There is magic in the Kolkata air tonight. The autumnal night sky is lit in rainbow hues. These colours reflect off the pandals, those magnificent, glittering, multi-coloured marquees. Tonight, our pandal-hop starts from South Kolkata’s Selimpur and ends in Park Circus. The Gariahat Road on which we walk is long and busy. We see hundreds of pandals, big and small, all decked up as distinctively as can be. We spot everything from a giant-bird marquee to the slightly less fantastical South Indian temple. We stop at a pagoda-like pandal in Ballygunge. It is stately, not serene. Nothing is serene during the Pujas. Though the air is filled with loud music and voices, the pagoda is worth the halt and deserves a better look. But that’s precisely our problem. We—two little children and their diminutive mom—don’t think we will get that better look tonight. In fact, close to the ground as we are, even the magic in the air slightly eludes us. Air itself does too, hemmed in as we are by a large surging crowd, jostling and jabbering.
“Oh Mommy,” said my seven-year-old daughter, “it’s bootiful, but I can barely breathe.”
It was time for the Himshim Manoeuvre. Like the Heimlich Manoeuvre, Himshim brings escape from a particular kind of choking peculiar to Kolkata at Pujo-time. I was about to find out if I’d grown rusty from my many years living away in England. Gripping my children’s hands tightly, I ploughed through the palaver of people till we’d breathed refreshing air on a quieter side street. There were enough people there to fill a small hall, but still. Soon spirited home in our car down similar back streets, the children were relieved but also eager for more. “Shall we do it again?” asked our young man of nine.
Of course we would! That’s why we were in Kolkata for the Pujas after 12 long years. We visited annually but till 2015, the kids had seemed too young to enjoy the colour and chaos of the Pujas to the full. And much like the goddess Durga’s own homecoming, as celebrated by the Pujas, it was meant to be a triumphant one. We weren’t meant to scuttle away after a single attempt at rubbernecking. We had not covered ourselves in Pujo-hopping glory on our first foray into the festivities. I was, however, determined not to be deterred by a puny crowd of thousands. Did Durga down arms and slink away when confronted by the macho Mahishasura? No, she grappled him to the ground instead. And so would I, I decided, find a way to master the Pujas all over again, introducing its magic and mayhem to my eager young ’uns, in the most painless way possible.
I could no longer, I had to admit, flow through crowds like Saraswati’s swan through water, or match Ganesh’s nose for the finest grub. This time around, for example, it took a while to find the most mouth-watering double-chicken-egg rolls at the resplendent Park Circus Puja, which would have been the work of a mere practised seconds years ago. Yet some things hadn’t changed. The enthusiasm was still there, as was the pluck. Most of all, the mind ticketh over as before. It was formulating a plan with the practicality of Lakshmi and the maternal instincts of Durga. And that all-conquering arsenal in the latter’s 10 powerful arms? I would need those too. Just adapted to less epic requirements, to help me navigate, in feeble NRI ishtyle, this once-familiar festival:
1. First of all, I’d need the goddess’s three eyes. All the better to see the Pujas with. Especially the spectacular ones at Maddox Square, Jodhpur Park and Mudiali. (On this trip, we were sticking to familiar South and Central Pujas near our Kolkata home. On the next one, we would venture North to take in more traditional beauties. That was the plan). We chose Mudiali for its glitz, Jodhpur Park for ingenuity and Maddox Square for its fashionable folk, of course. The second eye would help me watch the children, no matter how firm a hold I had on them at the time. And the third one, with a 360 degrees sweep, would keep tabs on the insistent peddlers and even more persistent pinchers (of bags and other ‘b’ words).
2. Then I’d need a conch. The goddess’s conch blasting out a primordial ‘Om’ apparently created whole universes. Mine would just need to drown out the cacophony of loudspeakers. Not just when we are out Pujo-trawling, but all the time. Whether at home with family, digging into autumnal delicacies like malpoas and kosha mangsho, or in the thick of a meaty adda, there are always PA systems blaring for the Pujas. But though my conch would have to out-boom those speakers, it mustn’t drown out the dhakis, the traditional drummers beating a rhythmic tattoo through the festival. The rousing beat of the dhakis is simply divine and no Pujo could be complete without them. The best of them at a modest puja in Gol Park made my heart and my children dance, and the conch was forgotten.
3. Along with the goddess’s three eyes, you’d want her trishul or trident. Because what’s the point of being all-seeing if you can’t be all-doing as well? One prong of which in our more humdrum not-creating-universes sort of way could be a nimble DSLR, to take phenomenal pictures of the Pujas, of the always-elegant Ekdalia, of the often splendid-in-a-tight-space Dhakuria or of the incandescent College Square (not in South Kolkata, I know, but an old favourite). Or you could have a nifty (and tightly clutched) smartphone instead that takes photos and gives you directions when lost, which you’re bound to get, with every street changed beyond recognition by both the beautification and the barricades. The second prong would be the water bottles and stash of bishkoot (biscuits) you plan to keep with you for the kids. When stuck in a traffic jam in between pandals as you invariably will be, Marie bishkoot or Kerackjack will keep them occupied. The third and final prong of your trishul would have to be for dispatching pests of all kinds. The ones you’ve identified with your omniscient third eye. Then your trident and your mace (a lot like the Devi’s, except it works like a spray) will make short work of them.
4. The deity’s sword would come in handy too. The sword signifies a sharp intellect and you certainly need to be able to think on your feet when out and about on a blazingly beautiful but busy Puja night. In fact, with children, Pujo afternoons and even early mornings are much better for unimpeded viewing. We found smaller, back-alley pandals to be far more child-friendly. The kids were blown away by the peacock marquee in Lake Gardens, and they couldn’t bear to leave the Fern Road pandal with its illuminated and animated animals. The friendliness of these parar pujos (neighbourhood pujas), with locals warmly and personally ushering us in, added to the experience.
5. Don’t forget Durga’s bow and arrow either, symbols of energy, of which you’ll need oodles for a proper pandal-crawl through even a quarter of Kolkata. Because, when the sublime sculptors of Kumartuli get together with the masters of illumination from Chandannagar and the inspired pandal-makers from all over the city, there is very little you’d want to miss, even if you have to run the gauntlet of all of Bengal to do it.
6. You really will require the Devi’s thunderbolt to light your way through those very crowds. And to create the occasional diversion when you want to manoeuvre the kids to the front because no amount of craning will allow them to see. Of course, keen night vision like that of Lakshmi’s owl would help too, to savour the splendid sights while sidestepping the decorously covered potholes. Add to that Durga’s inextinguishable flame, emblem of knowledge (which is precisely what I didn’t have on that first foray into the Pujas as an outsider), and I’m all set.
Well, almost. We can’t ignore her fearsome lion. Or my pair of cubs, less fearsome but as keen to get going. They are what this trip back to the Motherland at this time of the year is about. With a firm grip on them and my good sense, taking care to stay stocked on all kinds of supplies, practical and metaphorical, I am ready to introduce them to the magic of the Durga Pujas, to the delight of dancing lights, deliciously festive food and that magnificent array of awe-inspiring pandals and majestic idols that only Kolkata at Pujo time can provide.
Shreya Sen-Handley is a columnist and illustrator for the British and Indian media. Her short stories have been published in three continents and her HarperCollins India book, 'Memoirs of My Body' is out now.