Excess & ‘Pandal-monium’ Epitomizes Durga Puja 2017

“From the longest Alpana (ground art) at 1 km to the 22kg gold sari for the Goddess worth around $1.5 million, housed in a mock-up Buckingham Palace, to the tallest Durga idol at 110 feet vying to be put in Guinness, organizing clubs seemed to be making offerings at the feet of Mammon rather than Ma. “

It’s all over for 2017. Seems like in a blink of an eye we went from inaugurations of pandals with much fanfare, though these events are some six or seven days old, now, to immersion controversies (more below). I recall our fearless leader being at her best – seeming to be everywhere at once, drawing eyes on the goddess for one pandal, composing the theme song for another. Posters of her were so ubiquitous, it reminded me of that slogan that Orwell novel but adapted for her: “Big Sister is Watching You.” It was a comfort to be watched over in this way, to be sure – a foreigner in the land of my roots – familiarity and bafflement co-existing at once. But, I didn’t do much pandal hopping, this year as I have in prior years mainly because, well, because, frankly, there was no room to hop!

What began as twelve rebellious men who started the first community or ‘Barowari’ (of 12 friends) celebration of Durga Puja, put together from meager donations at a time when Calcutta’s Bahadur princes were showcasing their wealth and exerting influence has grown year-by-year to become one of the most gratuitous displays of excess in modern India. With increasingly ambitious projects undertaken by social clubs, backed by government and corporate sponsorship, record-breaking footfalls are observed each year.

This year, attempting to manage the flow of crowds, a considerable police presence was visible at least 30 key Pandals of the city’s 172. As Deshopriya Park recorded its highest ever footfall at five million by the morning of Vijaya Dashami, between this club’s pandal and neighboring rival, Tridhara Sammilani’s, over a thousand police were deployed to these spots, alone. Based on the meagre response to recent communal rioting, I didn’t think the police had that number in the entre greater Kolkata area, let alone to spare for two pandals. But you put your money where your priorities are…

Still, the heavy presence of boots on the ground didn’t prevent public drunkenness, people vaulting bamboo barricades, pushing, shoving and general unpleasantness. Oh…and public urination, too! Our path from one of these famous South Calcutta pandals to the other (the only path, permitted, unlike other years) was lined with police. Unfortunately, their lips were glued to their whistles, and unable to breathe without blowing their instrument of crowd control, I felt like I was trapped in the back of an ice cream truck, packed with three-year old kids, all having been given whistles for the first time. I suppose our ears were a small price to play for their expert management. I felt bad for them, though, as some physically challenged were deployed in this endeavor. A man who surely must have had Turret’s syndrome made repeated announcements that cameras would be confiscated if taken out for photos. His colleagues demonstrated the height of sympathy, saying nothing to the poor lad.

In fact, when one reveler pulled out his phone and started taking a video, shouts emerged from the crowd: “Confiscate his phone! He’s taking pictures. Confiscate his phone!” The shouts proved to be fruitless: over all the whistle-blowing or consequential deafness of all the whistle-blowing – or perhaps the knowledge that the threat was empty, kept our reliable whites and their khaki colleagues didn’t budge from their assumed positions. I found it reassuring, I confess. Imagine the additional chaos of uniforms chasing down people for using their phones to add to the pushing, the shoving, the bumping – and those weird people who think it’s ok to balance themselves by resting their sweaty hand on your back!

One road on our designated path smelled like a public toilet – and sure enough, our party noticed four men pissing side-by-side on the street. No police were deployed to that spot. They might have gone deaf from the noise pollution but their noses were surely working! Personally, I wondered what happened to all those public toilets that were supposed to be built in India after Prime Minister Modi said India needs public toilets more than temples. I suppose there must be a few lawyers on the Pandal committees, seeing the loophole that temple didn’t equal pandal. And, let’s face it, the average Kolkatan can piss anywhere, so why waste money on toilets! Besides, holding one’s nose and trying not to throw-up in one’s mouth builds character. At least, that’s what I told my disgusted son.

I’ve been reading these articles in newspapers, which purport that Durga Puja celebrates the triumph of good over evil. What a bunch of crap! While they’re correct that Durga Puja marks the victory of the Goddess Durga over the demon Mahisasura, and though he is depicted as a pretty bad guy, with his swelled buffalo head, he is meant to depict human ego – not evil. And, the struggle as described in the sacred text, the Devi Mahatmya, is an internal one, signifying that ego is our own worst enemy and must be subdued on the path to awakening from the great sleep that is Maya to become one with God.

Similarly, the shastra narrates Durga taking the form of Kali in order to kill the demon, Raktabeejj who multiplied with every drop of blood from his wounds falling to the ground. Kali, realizing she had to remove the blood from its source, sucked it all up with her long tongue. And so, Raktabeej represents ceaseless desire. The only way to get beyond desire is to remove it from its source. (Long tongue optional.)

I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to get so lectury in the last two paragraphs. It’s just that it strikes me that the two most important lessons of Durga Puja, are lost on the organizers of Pandals as they compete for prizes to show everyone how great they are. It’s lost on most all who get gussied up to push their way through the crowd and take pictures to post on Facebook, especially those with their backs to the goddesses and gods they are supposed to be revering, relegating the deities as mere background scenery to the stars of the show – the selfie photogs.

FB, Instagram, Pinterest, and the host of social networking sites have perhaps made us the most self-centered sets of generations to ever walk this Earth. So it’s no wonder, the police were deployed so heavily to keep us moving. At the same time, I felt a sense of loss, this year – a loss of wonder and interest, which was present the first few years I was in Calcutta during Durga Puja. I just wanted to be released from the pain of being packed against other sweaty bodies in a seemingly unending line like one in a hoard of undead in AMC’s The Walking Dead.

On other streets as motorbikes whizzed past at breakneck speed, carrying as many as three or four helmetless passengers – maybe half of them drunk or high or just plain obnoxious – as well as the cars whose drivers didn’t care that I had an eight-year old on one hand and seventy-eight year old on my other hand, serially honking at me to get out the way, I felt that good had not at all triumphed over evil – or even bad manners. I am tempted to ask the Puja committee the club in my neighbourhood to make next year’ theme, “triumph of good over obnoxiousness.” They might even agree if I buy them enough whisky and beer. I’ll put that on my to do list for next year.

From the longest Alpana (ground art) at 1 km to the 22kg gold sari for the Goddess worth around $1.5 million, housed in a mock-up Buckingham Palace, to the tallest Durga idol at 110 feet vying to be put in Guinness, organizing clubs seemed to be making offerings at the feet of Mammon rather than Ma. BIG, BIGGER, BIGGEST!

Incidentally, our fearless leader’s entire neighbourhood was turned into a faux-London for her benefit because, remember, she promised to turn Kolkata into London. I think it’s great that the people are helping her keep her promise. I wonder if they’ll keep it in place after the Puja. She might consider it urban development. I guess the only thing to say to that is, “All hail Mammon-ta!” Let us drop all our offerings at your feet (failing which would you accept droppings? You see, there are no public toilets in your London, and I really have to go!).
Shubho Bijoya, everyone!
– Sid Atanya, September 30th, 2017

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