Every year during the Durga Puja festival, the city of Kolkata decks up like a bride. The evenings are fused with the yellow glow of thousands of twinkly lights, the air is filled with happy chatter, the rustle of new shiny clothes, the sound of Dhaak, 90s Kumar Sanu songs, and a whiff of kabab rolls and phuchka water. Themed pandals of various styles and sizes mushroom in different parts of the city, and a sea of people, in their finest dresses, descend on the streets for four consecutive nights to celebrate and enjoy.
Grand celebrations take place in the hinterland of Bengal too. As wild sugarcane grass swing their heads in the autumn wind, the preparations for festivities begin. Massive light systems get installed, villages which generally look sleepy and deserted after sundown, suddenly have garment stores open till midnight, sweetshops get a new coat of paint, and pandal fields get meticulously manicured. The purohits blow conch shells and chant mantras with newfound zest during the days leading up to Durga puja. Clothes from relatives arrive from the beginning of the month, and finalizing the outfits that one would wear on the four days of Puja becomes a significant decision for many. Needless to say, Durga Puja is the most important time of the year for most Bengalis.
This festival marks the victory of Hindu goddess Durga over the demon king, Mahishasura. However, it is far more than merely a religious festival. It is a feeling that’s very special not only to Bengal but also to Assam, Odisha, Tripura, and other states where this festival is an integral part of their cultural history. For Bengalis, however, Durga Puja also means a celebration of all things they hold dear — Prem (love), Pet pujo (food worship), adda (a word which loses its meaning if translated), and berano (travel).
Unfortunately, this year, coronavirus has put a damper on all festivities. Several restrictions have been put in place to deter people from visiting pandals, which is perhaps the best way to contain the virus’s spread and save many lives at this point. However, this also means that people will not be able to do what they generally do during the puja and are currently spending the puja in the confines of their own home or their bio bubble. Of course, that is a depressing way to celebrate Durga Puja. But things don’t have to be all that bad.
hile there is no arguing that it is tough to substitute the charms of an evening spent at Maddox square, the joys of hand-holding with your first boyfriend in the flowing crowd, or the rush of finally getting seated at a restaurant after queuing up for more than an hour, it doesn’t mean that you have to do away with all the things that you associate with and love about Durga Puja. Here are a few things that can still light up your festival:
Pujabarshiki: For centuries, the humankind has found comfort in stories during a crisis. Therefore, take heart in the fact that Pujabarshiki has not been added to the list of canceled things in 2020. This year, the cover girl of magazines like Desh and Anandamela is again goddess Durga, and she is armed to fight the coronavirus. On Desh’s cover sits a somber Durga, mask-clad, and a little worried, yet keeping a strong hold on Asura’s ponytail with one of her ten hands. On the cover of Anandamela, Durga along with her children Ganesh, Kartik, Laxmi and Saraswati is at war with COVID-19. However, the real joys are between the pages of these magazines as Desh brings you novellas by Samaresh Majumdar and Joy Goswami this year, and Anandamela has Sunil Gangopadhyay’s Kakababu comics and Samaresh Basu’s Detective Gogol. If you are someone for whom the advent of Durga Puja meant the crisp, divine smelling pages of pujabarshiki, savor this year’s editions, because there isn’t much else to stoke your ‘pujo feeling.’
Online Anjali, virtual tours and Facebook’s AR Filters: Of course, virtual tours are in no way close to the real deal. The romanticism of Ashtomi’s anjali, or the dhunachi dance to the beats of the dhaak during the evenings, the gossip session with friends outside puja pandals, and the joys of displaying your newly bought silk saris cannot be brought to the comfort of your homes. But, look at the bright side (it’s a tiny side, but it exists). Online anjali and virtual tours do spare you a lot of unnecessary trouble, like finding suitable parking spots which is honestly a real pain during the puja days, getting stepped on your feet repeatedly, and being elbowed by strangers in the crowds and the most irritating of them all, being stopped on the other side of the rope by the puja committee volunteers, so that they can ensure crowd control inside the pandal.
There are several Kolkata, Delhi and Mumbai puja committees which have made the effort to make their pujas accessible by people online. Therefore, irrespective of where you are, if you are in the mood to watch Kolkata’s College Square puja, or the North Bombay Sarbojanin Durga Puja Samiti’s festivities, or Balaka Durgotsav of Noida, you can watch them at home. Furthermore, few committees have also organized prasad delivery, and online anjali facilities to have a Durga puja that resembles the ones you have celebrated all these years. Also, for stoking sari envy, you can obviously go to Facebook, and Instagram, which have launched AR filters and extra hashtags to give you an added sense of festivity in your digital life.
Re-watching Durga Puja classics: Let’s face it, most of the puja releases we have watched in theatres in the last few years have not been remotely good. So, now that you are stuck at home why not go back to the films on Durga Puja that have never failed you? Why not immerse yourself in the theme song of Pather Panchali, or rewatch the handsome Soumitra Chatterjee bringing his best sleuthing game in Joy Baba Felunath? Watch Satyajit Ray’s Devi or Rituparna Ghosh’s Utsab because these filmmakers know how to bring alive the feelings, the sounds, and smells of Durga Puja celebrations onscreen. If you are more inclined towards a Bollywood film, why not go with Kahaani? I would also suggest Srijit Mukherji’s Uma, which shows a Durga Puja being organized during summer for a little girl suffering from a terminal disease. Her last wish is to participate in the festivities of Durga puja. It’s a very apt film to watch this year, I would reckon.
Make a Bhog: Before there were fancy brunches, fusion Bengali dishes, and continental meals on which restaurants offered special puja rates, there was and still exists the simple joy of Bhog er khichuri and beguni — an ashtomi staple that never fails to evoke the strongest puja memory. If you are one of those who can make this delicious yet very simple meal at home, I suggest you get to it as soon as possible. But, if your cooking skills are limited to boiling water and making Maggi, or you are too tired of all the cooking you have been doing ever since the pandemic started, then I suggest you order in. Either way, have some Khichuri and beguni, and while you are at it, also try some fish fry or chingri macher malai curry or mutton kasha or nolen gurer shondesh. If you are a Bengali, there can hardly be any situation that’s so bad that a good meal cannot fix it.
Catch up with friends and family: If you are one of those who have not lost any loved one this year, know that you are privileged and very blessed. Not many have had that good fortune. Therefore, make sure you call the elderly aunt you barely speak to, or the grandparents for whom you never bother to make time. While you are at it, also call the friend with whom you exchange at least 200 WhatsApp texts every day and the co-worker with whom you only talk shop but never have the time to really catch up. And, of course, spend some quality time with your parents and siblings, be it online or in person. No festival is festive without loved ones. We are all at home for their sake as much as for our own. Durga Puja will be a hundred times more luminous if you just make a little time to say ‘Shubho Bijoya’ to them, even if you have nothing else to say.