Emotions. Homecoming. Togetherness. Durga Puja is synonymous with all these and more.
It is the most awaited festivity of the year that goes far and beyond than just a religious carnival. It is that time of the year you gaga over new clothes, have that extra plate of biryani, or gulp down a couple more phuchka while pandal hopping, and when you completely forget the extra calories. No matter which corner of the world you are in, it is time to come back home to your family and catch up with your childhood friends over ‘pujor adda‘.
Durga Pujo is unique this year in Kolkata—the heartland of the pujo — because of an unusual astronomical occurrence and the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic. It is when your heart yearns to return home, irrespective of which part of the world you reside in. So despite the pandemic, and without any travel this year since January, Durga Pujo quite naturally became my highlight of the year, and the reason to get on a flight after 8 months to enjoy the pujo in Kolkata, my home town. Even with restrictions and so much uncertainty, the moment you are in Kolkata during this time of the year, you can smell that the Pujo is in the air. Am never that much of a “Bengali” per se, but during the Pujo I can't resist the inner bong. It's tough not to venture out and check out the pandals, grab that roll or the fish fry, to miss out on the bhog, and not to have that adda with the friends, some things that make Pujo special.
I identify myself as an atheist, or at least I don't understand or connect with any religion, but for me, the Durga Pujo is far beyond than just a religious event. It is an emotion, that's hard to miss. I have taken leaves and caught the flight at the last moment to spend just a few days in Kolkata during the pujo. It's like a calling.
The Pujo will be different this year though.
For the first time in recent memory, there will be a gap of an unprecedented 35 days between the Mahalaya and Durga Puja. This gap, generally, is of 6 days. A rare astronomical occurrence has created this unique situation whereby Devi Durga will be worshipped 35 days after the day of Mahalaya.
Also in for the first time ever, no one will be allowed to go inside the pandals this year to reduce the crowds and tackle the widespread Coronavirus.
So what's different about this Mahalaya?
Worshippers of Devi Durga follow two competing schools of almanac: Bisuddha Siddhanta and Surya Siddhanta. This year, both the almanacs have agreed on this unusual schedule. This aberration has happened because of the occurrence of a phenomenon called ‘mala mash’ - a lunar month which has two new moons–Amavasya.
According to a particular Hindu belief, no auspicious rites and rituals can be performed in such a month. So, the 6-day gap between Mahalaya and Durga Puja has a divergence of an additional gap of an extra month.
Now, add this unique astronomical occurrence with the pandemic and for the first time since the inception of its Durga Puja in Sovabazar Rajbari, the residents of Kolkata and the public-at-large will not be allowed to enter to witness this historical puja. The Rajbari Puja is the first Durga Puja in Kolkata since the Battle of Plassey in 1757 in the palace of Raja Nabakrishna Deb Bahadur—the erstwhile Raja of Kolkata and Munshi of Robert Clive. As per the tradition, even today, no Durga idol in Kolkata is immersed into the river Ganga on the day of the Bijoya Dashami, until the idol of the palace is immersed.
And, how the pandemic changed the Pujo this time?
This year has robbed us all of the joy of celebrating our favorite festivals. Like Ganesh Chaturthi, Ramadan, Durga Puja 2020 in Kolkata too was toned down in the interest of public safety. Pandals, this year, avoided extravagant decorations and installments to keep the not-so-obedient indoors. This was a year of simple celebrations, almost like going back in time centuries ago when Durga Puja was more of a family celebration than public. This year was about spending some quality time with loved ones.
In West Bengal, the government has banned all kinds of cultural programs, carnivals, or fairs, near puja pandals for the Durga Puja of 2020. All pandals are to be constructed in an open and spacious manner to allow enough room for social distancing. Just Before the Pujos the High court also announced that no one will be allowed to enter the Pandals this year in the interest of public safety. The first time in the history of Durga Pujo. Within an area of 5 and 10 meters around the small and big pandals, respectively, it will be a no-entry zone for visitors. Only organizers may enter the area with the names of those with permission to be displayed outside.
Still, there was quite a crowd especially on the Saturday and Sunday nights, with many going out on bikes and cars and trying to catch the pujo albeit staying at a distance. But still very less compared to the usual times. The roads were not clogged like last year, the restaurants not packed, the roads comparatively quite empty, and no one in the pandals. This year was very different from the ones I am used to. Pandal hopping and late nights are what defined the Pujo for me, but that was amiss this year.
But the biggest impact I felt was for the street hawkers, shopkeepers, small and local businesses that thrived on the Pujo crowd. With the pandemic, this section of the society has been badly hit since March and still continue to face the biggest brunt. The local artists, the musicians, dancers who performed each year in so many cultural programs faced many hardships as well. Without the crowds near the pandals, the economic losses were also very high. But 2020 has been a testing year for everyone. And we will come out stronger than ever, together.
The times are testing, and the festival season is meant for celebrations and gatherings. But given the circumstances, this Pujo was a different kind of celebration. But that didn't dampen our spirits. This year we enjoyed a safe puja with the family and dear ones by staying at home. Many of the grand pujas went online on different social media channels so that you could still do pandal hopping while lounging indoors only. But even if you went out there was a lot of effort done by the police and volunteers to make sure everyone was wearing a mask and keeping the distance.
What we missed this year?
The 300-year old Shobhabazar Raj Bari, Maddox Square Park, and the numerous other pandals that fill up Kolkata were the places I could not add to my list this year. I dearly missed the Bhogs we used to feast upon as a family each year, with cousins, grandparents, and relatives. Eating the Mutton Kosha on the Navami is one of the fondest memories of Pujo for me since I can remember. Sadly, the all-night pandal hopping with old and new friends, with the cousins was also not possible.
Oh, 2020, what have you done!!
But instead of going out, eating at home with family was the highlight of pujo this time. Enjoying grand meals made by mom and then off to the grandmothers' for some more. Ended up experimenting with fish in the kitchen to cook some yummy snacks for the family. Spending time with family and venturing out for a couple of hours was pujo for us this time.
Highlights from the Ghosh's kitchen this time.
Vijaya Dashami is celebrated with a lot of enthusiasm and rejoice at Bengali houses. This year as well we enjoyed a good dinner with the big family get together and pot luck from each household.
Durga Puja or Durgotsav brings together people from all caste, creed, religion, and walks of life in a unanimous celebration of togetherness under Goddess Durga’s blessings, making it one of Indian’s grandest festivals. As the coronavirus rages in India and the world, we ask Ma Durga to shower upon us her blessings, so that “Asche Bochor Abar Hobe” (Ma Durga will visit us next year as well)
Happy puja, everyone! Asche Bochor Abar Hobe! Bolo Durga maye ki joy!