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Sumana Roy
Free Verse

Why does Durga visit Kolkata all alone?

do not know whether I was the only twelve year old who thought that the goddess Durga came to Bengal from her home in the Himalayas to shop for clothes during the autumn 'Clearance Sale' period. Men hated shopping, especially when accompanied by women – this I had discovered by twelve. Was that why Durga travelled alone? There was the overwhelming beauty of autumn – the innocent blue skies, the morning air affectionately moist with dew, the day filled with the sole ambition of turning into a holiday. Why would Durga want to enjoy this beauty alone?

Satyen, in Buddhadeva Bose's novel When the Time is Right (in Arunava Sinha's translation for Penguin), is making a commitment to travel during the 'puja holidays', one that is symptomatic of the Bengali's wanderlust, when he says "But why am I not going? Six days have gone by. This horrible crowded Calcutta of Durga Puja – versus the dimpled green earth. Why do I keep postponing my departure every day?" It is a desire that birthed a genre of travel, the 'Puja Special' that travel agencies have retailed since the mid-twentieth century: adverts for 'Kundu Special' are the stuff of jokes passed on as family inheritance, a promise to bring newness while remaining in the fold of the old, with 'home-like food' and 'ambience', all this to ensure that the Bengali remains comfortably embalmed in his Bengaliness. How can it be otherwise? Durga, married daughter returning home, will of course crave for nostalgia-nursed food, and so must her devotee, the home-away-from-home formula that drives comfort tourism, looking at the world from a tourist bus, the world as television.

In John Donne's poem, The Good Morrow, love is said to make the lovers' "little room" an "everywhere". This is similar to what happens to cities and towns and even villages in Bengal during Durga Puja – the world and its many 'wonders' brought into these spaces as amateur versions of installation art, so that the Bengali can indulge in space-time travel of the most fantastic kind, moving from Eiffel Tower to the pyramids in Egypt in twenty minutes just by walking from one pandal to another.

Here is Satyen again writing to his student (and love), Swati: "On the last day of Durga Puja I took the boat on the Ganga at Benares – it was like seeing the Taj Mahal by full moon, or Diwali in Delhi; half a day at Fatehpur Sikri, two in Jaipur in between; Lucknow, Allahabad, Patna on the way back – all done, and now in Santiniketan". Why is one filled with the desire to see new places particularly at this time of the year? And so the local club must play the role of Kundu Special: paying 'chanda', a donation, to those organising these Puja pandals is cheaper and easier than taking a 'real' holiday. Also, Durga, tired of her life's polarities, her two homes, Kailash and Kolkata, must be in want of other diversions – so this museum of 'abroad', 'bidesh' at home.

What I find most curious is Durga's need to make this journey alone, without her husband or an adult male companion. Being someone whose idea of companionship with her spouse is a private religion unto itself, it strikes me odd, this near abandonment of her husband, Shiva, at this most 'festive' time of the year. And so I ask myself – what makes Durga do that? A child rhyme comes to mind:

Brishti pawrey tapur tupur nawdey elo baan

Shib thakur-er biye holo tin konna daan.

Aek konna raadhen baaren aek konna khan

Aek konna raag korey baaper baari jaan.

It's been raining and the rivers are flooded. Shiva's got married, and three daughters have been given to him. One of them cooks, the other eats; the third, angry with Shiva, leaves for her father's home. So, is that third daughter our Durga?

The Bengali poet Joy Goswami, in writing back to Rabindranath Tagore's canonical poem, Eshechhey Shawrot ('Autumn's Here'), turns Tagore's catalogue of the changes taking place in 'nature' into the changed habits of women during the Durga Puja festival. His word for 'woman' is 'debi', goddess, one that makes the identification between the Durga of the lonely planet and the girls going pandal hopping complete:

Debider haatey phuchka thonga

Debider haatey thanda Coke

Debider mukhey jhalmuri

Pechoney, kobita lekha lok

The 'debi', the women, are eating ice cream, there's also phuchka and jhalmuri and Coke, writes Goswami. In other words, Durga, tired of the domestic violence in Kailash, like these girls, just wanna have fun. But a stalker follows them everywhere – he is a 'kobita lekha lok', a man who writes poems. This poetry-spouting Bengali is a counterpoint to the 'unrefined' Shiva – he is a man symptomatic of a culture in ruins, where writers and ideas are available only in names dropping. And so this in the Bengali poet Srijato's recent poem in Desh magazine:

Sharodiyo Marx o Lenin

Paarar pujo-r chhoto stall-ey ....

Raatirey Ma-era aaj-o Gabbar Singh-er gawlpo bawley.

There's Marx and Lenin in the festival issue of magazines; mothers still tell stories of Gabbar Singh at night.

Must Durga always be caught between two poles of male violence then – the street poet-stalker, harassing with words, and Gabbar Singh, asking her to dance to his gunshot command? Does that make Shiva, the husband in need of anger management therapy, the lesser evil?

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