, advertising everything from paan masala to entertainment apps and occasionally punctuated by messages of communal harmony from a smiling leader of the state, but shutting out even the narrowest glimpse of the sky or some open space. Where is that quintessential azure sky with white cottony clouds that had been a part of every Puja portrait in our consciousness? Look up and all you’ll see is the face of some celebrity endorsing soft drinks and shampoo, Indeed, in many places, Kolkata has assumed the look and feel of a fortress having an impenetrable shield formed of flex banners and hoardings!

There is a strong possibility that all this stems from the jaded thoughts of a mature mind. Disillusionment thrives when there is not enough youthful excitement and thrills that can make such sore spots appear secondary to the sheer joy of being a part of the festival. I remember a few pujas from my teens when my mom would complain about the crowds and the noise and would want to take a vacation but I would throw a fit saying, “Out of Kolkata during Pujo? No way!” I have finally become my mother.

For all my cribbing and disillusionment, I still have not rid myself entirely of the conviction that this is the greatest festival anywhere in the world. But do I fit in any more?

Well, I am still tempted to believe that it is perhaps just the familiarity of three Pujas in a row and my personal yearning to be in Bengaluru that are making this parting much easier than I would have liked it to be. I guess (and even hope) I’ll start feeling pangs of regret as friends from Kolkata on social media start sharing snapshots of the unbelievable spectacle that is Durga Puja. And buoyed by those, I hope I can be back next year with renewed vigour and excitement.

And then, perhaps, I can play a small part in the change that I want to see.

Till then, Happy Durga Puja, Kolkata. Enjoy and let enjoy!

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