Despite efforts by external forces to homogenise our Hindu festivals, for us in Kolkata, Deepavali has always been Kali Pujo, a very different kettle of fish
I’m now completing 25 Deepavalis in Delhi. Before that, I spent them in Kolkata. Not that they have Deepavali in Kolkata. A few non-Bengalis celebrate it, tucked away in their non-Bengali homes, but for the rest of us, Deepavali was something we watched Kareena and Shah Rukh celebrate in the movies, with costumes and catering by Karan Johar.
Despite efforts by external forces to homogenise our Hindu festivals, for us in Kolkata, Deepavali has always been Kali Pujo, a very different kettle of fish. The mood was usually sombre. We had just finished stuffing ourselves during Durga Puja, and most of us were still consuming Gelusil. Acid reflux was rampant. The air was full of dashed hopes. The young men of Bengal had started dressing up from shoshthi, hopeful that this year, finally, they would get a girl. Failure on saptami did not dampen their enthusiasm — there were still three days to go. By ashtami, doubt was beginning to set in, and on the afternoon of nabami, the first glimmerings of hopelessness.
Even worse were the feelings of those who briefly tasted success, when the girl of their dreams allowed them to pay for an egg chicken roll, regardless of what the raw onions did to their breath. This was the unkindest cut of all, because two days after the pujas, the same girl would fail to recognise them at the bus stop.
This is how it has always been. By the time Kali Pujo comes around, the bitterness of defeat has fully sunk in, combined with the knowledge that in less than a year, the whole cycle of hope and despair will repeat itself. This is why the city of Kolkata has always been prone to violence.
It also explains why so many Bengali young men develop an appetite for destruction and try to make their own fireworks, leading to a surge in the demand for ambulances in the week prior to Kali Pujo. This tradition goes back to the days of the revolutionaries, who would manufacture bombs to chuck at the British. As I once discovered, this tradition has also left a deep impression on the Hindi heartland.
As a stripling, I once spent three days on an assignment in Hardoi, in the heart of the Chambal belt, where everyone carried a gun, except for the poor, who carried metal tipped lathis. I tiptoed around very nervously, but my inherent idealism led to an outburst on the third day. “Why do you all carry guns?” I demanded of a man carrying a gun. “Can’t you see that violence is not the answer?” He was having a cup of tea at the time. He sipped it thoughtfully, looked at me and said, with no trace of rancour, “You’re Bengali, aren’t you?”. I said I was. “In Calcutta, you have a lot of bombs, don’t you?” he said. I admitted that we did. “Well, here we don’t have so many bombs,” he said, “so we manage with guns instead.”
As you can see, Kali Pujo in Kolkata is very different from Deepavali in Delhi, bringing with it a host of mental problems, as opposed to the physical problems of gluttony and alcoholism. Personally, I find this encouraging. Efforts are currently on to make us all homogeneous. It’s very similar to China, where everyone is being standardised, and non-standard people are shot. So it’s nice to know that however hard they try, some little bits of us, that they cannot see, will always be disturbingly different.
No one throws any bombs in Shovon Chowdhury’s most recent novel, Murder With Bengali Characteristics, although the New Thug Society does strangle a few people.