Bayswater Road, London 1972: A large terraced town house with steps leading up to an imposing black door, flanked by white neo-doric columns with a row of doorbells, neatly labelled, to one side. No different from any other on that street except that as we, me and my brothers, are bundled out of the car and stand, in freshly polished shoes, gazing up at the hexagonal brass doorknob above our heads we can hear a hellish din from inside. The door swings open and we are suddenly engulfed in a riot of sound and smell and colour: blaring conches, women ululating, the clash of cymbals, frenzied drumming, wafting clouds of incense. Bright-eyed, brown-faced strangers push paper bags full of grapes and sandesh into our hands as we fight our way through the jungle of sari-clad and dhoti-swaddled legs towards the epicentre of this mad swirl. There, at the eye of the storm, is Kali, a four-foot-high figurine, garlanded with marigolds and skulls, her many arms raised as if to strike, her bloody tongue pointing down to the prostrate body beneath her feet, her stormy eyes blazing, black and red.
For a seven-year-old kid, whose close encounters of the divine kind had until then only stretched as far as singing ‘Gentle Jesus Loves Little Children’ with the rest of the Brownie troupe at the local church hall, this was all a bit much. The drums conjured up images of missionaries up to their bellybuttons in some cannibal’s cook-pot. The sudden shock that this alien deity had something to do with me, that somehow oddly she belonged to me or, more accurately, that I belonged to her, was too much to cope with, as I stood there, mouth crammed with crumbly sweetmeats, agog, aghast, waiting to have my poor white soul trampled to dust beneath her dancing, hennaed feet.
I remember a similar feeling, lying speechless with fear, as my mother read us Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner as our bedtime story. The image of Death riding by with ‘blood-red lips’ kept me wide-eyed and wakeful, staring into the night, long after I should have dropped off to sleep. It has been one of my mother’s abiding beliefs that no matter how tender your years, ‘there’s nothing wrong with a bit o’ culture’. Although I have had many occasions both before and since to question the wisdom of this view, now that I am to all intents and purposes ‘grown-up’ I am also grateful to her for having, from time to time, chucked us in at the deep end. Perhaps this is why my brothers and I have turned out to be such strange fish, swimming against or with conflicting cultural streams, and often to be found splashing around at their confluence.
New Delhi, October 1997: Waiting at the domestic airport terminal, bags packed, ready to head off for Calcutta, for Durga puja. I feel again a small, familiar fear. I can’t place it at first—something more than the usual fluttery anxiety of travelling. Then, once I am safely strapped into the aeroplane seat, with no place left to go but inwards, I realize that under this woman’s skin is a little girl, bewildered and overwhelmed by a puja held in a London town house twenty-five years ago. No matter that that was Kali and this is Durga and I am now a strapping thirty-two-year-old. There is still that feeling that we are about to enter the Danger Zone, between the sacred and the mundane, where the divine is destructive, where images can see, where the supernatural is invited into, and enters our mortal space, where idols get up and walk.
Calcutta anyway is unlike anywhere else on earth. For its colour and variety, its teeming streets and picaresque characters, its stench and awfulness, its surreal signboards, its cheerful weirdness, one could never dream up Calcutta—and yet there it is: my dreamscape, my nightmare, my birthplace.
According to Hindu mythology, when Vishnu dismembered Kali to stop her dance of destruction, he scattered the fifty-two pieces of her corpse across the world. The little toe of her right foot landed next to the banks of the Hooghly, and there Kalikata was founded. A swampy, benighted backwater, until Job Charnock pitched his tents here, driving the thin end of the imperial wedge into Bengal’s fertile soil. Or, as Kipling, the old doggeralist, put it:
Thus the midday halt of Charnock—more’s the pity!
Grew a City
As the fungus sprouts chaotic from its bed
So it Spread
Chance-directed, chance-erected, laid and built
On the Silt
Palace, byre, hovel—poverty and pride—
Side by side
And, above the packed and pestilential town,
Death looked down.
Geoffrey Moorhouse describes it as having ‘probably the filthiest climate on earth’, which Mark Twain described, with characteristic pithiness, as ‘enough to make a doorknob mushy ’. But for me, Calcutta has always been a magical place. In the many-layered splendour of its decay, it is to most European cities what Miss Havisham’s wedding cake is to a McVities digestive biscuit, and, as I was about to discover, at Navratri—Durga Puja—its run-of-the-mill extraordinariness takes on a whole new dimension.
The ten-day, nine-night period is a time of rejoicing all over India, but whereas in other north Indian cities what is celebrated is Dusshera, the victory of Ram over the evil Ravana, for Bengalis this is a time to relive the epic battle between Durga and Mahisa, the son of the Demon King, Rambha, and a she-buffalo.
The story of Durga slaying the buffalo-demon Mahisa is a complex one and has many different variants. It was first recorded in the Vamana Purana and then elaborated in the Devi Bhagavata Purana, the Devi Mahatmyam and the Kalika Purana. The bare bones run as follows: the gods were afraid of the increasing power of Mahisa, and in order to placate him, Brahma granted him a boon, that he could never be killed by a man. In one version of the myth, Mahisa falls in love with Durga and, in order to woo her, changes shape from a buffalo to a handsome young man. Although she initially welcomes his advances, and professes friendship, the goddess is enlisted by other deities, including her husband, Shiva, to kill him. Each of the gods arms her with a sacred weapon—a sword, a chakra, a trident and so on—with which to fight her adversary. There follows a bloody and bloodthirsty war lasting ten thousand years between Durga and her erstwhile suitor, culminating in the mother of all battles in which she kills him twice over: once in his demon-buffalo form and again in his human form, as it springs forth from the slain buffalo’s severed neck.
In one sense, this is a simple victory of good over evil. But the Goddess herself is not so easily contained. In her book, The Divine and the Demonic, Carmel Berkson writes that ‘The Calcutta Bengalis have managed to obliterate [Durga’s] ferocious aspect from consciousness during the ten days of the festival. Now she is the creatrix, a charming, nectarous, exquisite queen with long luxuriant black hair and applepink cheeks and bosom. For these festivities only, the treacherous deadly nature of the Goddess has been entirely camouflaged, although only a month later, as Kali, she will demand and receive the blood sacrifices due to her…’
I’m not so sure. To me, the juxtaposition of Durga’s radiant and serene face and Mahisa’s twisted and agonized body seems to symbolize detachment and destruction at one and the same time.
The plane descends, dragging in its wake the curtain of dusk. My uncle and cousins are there to greet me, all warmth and smiles, as we are driven in a cavernous old Ambassador taxi through the muggy evening to the heart of the city. Calcutta’s traffic is slower and more viscous than that of Delhi or Bombay. The cars honk rather than beep, their fat, black clown hooters producing a kind of sonorous flatulence which may sound concerned, surprised or just resigned but never angry or impatient. Brightly painted trucks lumber along, and the splendid old trams rattle their bones along tracks first laid over a century ago. The buses look dog-eared and mauled about, as though some metal-munching monster had woken up to find his pantry bare and nothing but these tough old workhorses to chew on.
The sun gracefully bows out and with a wave of dusk’s magic wand, the lights are switched on and the city is suddenly transformed from Black Hole to Blackpool. We drive past ponds transformed from pestilential, slimy tracts of brackish water, choked with water hyacinth and plastic bags, to shimmering carpets of light magically multiplying the pictures that dance and sparkle above them. I’ve always been a sucker for low-tech wonder—give me a ghee-filled diya over a high-tech laser-show any day—and the lighting specialists of Calcutta are masters of their art, working miracles with a few metres of wire, a pair of pliers, a bit of coloured paper and some string.
Apart from traditional religious iconography and having a strong fifty-year-of-Independence flavour this year, these tableaux vivants also depict current events. So you’ll have Gandhi-ji spinning glittering khadi on an electric charka next to Saurav Ganguly—the darling of Bengal cricket—hitting a six off a different kind of spinner, and the crowd going wild. The celebrity dead are reincarnated in glittering light: Mother Teresa, who had died in September, shaking hands with Princess Diana who had met her maker the month before. The streets themselves effervesce and glow. Green neon strips hang from trees and row upon row of fairy lights are strung along poles, adorning shop fronts, framing windows and outlining roofs. One whole street is lined with flapping green parrots carrying multi-tiered chandeliers in their beaks. On another, blue elephants hold aloft umbrellas in their trunks to keep a steady golden shower falling on to their backs. Olympian flames leap up from huge columns—an effect achieved by a light and a fan inside the column angled upwards blowing a cylinder of orange silk up into the night sky. But my favourite is of two motorcyclists chasing a car into a tunnel and the car going kaboom.
The conjunction of the sacred and the profane, which in almost any other culture would result in a collision as sharp and fatal as Diana and Dodi’s Mercedes, is here absorbed, absolved and celebrated. Workers prepare for the festival months in advance, creating the images, erecting the tents or pandals in which they are to be worshipped, working out the complex lighting displays. As Durga puja approaches, Calcutta is gripped by an air of intense competition as pandal committees collect money from their neighbourhoods and strive to create the best, most unusual, largest, brightest and biggest displays in the city. And, in the past at least, if the social pressure of keeping up with the Banerjees wasn’t sufficiently strong, or your religious convictions did not quite match your family purse, the local committees were not averse to sending some less-than-spiritually motivated henchmen round to collect their dues.
Calling the pandals ‘tents’ is like calling the Taj Mahal a big tomb. Constructed from bamboo scaffolding and covered with cloth, these temporary structures are bigger and more substantial-looking that most of the buildings themselves, which makes wandering around Calcutta a distinctly surreal experience (more so than usual, I mean).
Turning a familiar corner, you are suddenly confronted with a glowing edifice where there used to be a simple street. Many of the pandals are copies of existing temples—of the Birla Mandir for example, or the temples at Dakhineshwar—so they look both familiar and utterly out of place. Freud had a word for this—unheimlich. Literally meaning ‘un-homelike’, it is most often translated as ‘uncanny’ which is the nearest you can get to capturing this sense of the weird, foreign, strange, carried within the body of the ordinary.
The old buildings of Calcutta, crumbly and permeable at the best of times, look like you could cut into them with a blunt pair of scissors, while I keep mistaking the new ones for pandals, because the plaster is as smooth as the stretched canvas across their bamboo bones. The pandals have fantastic and elaborate façades, with balconies and windows, columns and arches, architraves and recesses. They are made in a day or two and dismantled just as swiftly, which gives the whole city the air of a stage set. It’s a strange, chimerical feeling, especially since the whole place is so brightly lit, whereas it’s usually so dark.
But what on earth has all this got to do with Durga? Bengal’s best-known and most curmudgeonly writer, Nirad C. Chaudhuri, once remarked that ‘Hinduism as a religion is itself secular and has sanctified worldliness by infusing it with moral and spiritual values’. The sociologist T.N. Madan goes one step further to conclude that secularism in India is ultimately ‘a religious idea’. According to him, the separation and privatization of religion, which was thought to be the defining characteristic of secularism in terms of Western Enlightenment thought, is in India an impossibility. At its best, he writes, ‘Indian secularism…stands for religious pluralism in society characterized by mutual goodwill…under the aegis of a nondiscriminatory state.’ All very well in theory, but in practice the success of the Hindu Right in recent years owes much to its ability, not to accommodate religious pluralism—far from it—but to assimilate secular spaces, such that the least religious of things is tinged with saffron.
Moorhouse traces the rise of Durga’s popularity to the turn of the century, when Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay penned Vande Mataram and she was merged with the image of Bharat Mata, the Motherland. Both Kali and Durga were invoked in the name of nationalism, but ‘whereas Durga was for pure symbolism, Kali was for destruction.
Kali is by no means a back-number in Calcutta now, but she has been far outstripped by Durga in popular esteem.’ The image enlisted to symbolize an independent India, free at last from colonial rule, is not, however, such a ‘pure’ one—if it ever was. The twenty years since Moorhouse wrote his book on Calcutta have seen a hideous resurgence of communal sentiment, and the Mother who had previously (at least in theory) enveloped all her children within the billowing folds of her sari now apparently has room only for her Hindu offspring to hide behind her petticoats.
But in the thick of Durga Puja in Calcutta, it is hard not to be won over by a more optimistic vision, where the ancient Hindu traditions of plurality and inclusiveness, and the more recent, but no less dearly held Indian belief in a secular, multi-faith society, are literally spelt out in lights, and manage to outshine—for a while at least—the darker side of India’s political–religious divides. Or, as Moorhouse puts it, ‘While puja is on, Calcutta will not seem such a desperate place after all, there will be renewal in the fairy-lit air, and the promise of hope and better things to come.’
Inside the pandals, the deities themselves: immense, brightly painted effigies that have emerged from the ramshackle sheds and workshops of Kumartuli where craftsmen have spent the past months constructing them from straw and clay. Durga, of course, grabs centre stage, as she skewers Mahisa on her trishul as casually as a socialite spearing a cocktail sausage. Mahisa is looking understandably put out, gazing up at her while trying to avoid being squeezed to death by her cobra and slashed by her lion. The latter is a bemused-looking, frowny beast, more Wizard of Oz than Born Free. Flanking Durga are Saraswati and a white-faced, pink-bodied Ganesh to the left, Lakshmi and Kartik to the right, with sundry owls, rats, swans and so forth in attendance.
The dais is piled high with saris and sweets and bananas and all manner of votive foodstuffs, above which the Goddess rises, garlanded to glory. At regular intervals the drummers start up (these are the dhaak and dhol—the most appropriately onomatopoeic instruments on earth) and your heart cannot help but go dhak-a-dhak-a-dhak in time to their mesmeric beat. Durga’s immense kohl-rimmed eyes seem to sparkle at the sound, and everyone gazes up at her huge form in ecstasy.
From Kalighat to Howrah, Chowringhee to Diamond Harbour, Kidderpore to Ballygunge, the whole city is jam-packed and out on the streets ‘pandal–hopping’ in its best clothes, munching phuchkas and candy floss, wide-eyed kiddies perched on their mothers’ broad, landing-strip hips, clinging on to balloons bigger than they are and enthusiastically blowing hooters. My own family seems reluctant to venture out—‘Arrey, na. It’s terrible. Too crowded,’ is the constant refrain amidst much shaking of heads, sucking in of teeth and passing around of rosogullas. This is quite something bearing in mind that Calcutta has more people per square mile than any other place on earth. Here, one is unthinkable, two is hardly company, three is okay, four is worth getting up for, five is more like it and six hundred is a reasonably cheerful get-together.
On the last night of Navratri, the deities are taken out of the pandals and transported on tempo trucks down to the river banks to be immersed. The roads of Calcutta, hardly navigable at the best of times, become log-jammed as rival processions inch forward against each other at intersections. Traffic cops stand on street corners, their weight on one hip, smoking disconsolately, utterly defeated by the vehicular chaos.
The air becomes blue and noxious as the Durgamobiles chug and pant asthmatically, beneath singing, tooting, clapping, balloon-waving hordes. Each truck has a young chap whose sole responsibility is to pole the overhead tram cables out of the way, so the Goddess’s resplendent headdress doesn’t suddenly become a lightning conductor and tandoori the lot of them. It’s all quite unnerving. One of these processions is heralded by an entire tartan-clad Pipe Band, marching along playing devotional hits on their bagpipes, and looking like they’d be more at home outside Scotland’s Edinburgh Castle than Calcutta’s Fort William.
We finally reach the water’s edge where, one by one, in a suddenly ordered queue, the deities are carried shoulder-high to their final resting place. According to popular belief, on the previous night, Durga is called back home by her husband Shiva, who earlier had granted her leave to visit her parents’ house—which could be Bengal, Calcutta, or simply the Earth. She must now return again to her marital home— the Himalayas, Mount Kailash, her heavenly abode.
At this point, she is transformed from Mahisasura-mardini, the fearsome buffalo-slayer, into the beloved daughter. This is traditionally a period of mourning, during which the older women of the house sit and sing sad songs, blessing their ‘daughter’, lamenting the short time she can spend with them, and urging her to return the next year. The mixed feelings engendered by wedded daughters returning to their husband’s family are played out here on a cosmic scale as the mother becomes the daughter, and the pain of separation played out daily for Indian women in the tug-of-love between their parents’ home and their husband’s family continues even in the heavenly realms.
It is no coincidence that daughters as well as mothers in Bengal are called ‘Ma’. ‘In her daughter,’ writes psychologist Sudhir Kakar, ‘the mother can re-experience herself as a cared-for girl…Mindful of her daughter’s developmental fate, the mother re-experiences the emotional conflicts her own separation once aroused, and this in turn tends to increase her indulgence and solicitude towards her daughter.’
It seems like a harsh fate. Kakar portrays a daughter’s place in her own family as one of ‘honoured guest’ whose ‘real’ family is that of her future husband: ‘when she marries, an Indian girl knows that, in a psychological sense, she can never go home again.’ Becoming a woman, therefore, entails a double homelessness, as though uprootedness is part and parcel of femininity itself, and the close weaves of Indian family ties—the ‘social fabric’—is made up of the warp and weft of female exile and longing.
As we watch Durga and her children being consigned to the river I am suddenly ‘upset by two nostalgias facing each other like two mirrors’, like the wise old Catalonian in Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. In the novel, the old man attempts to stitch together these torn halves by endless and continual travel. Life, however, does not always allow for fiction’s escape routes—I’ve always been a bit of a slow learner, but it’s gradually sinking in—and it is difficult not to feel the power of that symbolic farewell, yearning for the home of my childhood and striving towards an adult home of my own in this uncanny land, as the river, thick with idols, waving or perhaps drowning, slowly adds their heavenly bodies to its thick sediment and carries them away on a tide of coconuts and marigolds into the deepening night.
First published in The India Magazine, January 1998
Reprinted in Memory’s Gold: An Anthology of writings on Calcutta ed. Amit Chaudhuri (Penguin India, 2008)