The lights are blinding, the air smells of bubbling oil and grease, the jabber and chatter are deafening, the earth whimpers in protest against the millions of kicking feet. No, dear reader, you aren’t dashing to glorious immortality in the Battle of the Bulge. You’re entering Maddox Square on Saptami evening. Something tells me the Bulge would’ve been safer.
All hell breaks loose. The entire city seems to be here, decked out in her glittering green sari and his new burgundy kurta. There is an apocalyptic feel to the whole thing, as if this is everyone’s last day alive, and must be made most of. Comparisons to the Black Hole of Calcutta spring, not inappropriately, to mind. You need to pick your way around, taking care to avoid stepping on the innumerable ebullient groups of young men and women sitting on the grass and having the time of their lives. Having navigated this human minefield successfully, you breathe a sigh of relief – the main pandal is a mere hop away – only to sink into wet mud. “O well”, you say, brushing aside these minor inconveniences, “the greater end, etc”, and walk into the mandap.
And then it hits you. The crowd seems to melt away as you walk towards the protima (the process is speeded up if you happen to have, like I did, a friend weighing close to 30 stone clearing the way for you). The sheer grandeur is breathtaking. The Goddess with her large beautiful eyes, the heady fumes of incense, the foot-tapping rhythms of the four dhakis… there is something so fabulously irreligious about Durga Pujo. It is the one time of the year when the Bengali shakes of his lethargy and actually works hard at having fun. There’s song and dance, love floats in the air, old friends greet each other amidst much backslapping; Pujo is when the good times roll, and it almost makes the horrendously overcharged three-hour journey worth your while.
But come next Pujo, you’d be well advised to do what I’ll do – kick off your shoes, order pizza and reread Goodbye to All That. It’s easier on the nerves.