It was Durga Puja. The air was full of the non-stop beat of pujo’r dhaak (drum), music, microphone announcements, children’s elocution recitations, honks of a thousand cars, autorickshaws, rickshaws, voices of screaming kids and parents, lost and found announcements, children bursting crackers in their toy guns (“caps”) that went off with loud booms, pujo mantras (incantations) and loud ghanta’s (pujo bells) for the last five days.
Now there is all silence.
The roads were full of streams of crowds from all walks of life, mostly youngsters and huge groups from distant parts of the city and outside suburbs walking along the roads inside bamboo barricades, dressed in their best new finery (some of which had zari borders that glowed in the dark). They had to stop at police ropes at intervals, taking tiny detours around sleeping dogs who seemed pretty nonchalant, considering the crowds who were desperate to see the pujo pandals, either patiently waiting or getting into skirmishes with police and volunteers, lifting their hands as far above the million heads as possible to take pictures, posting on social media in real time, desperate in their desire to savour the moment.
If you’ve lived in one of the great Indian mega-cities for any length of time, one of the things that you can never forget is the street food. But street food during a festival like Durga Pujo? You have to see it to believe it.
I’ve only really lived in one Indian city, Calcutta/Kolkata, and even though I grew up almost on a daily diet of various kinds of street food (my parents being a little less strict about this than many and my stomach having grown most resilient via this eclectic exposure) I wasn’t prepared for the number, scale and magnitude by which street food culture had proliferated in the city during my absence of fourteen years and the subsequent fifteen annual Durga Pujo’s I had missed.
I took all these pictures on Shoshthi evening and Shaptami afternoon, the first and second of the five days when Pujo crowds are only warming up. I just walked a little in the evening, barely a ten minute walking stretch from my parents’ place to the major road in my area. It’s a very middle-class neighbourhood and didn’t include any of the city’s major intersections or Pujo-visiting destinations or markets and must be a very miniscule picture of the city’s crowds and street foods this Pujo.
Yet, just as the spirit of the Goddess inheres in the smallest Debi idol in the tiniest by-lane in the littlelest poorly-lit Pandal as she does in the award-winning enormous mega-Pujo’s, I’m hoping that this chronicler’s mini-attempt at reflecting the spirit of the season will convey a little bit of the excitement and anticipation regarding how the Goddess has transformed a city of a 4.4 million people (14.38 million if you take the metropolitan area into account and swelling during Pujo) into a cosmic food court. Continue reading Street Food: Calcutta Durga Puja–Shoshthi Shaptami 2014!→
Something or the other is always happening in Calcutta.
Many of these events would be quite outside the scope of my experiences in the US and yet here they seem to fit in so seamlessly with the daily course of things. The events I’m talking about could be as simple as an altercation with an autorickshaw-wallah regarding the lack of change while paying the fare or hearing of a hanuman (big monkey) sighted on my street in the early morning sitting and eating kachori at a popular roadside stall with other customers (even while in many ways city life here is in no way different from anywhere else in the world as people use smartphones and laptops and commute to work on buses and cars and the underground metro).
Here’s a really unexpected event that occurred this week which reinforces my belief that if you’re looking for stories, there’s no better place in the world to come to than our very own Calcutta!
On Monday evening, my parents are about to leave for the market. I am ready to see them off when we open the door to an unexpected sight.
Our very long term domestic help P’s saree is strewn all over the landing between the main doors of the two apartments that face each other. A bunch of black hair, clearly cut with a pair of scissors, is strewn on the floor next to it.
One of the new experiences you have to adjust to when you visit your home in Calcutta from your home in New Jersey, travel from the temperate zone to the tropics, is that of living with the constant presence of insects in the summer. Even in city apartments, these companions make their presence known in various obscure or aggressive ways.
The glow worms are beautiful when they float in during a power cut. The ants and the spiders are a silent lot. If you leave a box of sandesh on the table, in no time will you see a group of industrious ants pushing globules of sweet, white balls away. You might have to keep an eye out for the spider doing the silent dance around the toilet seat or the lizard suddenly bursting into a loud tick-tick-tick on the wall. The millipede could climb on your arm while you’re asleep or a winged cockroach might decide to spend its last few hours with you. Then of course the mosquitoes will sing to you and keep you company through the night until dawn. Those who are wise know that a single one inside the mosquito net could treat you to its serenade all night long.
For expatriates, visiting home after long periods of time reveals slow changes imperceptible to those who live close by. The changes most noticeable are those in the old and the young.
The Old Man sits on the same seat on the couch everyday lost in his own thoughts. There’s a din around him consisting of the cook’s angry exclamations on the dearth of red-pepper powder (the lack of which jars against her professional perfectionism), the washer-woman’s insistent tramplings carrying heavy wet clothes to the balcony to hang, the all-purpose domestic’s comings and goings looking for mosquito nets to fold or to look out the verandah to see who has been pressing the “calling” bell for the thousandth time.
Despite all the din, The Old Man’s world is quite silent. He sits with the unfurled newspaper most days or just with his thoughts. He has grown a little frailer, lost a little weight, grown a white beard to complement his white hair. Yet, when there’s a soft discussion in the background between the domestic and The Old Lady that there’s no fish in the house for The Boy, he stirs from his seat as though to go to the market in the burning heat. When I pull up my huge American suitcase up the stairs, quite out of scale in this Calcutta apartment, he gets a grip on it pulling it up (looking as though he shouldn’t be), while all us ladies look on with concern trying to persuade him with words to let go but not daring to touch the handle to take it away from him. Continue reading The Old and the Young→
In the afternoon they came unto a land
In which it seemed always afternoon.
A very long time ago, when we were young, emotions were pure and life was new. Nights were balmy, feelings were free from shackles, winters were mild, and all the best quotes were beautiful the first time.
A shock of unruly hair falling on a forehead or a deep stray voice heard in the midst of amateurish music on a makeshift stage or the pattering of dainty sandal-clad feet expectantly waiting next to the staircase outside the classroom could create a magical atmosphere like no other. The careless wave of a rolled up sheaf of paper with a boyish nod could make us obsessed drowning all other senses because perception was new and stimuli were plentiful.
Life was indolent, perpetually ready to receive, to feel, to take an imprint of that which passed around us in the atmosphere of perpetual idleness that was our college. Continue reading And so it was in college→
When we were six or seven, we used to live in an oasis in the heart of Calcutta. Everywhere else the city was teeming with people, concrete, dust, dirt, cars, buses and street hawkers–an overload to the senses.
Yet, in the midst of it all was our oasis of a housing complex and a quiet street of some offices–a collection of buildings owned by the Railways to which change had not come in a long time.There had been few new constructions since the days the Brits were here and so the buildings were solid but not modern and the trees were all old and shady. Continue reading Memory’s oases→
When I was a child in Calcutta in the late 80’s and early 90’s, we didn’t have the internet. When we wanted to see the world, we looked at a big globe which belonged to my brother. We would twirl it round and round and look at all the countries separated by blue oceans and black lines, coloured in different colours and marked in little letters.
It would give us a thrill to check out countries that we had never discovered before. We looked at the antipodes that were the furthest from where we were and tell each other that it was night there while it was day here. That seemed so strange. Many of my friends’ favourite game was a rapid fire round of naming countries when you had to respond by naming the capital city. Continue reading Global Indians: Distance and the World→
It was probably the year 2001 and I was checking my email in a computer lab in a school in Florida trying to concentrate amidst the loud noise that the dot matrix printers were making on the aisle (which were the only printers completely free for students then although laser ones did exist).
I was checking an email that had the following subject line:
I got out of my apartment building yesterday and there they were. A bunch of dried, white grass flowers framed by concrete next to a stern sign that read : “Private. Do not trespass.”
Kashful. Or its distant cousin has bloomed in Jersey City. Fall has touched even the concrete.
Kashphool? Or Kashful? How do you approximate from Bengali? Wikipedia tells me it’s called Kans grass in English, a grass native to South Asia. (“Kans grass”! Sounds strange. Not much better than Saccharum spontaneum, apparently its scientific name.)