It is sharat kal in Bengal now--a fleeting season after spring and before fall. A season of receding rains with tranquil sun, blue skies speckled with nonchalant white clouds, air heavy with pollens, sideways sprinkled with shiulis and dried flower petals, and lakes and ponds encircled by kans grass--all of this occasionally ruined by begrudged showers. The streets of Kolkata are teeming with overenthusiastic shoppers carefully avoiding a million (no exaggeration) potholes created in an effort to hold bamboo/metal poles that support a million (again, no exaggeration) decorative lights to brighten the city; with sprouting fast food vendors; and with extremely slow moving traffic. The pavements are beginning to be enclosed by frail bamboo banister in anticipation of millions of visitors, roads are being barricaded to hold up or divert traffic during the pujo, and the thousands and thousands of pujo pandals are getting their finishing touches. The city is almost ready for the greatest festival and spectacle of the year.
For Calcuttans, there's no escape from the pujo. The festival has absolute, even authoritarian, control over the city and its people for as long as it lasts. For months, therefore, people plan and over-plan every detail of their pujo days. They plan--via a series of telephonic conversations, texts, facebook group messages, and pre-pujo-planning-meetings with family and friends--the excursions to admire the pandals all over the city. They, both men and women, plan every attire with careful detail. Women wait in long lines for hours to match blouses with saris and to pair every garment with junk jewellery. And you have never seen shoe stores as crowded as they are in Kolkata a week before the Pujo (no, not even in American outlets on black Fridays). Pujo is no fun if it does not involve wearing uncomfortable new clothes and completely inappropriate shoes for walking (I am pretty sure that Kolkata sells more band-aids on these five days than any other time in any other place on this planet).
Durga pujo--despite its name, which means worship--is more or less a secular festival. The festival is more about coming together as a community, reveling in song, dance, art, food, and friendly banter, even with random strangers than about religion or devotion. The most important markers of Durga pujo, dhaaks (drums) and dhunuchi dance, are not religious, but Bengali cultural symbols that make the whole city gooseflesh together. Then there is the bhog, the ritual food offering first made to the goddess, and then traditionally eaten for lunch by rows of people seated next to each other. The egalitarian nature of these communal feasts is the distinguishing feature of Durga pujo. Anthropologist Jack Goody remarks that while all Indian religious ceremonies come with "large-scale feasting", the "Durga pujo bhog forms part of a silken cultural continuum".
Basically, Durga pujo is about experiencing the Bengali cultural expressions to the fullest. Of pretending (or not) to pay obeisance to the Goddess as an excuse to wear khadi kurtas or white tants with red borders on Ashtami mornings, or to whiff the intoxicating smell of dhuno, or to dance to the dhaaks, or to play with vermilion on Dashami, or to eat narkel naru and nimkis. It is a celebration of freedom, diversity, and communal harmony, since Durga pujo is not just organized by Bengali Hindus but by all inhabitants of Kolkata irrespective of their religion, caste or creed, and we have much to learn from it.