Resurrecting the Good Against Evil
The Durga Puja afterglow continues, ensuring justice, humanity, and love continue to increase
If you thought that the last scene of that Vidya Balan box office hit directed by Sujoy Ghosh in the backdrop of a heady Durga Puja was a cathartic finale of this wonderful festival in Bengal, celebrating women's power, then you should have been in Kolkata during this puja, and on Bijoyadashami. This is the day when the goddess is immersed in the waters, a pond, a lake or a river, with her companions – Lakshmi, Saraswati, Ganesha, Kartik, and their pets, and of course the lion and the Mahishasur – the final Bisharjan.
In the film, 'Kahani', the cops are chasing Vidya Balan, dressed in a white sari with a red border, and a red blouse, and they just cannot find her. This is because she had disappeared in a sea of women wearing white saris with red borders, and a red blouse, their faces and foreheads smeared with red sindoor. In a sense, all of them like the reincarnation of Durga.
She disappeared, even while the women said farewell to the goddess amidst slogans, chantings, the drums of the dhakis, and the ghantas, as joy lifts and slowly disappears too, after her short and fleeting arrival, and a certain sadness creeps in during her inevitable departure the day after Navami.
This Bijoyadashami outstretched the last scene of 'Kahani' in Kolkata. This year, at least five million people were on the streets every day, over 35 lakh used the metro which ran till the early hours of the dawn. Young and old, lovers and loners, poor and rich, Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Christians, Chinese, Biharis, folks from East UP, locals and tourists, villagers and the urban – they all thronged the streets. They inhaled the atmospherics from one pandal to another, and one veg and non-veg food joint to another, with the addictive aroma of biryani and mutton-chicken-fish cutlets floating in the air.
The UNESCO has declared the Durga Puja here as an Intangible Cultural Heritage. Indeed, all the pandals had become an endless spiral of art galleries with multiple forms of the gods and goddesses, and Durga especially, showcased with the brilliance and genius of the legendary Kumartuli artists and sculptors, and miscellaneous other artists, designers, painters, and decorators.
From the oldest pandal, the most ancient village which anticipated the imagined Mahanagar called Kolkata much before the British arrived, beyond Jorasanko , the famous and palatial Tagore house in North Kolkata, across the river Ganga in Jaan Bazaar near College Street and its famous Coffee House, beyond the statue of Lenin near Dharmatala, and across South Kolkata and the suburbs on the border of 24 South Pargana, hundreds of such Durga installations were created for this biggest festival in Bengal.
Besides, this year, it was a moment of liberation and resurrection. Post-covid, and the lockdown, its deathly despair, dying and depression, its compulsive loneliness and isolation, its stagnant stasis and social distancing, all this was overcome and overwhelmed in the vibrant and pulsating catharsis of the Durga Puja this year. There was joyfulness and festivity everywhere.
Young eyes sparkled with optimism. Lovers held their hands all through the night, untiring, walking across the night streets, in love with the goddess and the nocturnal rendezvous.
On Bijoyadashami, married women in a sea of white and red, or, wearing gorgeous saris in a brilliant rainbow of colours, fabric, textiles, designs, their faces smeared with sindoor, celebrated the day of the departure of the goddess with a synthesis of deep sorrow and unbridled joy.
They hugged each other, played holi with the sindoor, and worshipped the goddess and her female companions. Others were dancing till late night, all women, celebrating the beauty of the night, in their farewell homage to Durga.
Chief Minister Mamata Bannerjee has given Rs 50,000 to each and every puja pandals across Bengal. In New Garia's Nayabad, among the humble refugees of the suburbs, the modest Durga Puja in a small space had a sumptuous lunch on Navami. What was sublime was that they dug up all the old songs from the archives – by Kishore Kumar, Hemant Kumar, Manna Dey, Sandhya Ray – accompanied by chantings. And, of, course, the haunting Tagore songs in male and female voices.
The Bastuhara Samiti (literally meaning a collective of those who have lost everything) has set up a beautiful Durga installation at Netaji Nagar near Ranikuthi in South Kolkata. This erstwhile refugee colony of those who came from across the East Bengal border after Partition and later, has now become reasonably affluent. This is perhaps one of the last few strongholds of the CPM in Kolkata in the era of the Trinamool Congress, where it still has huge goodwill among the community.
Besides, it is well-known that the communists were the first and only scaffoldings who stood with the deprived and marginalised, homeless and hungry refugees, who migrated from East Bengal after bloody violence rocked its otherwise secular landscape.
The refugees settled down in difficult terrains, against all odds, under subhuman conditions. But they were honest, resilient, big-hearted and hardworking. They were determined to carve a new life in this part of Bengal, even while both the east and west of Shonar Bangla shared a common and secular history and culture.
Predictably, the CPM had opened a book shop showcasing its history, and multiple books on Marxism and great revolutionaries were on display near the pandal.
At this pandal, the women had taken over, with their beautiful saris and faces adorned with sindoor, amidst a throng of white saris and red blouses. It's a shared community, and the celebration is liberating and vibrant. There is bonhomie, much hugging and infectious joy in the atmosphere.
Nearby was a huge pond at Ranikuthi. Around this pond, hundreds of pandals, clubs and committees arrived in one procession after another, from evening till midnight, with women and men dancing, shouting slogans, while the dhakis played the drums non-stop. 'Durga Mai Ki Jai' rent the air, as much as the collective chorus that 'next year it will happen again' – 'aashche bochor abaar hobe'.
Dressed in their finest attire, men and women watched one goddess after another, rotated a few times as a last glimpse to the worshippers, and then gradually immersed into the waters. As the goddess goes down into the dark waters as night descends and the collective chorus rents the air, all men and women, in one collective gesture, become totally silent; they fold their hands and shut their eyes, and pray to the goddess as a final goodbye.
You can see tears in some eyes, as women wipe their faces. It is deeply sad, her departure. And she came for such a brief while, bringing ecstasy and festivity in a dark, uncertain and bleak world, still haunted by the tragic memories of the pandemic, and still struggling to recover.
And, yet, as the tears mix with the goodbyes, the people of Bengal know that, yes, she will come again. Next year. Beautiful Durga with her large big eyes. Along with her companions and their pets. Resurrecting the good against evil, justice against injustice, humanity against inhumanity, Optimism over despair. Love against hate. And beauty against ugliness.