Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Romancing with History: Part1--Visit to the Red Fort

North-India is in winter a beauty to behold, we have mornings thickly laden with nebulous layers of fog and mid-afternoons and afternoons when the fulgent sun targets its mollified rays at the heart of the city thus radiating warmth and wintry torpor. It is also a time to travel. The citizens enjoy this period of appricity by discovering the great city and its environs.

A Foggy Morning

This Christmas my husband and I had originally planned to celebrate the day by going to the St. James Church, one of the oldest churches in Delhi. However when we arrived at its premises, we found  the church closed for the day and decided to visit the Red Fort, a monument I had long wanted to see.

Red Fort

Built in the jorum of the Mughal Empire by the emperor Shah Jahan, this seventeenth century fort stands majestically is the pedestrian neighborhood of Chandni Chowk in Old Delhi. Against the backdrop of the watchet sky this Brobdinagian monument stands stolidly as a witness of the changing currents of time. It was from this virtuous place that the first Prime Minister of India, Pandit Jawharlal Nehru, delivered the famous speech "Tryst with destiny" at the stroke of midnight hour when India achieved its freedom on 15 Aug 1947. Every year on the day of independence the National Flag of India is hoisted at the Red Fort by the Prime Minister. As you reach the premises you would observe the red façade of the building with the tri-colored banner waving atop.

Made out or red sandstone this fortress is known for its grand architecture. The main entrance opens on to the Chatta Chowk, a covered street flanked with arched cells that used to house Delhi's most talented jewelers, carpet makers, weavers and goldsmiths. It now houses shops where you can find assorted collections of Indian handicrafts made of wood and brass and other materials(I go myself a couple of Rajasthani puppet dolls from here). As you walk down this dark, strepitous alley you will feel transported to another era, a bygone era whose relics lie before you. The curious eyes of travelers hovering over the two tiers (the second floor is officially closed) of this market suggest awe and inquisitiveness as to what lies beyond this narrow settlement.

The bazaar

The Chhattar bazaar leads to a large open space where it crosses the large north-south street that was originally the division between the fort's military functions, to its west, and the palaces, to its east. Representatives of the Indian army stand guard at various points at this juncture. My grandfather who was a colonel in the Indian army narrated stories of the Red Fort and as I saw the tenement I recalled some of them.Beyond the Chatta Chowk is the heart of the fort called Naubat Khana or the Drum House. The musicians used to play for the emperor from the Naubat Khana and the arrival of princes and royalty was heralded from here.

                         The Diwan-i-Aam

                                                                 The Diwan-i-Aam

The Diwan-i-Aam, which is the large pavilion for public imperial audiences, has an ornate throne-balcony (jharokha) for the emperor. The columns were painted in gold and there was a gold and silver railing separating the throne from the public. The cool white marble get-up that now stand frozen in time exude rich regal airs. A net is now drawn across the marble balcony separating the curious onlookers from the royal seat. Old glyptic ceilings hang surreptitiously from above; their intricate designs once studded with precious stones now lay bare like toothless old men showing their gums. The once stelliferous halls are now illuminated by humble halogens and natural light.

              The Diwan-i-Khas

                The Diwan-i-Khas


After you cross the hall of public audience you take a ramp down to an open courtyard richly platted with trees and other important buildings. The Diwan-i-Khas or “hall of private audience” is the first important building you will observe. In Urdu “khas” means special, and this hall was a special chamber used by the king when talking to his special guests. The room with openings of engrailed arches on its sides consists of a rectangular central chamber surrounded by aisles of arches rising from piers. The lower parts of the piers are inlaid with floral designs, while the upper portions are gilded and painted. Over the marble pedestal in its center stood the famous almost-mythical Peacock Throne which was removed in 1739 by Nadir Shah of Persia. It is said that the pavonine throne was an exquisite piece of Persian artifact curved in gold and studded with priceless gems and stones.


 As you walk around the Diwan-i-Khas you can let your imagination conjure up from the tessellating pieces of history the golden Peacock Throne housed in the middle of the Diwan-i-Khas. The pillars impleached with majestic Mughal designs done in perfect symmetry will surely add their wonder touches to your imagination. One motif that particularly caught my attention was that of the scales of justice done in marble suspended over a crescent amidst stars and clouds in the northern screen of the Tasbih-Khana ('chamber for counting beads for private prayers').

Scales of Justice

Through the center of the Diwan-i-Khas flowed the Nahr-i-Bihisht or the stream of ‘pairidaeza’. The whole get up is paradisal indeed and my view was reiterated by Amir Khusrow the famous 13th century Sufi poet whose verse “if there be a paradise on the earth, it is this, it is this, it is this” is inscribed in one of the walls of the tenement


The two southernmost pavilions of the fortress are zenanas, or women's quarters: the Mumtaz Mahal, and the larger, lavish Rang Mahal, which has been famous for its gilded, decorated ceiling and marble pool, fed by the “stream of paradise.” Of the two the Mumtaz Mahal has indeed experienced a transmogrification. Once a seraglio it acted as a prison in 1857 and now it is a museum housing treasures from the Mughal era: daggers and swords and armors, paintings and priceless texts handwritten in exquisite calligraphy, dresses (which will make you smile upon judging the average size of a Mughal emperor), potteries, carpets, traditional rugs and many more. My favorite among the displayed was an embroidered palanquin cover, now almost frayed and dirty yet still retaining some of the old design that some unknown hand or hands stitched on its surface.

Mumtaz Mahal Museum (this picture is from the web)

As you walk around the open courtyard imbibing the priceless regal beauties stationed at arms-length you might, if you were a person with a strong linking for the artistic, take issues with the British administrative buildings built behind the garden which are now used by the military. These box-like buildings with their European modernistic façade seem anachronistic in the setting. Perhaps the builders were daunted by the finery of the Mughal art that they build themselves box-palaces just beyond its premises or they were so fond of the royal surroundings that they built their own tenements  close to the artistic hearth so as to enjoy the beauty of the Royal fort all day long. Whatever the reason, the sanitarium like buildings will make you twitch your nose.
British Administrative Building

Our tour around this ancient monument was over by 5:30 pm. Upon its completion we took a rickshaw (the hand-pulled ones are a relic :-)) and headed to the Chandni Chowk metro station, which is only a few kilometers from the Red Fort. The ride down the Chandni Chowk market bustling with activity, the smell of street foods, and the sight of sweets dipped in sugary syrup condensed the touristy feeling I had been experiencing throughout the day.

At home that night I cooked my Christmas meal: Roasted chicken with vegetables, mashed potatoes and gravy, homemade bread and fruitcake. As I did the dishes I couldn’t help but smile at the wonderful medley of experiences— Christmas meal, Mughal architecture, smell of Indian street food and Metrorail ride—which lay imbricated in my system. A Christmas well spent, is how I concluded my observations for the nox.  


Friday, December 23, 2011

I Wish You a Merry Christmas

It sure is that time of the year when Dean Martin reminds you that you are just one snow-step away from Christmas. The weather outside turns chilly and the warmth of home embraces you with its wooly blanket and a cup of hot soup. Wherever in the world you are you can never get away from this quintessential feeling of a merry Christmas time. It is the Christmas that you carry in your heart that makes this seasonally joyous time more endearing. All those memories of Christmases past color your present days of merriment such that at the end of the festivities you agree with Andy Williams when he calls the Christmas time as the “most wonderful time of the year.”

This year my plans for Christmas are well underway.  Contrary to my belief that Christmas celebrations in North India may not be as glorious as those in USA, I discovered the whole of Gurgaon steeped in Christmas revels. There are trees and ornaments in all the shops, the bakers are busy making the best fruitcakes and cookies, the restaurants are taking orders for Christmas parties. And on top of that the cold fogy mornings seem so much similar to the pre-snowy days in Nashville. All in all, I couldn’t be happier about this season of merriment.  

We got our tree early this year. It is a small tree, three feet in height which I decorated with assorted Christmas ornaments. When I came back from USA I brought along with me a few of my Christmas decors which I thought I would cherish down the years to come. The idea of lonely Christmases with no tree in my house had almost welled up my eyes at that time since I never thought I would be able to use my Christmas goodies in India.

I couldn’t tell you how pleasantly surprised I was when contrary to my bleak expectations I noticed the first lot of Christmas trees coming to the shops. I bought the second tree I saw— the first one was only a feet in height—and came home feeling like a million dollars. Following which I scoured the whole city for ornaments to bejewel my little tree. I got ribbons and stars and little Santa ornaments and even made a couple of paper stars myself. For the next few days after I got my tree all my activities at home revolved around my tree. After my university I would come home, play Christmas classics and sit by the tree decorating it, enjoying it. And as I did that I couldn’t help but wonder how harboring two cultures in your heart, however different they might be, gives you the opportunity to enjoy their celebrations with élan. I consider my five-years in USA as a formative experience as a whole wherein the  practices I gathered from the culture so ripened my taste buds and became a source of such fun and sport that I have decided to cling to them and cherish them through celebrations and merriment for as long as I shall live.

It feels great to enjoy the goodies of myriad cultures. And I feel that the distinctions that are drawn between two nations are more topographical than human. People acclimate to various cultures and make them their own. This truth may seem erroneous in a world where Facebook doesn’t exist; however, in our internet-centric set-up we are attuned to being cosmopolitan.

Harking back to the Christmas celebrations at home let me share with you the menu I have planned for the special day: homemade fruitcake with dried fruits soaked in rum, roasted chicken with mashed potatoes and homemade gravy and garlic bread. My good crockeries are out and so is my silverware. I feel in my heart as merry as Bob Cratchit’s family on Christmas Eve willing to forget all the ugliness that exists in life and indulge in the fleeting season of merriment. So here I am wishing you all a merry Christmas and hope that all your dear desires would come true in this season of joy and festivities. 

Saturday, November 26, 2011

To Retail or Not to Retail That is the Question

Remember that scene from Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan starrer 1998 romantic comedy film  You've Got Mail where Kathleen Kelly’s (Meg Ryan’s) bookstore The Shop Around the Corner  falls prey to the corporate fangs of the Fox Books. Those of you who have watched the film may agree with me that while we observed the dance of events on screen, we all had hoped  that virtue will be ultimately rewarded  and Meg Ryan will win the battle with Joe Fox (Tom Hanks)—one  of the corporate heads of his family owned “mega” bookstore, Fox Books—and by some means save her charming little bookstore.

Imagine this fictional figment unraveling in real-life, the thespians replaced by pedestrians and you will get the feel of the present retailing imbroglio in India unleashed by the government’s easing of the Foreign Direct Investment rules. The myriad-minded Indians are speculating whether to assign the protagonist’s hat to chain superstores like Wal-Mart, Ikea, or deign them as vicious antagonists. The current situation is dubious.

The cabinet of the Congress party-led coalition in the country’s capital, New Delhi, agreed on Thursday to allow foreign multi-brand retailers to own up to 51% of joint ventures in India and single-brand retailers like Nike, Apple, etc., to own up to 100% of their Indian businesses. This move on the part of the government being long overdue, I feel that embracing free-market policies will ultimately beget good results for the country.

Nevertheless the contingencies of allowing foreign retail stores unlimited access cannot be overlooked. Several mom-and-pop establishments, corner stores, and local businesses may face their demise on account of being unable to compete with giant chain-stores. I still remember how during my stay in USA I observed a local Target store usurping the business of a strip-mall next to my apartment complex in Nashville, TN. The American economy was at the time on the brink adding more pressure to the already ailing local stores ultimately resulting in several of them renting their shops to other stores or closing their doors. The electronic retail giant Circuit City went down during and time and moved their business online.

The Indian economy is struggling right now. Recently the Indian currency plunged to an all-time low dropping 52.70 against the US dollar. High inflation and lower growth rate have added to the rupee’s decline. And the Indian government feels, rightly in my opinion, that the easing of foreign investment rules will somehow ameliorate the situation and propel the moribund economy. The ever-increasing Indian retail market that currently does a business of $470 billion a year is expected to show a hike thus helping the rickety economic infrastructure of the country.

The local businesses that make up the majority of the above mentioned percentage do surely take liberties. In many cases goods purchased lack in quality and are more expensive that average Indians could afford. Food pricing being arbitrary India even minor disruptions in harvest results in shortage of certain crops or vegetables. A lot of produces are wasted every day because of the lack of proper storage areas and transportation issues. It is expected that foreign retailing superstores will work from the ground-up setting up warehouses, getting transportation means ready for swift movement of goods and establish rapport with farmers and local business owners.

The whole new future scheme may sound optimistic for India, but inside this well-laden growth plan there lie this question: who will actually visit these newbie chain-stores? Several Indian citizens who have been brought up on local-market produce and local made goods will look askance at these stores. Even now, people hailing from rural parts of India and people who are partially exposed to the fruits of globalization, people who have limited access to education and basic amenities will definitely feel intimidated by these superstores.  The retailing market is targeted at the new-generation, the well-educated, financially remunerated class and the upper-middle class who generally consider brand-shopping as a prerequisite of class and sophistication.

In my case I remember growing up on few branded clothes, but now the situation has taken a tectonic shift as youngsters and almost all modern Indian folks I see around me wear nothing but super-brands like Levis and Burberry. It is a part of the New-Indian culture that women and men who earn well are supposed to maintain an ostentatious standard of living; and such lifestyles have already resulted in mega-brands from Levis to Louis Vuitton, from Dior to Hulsta flooding the Indian market. Gurgaon, the city where I now live boasts of housings 43 malls including the biggest, Mall of India, giving Gurgaon the 3rd highest number of malls in an Indian city.

I believe that superstores like Metro and Wal-Mart will do well in these cosmopolitan urban locations, and surely enough the government has laid down specifications forbidding foreign retailers from setting-up their stores in locations falling short of ten lakh (one million) in population. Another imperative laid down by the Indian government necessitates retail stores to shop 30% of their goods from local farmers and small business owners. This move, in my opinion, will definitely cut the middle-man conducting business deals out and lead cash flow directly into the hands of the retailers.

.In the political fairground of India the government’s decision of giving the “aye” to this major open-market movement has already started creating political controversies with politicians hailing from the opposition sector retorting to acerbic vocabulary in demeaning the government’s move. Uma Bharti, a major political-thespian in India belonging to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) condemning the government’s act of easing FDI rules said she would "set fire to the first Wal-Mart store whenever it opens here, regardless of the consequences”. Another politician, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Mayawati, was vociferous on the issue too slamming the government for its irrational move.

In conclusion, it remains to be seen whether the Indian consumers are ready to change the way they have been shopping. It sure behooves them to use their discretion in choosing the method of shopping that suits them. And even though political parties with differing opinions may prescribe affirmative or negative results of the governmental move, the whole effect of this open-door-welcome scheme will beget its results only when both the Indian consumer and the big-box retailers join hands in agreement. And sure many Indians preferring in-home delivery of groceries from their local shops will need more than just average discounts to be lured to the doors of Wal-Mart and others of its like.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Perfect One, Where Art Thou?

Picture from: http://www.wolfescape.com/Humour/MenWomen.htm

What’s with women and perfectness. I can’t help but notice all the talks about women and perfect men. Step into a clique of unmarried young women and all you hear will be the bla..bla..blas about that perfect partner. Women just can’t stop talking or fantasizing about the perfect man, who will jump right out of a storybook, come riding on his steed to woo and win them and take them away from the divinity forsaken festering Gehenna the world is becoming to a paradise called perfection. And there they will live happily ever after.

 Everywhere I go, be it out in the world, or on the social networking websites, I am haunted by talks about this mythical creature: the perfect man.  Apparently, every girl is looking for him, and those who have found him, or think they did, are trying to further perfecticize him. Blame those pieces of trashy vampire lit, or whatever is de rigueur in chick lit, but there is no getting away from the perfect-man-syndrome that all your friends are experiencing which ultimately lead to the disease called unhappy-for-life-because-of-irrational-expectations.

I may sound like an irrational prick, but open your Face book and read the wall-posts of happy and unhappy women on your friend-lists. Chances are that you will find at least five to ten posts, depending on how large your friend-list is, every day on topics like men, men’s love for women, their perfectness, and eternal faith that an unmarried women with no boyfriend must have on her stars that one day Prince Charming will come right outta his storybook world and straight up to her, and then they will go together on a junket. All the woman needs to do is to bite on wisdom cookies worth ten-pence and wait. What a load of bollocks!

Even celebrities with dolled-up figures and nose-jobs are looking for the perfect one, waiting, as I like to put it, for him to perform the above mentioned feats. And they seem to be having no luck either. Evidence: all celebrities are either divorced, or unmarried, or (un) happily married. Look at Kim Kardashian. Who thought the K-factor wouldn’t work? The point is, when celebrities with perfect fixings cannot have that perfect man, how can we, normal women with mediocre skin and ample cellulite hope to have him?

But does that mean that we should settle for less? Certainly not. I think we should have the perfect one, only we should specify in solid terms how perfect a person has to be to be called perfect. Or more exactly, what are the qualities that qualify a man as perfect: does he have to have a pair of wings or a long nose to prove he is unique? Ask a women and she would look askance, become positively irked and say all of the following: a perfect man has to be handsome, tall, well-qualified, rich, have to have a nice family, no criminal records, no past girlfriends, he has to love me more than anything in this world, and oh yes, he has to be perfect. I wonder if the speaker listens to how she sounds as she utters any or all of the above mentioned. I am sure she too will feel that such a male partner is found in fiction only, and not in real world. Then why waste your time looking for him? Why not aim a bit low and find slightly imperfect elements available readily in the market. 

And, while we are on the subj, don’t you think that men are also looking for perfection in women the same way as women. The question that rises now is whether women with sky-high expectations of perfectness willing to be all that she expects in the male half of the sketch, save for that past “girlfriend” part of course; however, I am sure a perfect guy won’t mind that eitherJ. The answer to the above question would definitely be a firm negative. We can at first be deluded and emotional and end up loving somebody beyond belief, but then we get our senses back and we distribute our love: part of it goes to regular retain therapy, part to family and friends, part to pets, a only a pizza-part to that man How can we shower all our love on one man, that’s insane, besides we have only so much love to deal with. We can’t afford to put it all in one place. As for past affairs and other important records are concerned, let’s not open that archive, okay?

As we approach the tail-end of this discussion, I suddenly feel the urge of advising all those women who are deluding themselves with visions of false perfectness. I am no expert in this matter, but I always have an opinion, and these days it’s all that matters. So babes, I think perfectness is boring. Think about it: a gal marrying a man and living happily ever after in a perfect citadel of romance. Is there anything more boring than that? With nothing to fight about, no domestic altercations, no differences of opinions you would feel you are living a subnormal existence. Imagine how boring life must have been for Cinderella, Snow White and Sleeping Beauty!

When writing fiction we are told to keep in mind the fact that hell is interesting; I say when talking about relationships a bit of hell taken in moderation add wonders to the relation. Moreover, there is more fun in perfecting, or rather customizing an imperfect specimen over a life time rather than having an already perfect one delivered on our platter. We will have no use for him.

Finally, when you are hoping to select one gander from a basket full of juicy ones, aim low. Don’t expect your gander will be the best one, or in other words the perfect one.  Do that and we will all shall live happily ever after.

Picture from:  http://elfofart.deviantart.com/art/The-Perfect-Man-197040944

Sunday, October 23, 2011

The festival of lights

Some pictures of our home getting ready for Diwali:

The Kitchen Gets a Makeover

Floating Beauties

Sweet Offering




Raja-Rani Dolls

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Flavors of Bengal: A trip to the land of culture during its biggest festival, Durga Puja

The season of celebration is here with its luxuriant hues. A sudden conspiracy of lush green, slow currents of air moving; wafting with them is a smell of coolness, of shadowed tree trunks, of shady leaves, ferns. White headed Kashful nod their feather-light forms to announce that the goddess is here. The leaves of autumn, the orange-stemmed siuli flowers all herald the coming. On the early autumnal morning of Mahalaya, an auspicious occasion observed seven days before the Durga Puja, the whole of Bengal rises up in the chilly pre-dawn hours, to tune in to the “Mahisasura Mardini” broadcast on All India Radio (AIR).This two hour radio program is an exquisite audio montage of recitation from scriptural verses, devotional songs, and classical music and has overtime become an intrinsic part of the celebratory season. The legendary narrator Birendra Krishna Bhadra in soaring Sanskrit narrates the story of the annihilation of the demon Mahisasura, “Mahisasura Mardini”. His voice, immanent, inescapable, like thump of heart, invokes the demon-diminishing ‘Durgatinashini, Devi Durga’.  The goddess acquiesces.  With her four children by her side, Laxmi, Saraswati, Ganesha and Kartikeya, the divine consort of Lord Shiva, our beloved Maa Durga, descends on earth to celebrate the season of happiness with her devotees.

Although Durga puja is widely celebrated around India and abroad, it is regarded as the most significant socio-cultural event in the Bengali society. In West Bengal and Tripura, which have the majority of Bengali people, it is the biggest festival of the year. During Durga puja the face of Kolkata, the capital city of West Bengal, changes overnight. There is festive fever and frenzy. The goddess becomes the muse bringing out the best in her devotees; the city becomes a jorum of art as the goddess descends in every street pandal (the temporary structures that house the goddess and her family) and in every home that celebrate her auspicious advent.

Kolkata, being my maternal home, has always been favorite city. Having a close connection with this city, I always grab a chance of visiting the myriad hued conurbation during the season of celebration. Amidst hectic academic schedule, when the chance of attending Durga puja in West Bengal came across, I embraced the prospect with open arms.


Late in the afternoon of Saptami, loaded with baggage as I disembarked at the Sealdah Railway Station in Kolkata and smelled the whiff of fresh autumnal air redolent of celebratory enthusiasm, excitement reigned. When I observed the Kolkata after two and a half years of absence, it struck me as quintessential as always. The yellow taxis were there, the rush, the traffic were there, and the people, wide-eyed and excited were there too. Entering the city, I heard the unmistakable sound of dhaak (Indian drum) accompanied by the obvious smell of burning incense and caught sight of one or two of the numerous pandals, temporary structures impleached with creativity housing the goddess and her family. There in the taxi on my way home, I got reacquainted with sights and sounds of the City of Joy seeped in its celebratory joyfulness.

The elegance of Kolkata during Durga puja lies undoubtedly in the city’s artistic depictions of the goddess in her hundred different avatars. Every local club celebrating Durga puja becomes abuzz with activity months before the celebratory season incepts planning on their showcasing of the goddess, their choice of pandal decoration. Although such artistic hype have undermined the religious significance of the celebration, the true spirit of the season remains unfrayed as  more and more people take to the streets during the four days of puja inspecting the various scaffolds and the gods within them and passing their artistic judgment.

This year I had the chance of reviewing some of the famous creative seats of the goddess. From the artistically alive, snazzy theme pujas of South Kolkata to the convention oriented somber pujas of suburban West Bengal; I observed the seasonal favorites and their myriad hues.


Saptami Crowd
In the evening of Saptami, I embarked on my noctivagant journey of imbibing the festive favorites. I found the streets full of people, lovers, revelers, men, women and children walking in narrow alleys and streets thick with perfume and smell of fried foods, their new clothes sweat-pasted on their forms. As I walked my way through the crowd, I couldn’t help but wonder about the numinous energy that draws people out of their homes in the wee hours of the night and makes them traverse over-populated backstreets and passageways in the hope of catching one glimpse of the goddess and her family. What is it, I wondered, that attracts modest human beings out of their beds and into the streets to celebrate seasonal happiness? Is it the goddess, or simply the spirit of the season she unleashes in human minds that transforms all grimaces into grins and renders all routines null-and-void?  It is both I concluded, having woken up from my reverie by the blare of bhepu, a portmanteau of the Vuvuzela and a blow horn, this soft cardboard made (un) musical instrument is highly popular in the festive season among young adults.
Singhi Park

The South Kolkata puja scene being incomplete without visits to the famous duo: Singhi Park and Egdalia Evergreen Club, I began my travelling spree with the former. Singhi Park, one of the oldest and most renowned haunts of south Kolkata, dates back to 1941. The puja has always preferred to be the antithesis of theme pujas in continuing the traditional way of worshipping the goddess, and this year is no exception. Their 62-ft pandal adorned with items used during any Hindu festival like conch shells, drums, bells, etc., was a replica of the Dakhineswar Temple. It had a creamy-white facade with red borders. The goddess and her family within were as traditional as the pandal. The tall and imposing goddess, embellished in her finery observed the proceedings with her fiery eyes. Although traditional in their choice of pandal décor and idol depiction, Singhi Park experimented amply with their lighting. Massive ceremonial gates adorned with scintillating light bulbs depicting traditional and modern motifs and contemporary incidents in their dazzling canvasses were placed in the entrance and egress area.


Egdalia Evergreen Club, the cultural brethren of the aforementioned Singhi Park, took the experimental route. Established in 1943 this popular puja is known for its innovations in designs and lighting. This year they came up with an Indo-German fusion creation that touched the heights of artistic creativity in depicting the traditional concepts in the fabric of modern art. The Mandap was the replica of an urban city road with footpaths and traffic signals. World renowned artist Gregor Schneider lent his ideas and concepts to this puja.

FD Block, Salt Lake, Kolkata

As South Kolkata shuffled between traditional and modern themes, the Durga Puja at FD Block Salt Lake, Kolkata, preferred to present thing big. At the venue a 40-ft Durga idol in golden created out of fiberglass emanated her aureate aura as onlookers stood spellbound at her feet gazing at her Brobdingnagian structure. Surrounding the idols were 12 temples, symbolizing 12 jyotirlingas. On the right side of the colossal fiberglass idol was another pandal with a huge Shiva in the Nataraj form.

The Suruchi Sangha puja at New Alipore, which is among the biggest crowd-pullers for its innovative themes, incorporated the majestic state of Kashmir facing an environmentally uncertain future in their theme. Its original conceptualization of bringing to life the ecological issues and thereby inculcating the audience to be more concerned about the environment won them many accolades.
The Goddess being decorated

The cultural extravaganza of Durga puja took a tectonic shift for me when after inspecting the famous pujas of south Kolkata I headed for the home of my in-laws in Kalyani, a suburb of Kolkata. The majestic idols gave way to modest pujas, the colossal pandals to homely scaffolds, the trendy clothes to traditional attire; in short the whole festive circuit suddenly began to course on a different track.

On the morning of Ashtami dressed in my best sari as I walked into the homes of one of the acquaintances, a family that has been celebrating Durga puja in the traditional style, I realized the change for the first time. The Ashtami anjali (offering, prayer) was about to begin and the goddess was being decorated. In a small four-walled minimalistic room the brass-bodied deity was adorned with a number of garlands made of: hibiscus, orange and yellow marigold, Bel leaves, tuberose and many more. The daughter of the priest put on the adornments with conscious attention as the onlookers watched the proceedings with clasped hands and welled-up eyes. If devotion were tangible, I am sure I could locate it in that little overpopulated room.  The supreme omnipotent majesty stripped off her thematic fineries struck me for the first time as Uma, the daughter of the house; her nectariously sweet face devoid of made-up art was as natural as it could be.

The Ashtami puja terminated with the distribution of fol (fruit) Prasad and the quintessential khichri bhog. Khichri, the trademark celebratory dish of Durga puja is a blend of rice and lentils and is served in hot dollops on banana-leaf plates along with fried accompaniments like eggplant fry, thin slices of eggplant dipped in gram flour and deep fried, and cabbage curry. But festival foods for Bengalis are never complete without sweets of various kinds. Milky treats like payasam, and traditional Bengali sweets like rosogollas, sondesh and mishti doi are also served as part of the Mahastami bhog.  
Sweet Offerings

Taking about foods popular in the festive season one must never ignore the endless flavors available in the street shops. During the puja time the market for street food is certainly, unequivocally as high as home-made and restaurant made delicacies. The options are endless too: chow mein, egg-rolls, panipuri, popcorn, ice-cream, idli, dosa, biryani and many more. Pandal hopping Bengalis often slow down for a bite of fast-food and the disposable plates and ice-cream sticks that line the side-streets outside any puja pandal are a testament to the fact that people love to indulge in the scrumptious delicacies available on the go. 

I too indulged in some of the festive flavors as I made my way to the popular pandals of the Kalyani. The Central Park Durga puja is the biggest in the area and attracted a large crowd. When I walked into the pandal on the eve of Navami, Dhunuchi Nach was being performed. 'Dhunuchi nritya' or ‘the dance with effervescent smoke' is a traditional dance form Bengal, which is performed in front of the idol of the Goddess Durga to the sound of dhak, the traditional drums.

Dhunuchi Ntritya, Central Park, Kalyani

A dhunuchi is an earthen pot with a funnel base and an open top. Burning coconut shells is put inside and then powdered incense, known as Dhuno (powdered smoke producing incense), is poured over it to create the atmosphere. A sweet smelling thick white smoke spreads and engulfs your senses. Then with the Dhakis and their drum beats, the Dhunuchi dancers balance the earthen pots, with the base delicately placed on their palms, between their teeth or on foreheads. They then dance to the drum beats with the burning Dhunuchis. The deep percussion of the dhaak, embellished sometimes with long white or multi-colored feathers, and rhythmic movement of the dhaakis, is inseparable part of the Durga Puja celebrations.

As the dancer performed his steps I stared at the goddess’s face for a good five minutes. The face visible through a miasma of smoke seemed to be bursting with life. The iridal dark-brown of the goddesses eyes seem to shine with majestic brilliance, the margaric smile that lined her lips, frozen, seemed to dilate with vitality. For a moment I felt transported, elevated into a different hemisphere, into a spiritual limbo where I heard nothing but the drum beats and saw nothing but the three glittering eyes of the earthen goddess.

After taking a full dose of cultural ecstasy, indulging in finger-licking good food, and spending time with loved ones, I witnessed the finale of the festive season. Vijaya Dasmi, the last day of the Durga Puja sung the farewell paean. On the eve of her sendoff, the goddess was smeared with vermillion, fed sweets and entreated to come back once again the following year.

Bidding the goddess adieu

At the epilogue of the saga, the four days of fun and frolic, of pandal-hopping and puja greetings struck me as some photic illusion. Married women with faces and partings rubescent with vermillion, children still under the hypnotic state of joy, young men who had to return to work, and geriatrics who couldn’t wait to get their children and grandchildren back the coming year all bade the beloved Devi Durga goodbye with tears in their eyes. I too joined the crowd and prayed for divine mercy and hoped to re-indulge in the season of celebration the upcoming year.

“Asche bochor abar hobe” (It'll happen again next year)!!

Non-English Words Used in the Blog-post:

1.      Dhaak— drum
2.      Saptami, astami, navami, vijaya dasami— four days of Durga Puja
3.      Durga puja — The worship of Goddess Durga, a Hindu festival. To know more about it you may read: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Durga_Puja