First published in Calcutta Times (print), 18 September 2017
TNN | Updated: Sep 18, 2017, 13:29 IST
Half a century ago, I was growing up in Calcutta 16. Roughly, the area between Mother Teresa Sarani and Lenin Sarani today, or Park Street and Dharmatala. Calcutta 16, and I did not consider it then but I realise it now, was cosmopolitan Calcutta. That means, for people who prefer elaboration, it was where people living did not consider your community, your religion, your very existence as anything more important than their own. Those previous and present street names themselves prove the point. Mind you, that particular Calcutta has no synergy with globalised Kolkata, this city of malls, ugly real estate over-development, this land grabbing in another name.
I spent about 14 formative years of my life in a building built 30 years before I was born, adjacent to what we still call Chowringhee, even though its official name is Jawahar Lal Nehru Road. It was a slice of a city that I am very proud of, a place where every person from every community lived in affable coexistence. Bengali, Sikh, Chinese, Anglo-Indian, Jew, Armenian, Tamilian, Sindhi, Marwari, Parsi, Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Jain, Buddhist, you name it.
In the Durga Puja season, walking out of our building gate towards Free School Street before which a left turn took us down Chowringhee Lane, another left at Sudder Street, then turning right on to Madge Lane past Globe Cinema, Bertram Street past New Market, we would come to a Durga Puja pandal next to a shabby little park, now called Charlie Chaplin Square, opposite the Calcutta Corporation headquarters. It was a simple construction of bamboo, tarpaulin and cloth, the nearest pandal to where we lived. The Durga idol was made in the traditional style, designer Durgas still a decade or more away. Our Hindu friends would go in and pay obeisance with a mysterious holy air about them we would subsequently laugh about. All of us then strolled down to Nizam’s to eat 25 paisa beef and kheeri rolls, maybe even watch a movie for another four annas at Minerva or Elite if it had a ‘U’ certification.
We were ignorant about Sabarna Roy Choudhurys, Sovabazar, the bonedi bari pujos, or the other “heritage” Durga Pujos happening in other parts of the city. We would be taken to Mohammad Ali Park and Park Circus, the two big puja pandals closest to us, as an after-dinner treat. It was not this carnival atmosphere people rave about today. Thousands upon thousands did come from all over, thronging the streets to witness Durga Pujo in Calcutta. For us, this was just a minor inconvenience for a few days, a welcome week’s holiday from school. It was another big celebration, just like Diwali, Christmas, Eid, or New Year. Today this event has become a grand assertion of Bengali identity.
We flew kites on Vishwakarma Puja from our terrace, idly wondering why this date was fixed on the calendar but the Durga Pujo ones were flexible. It was just something one did, no religious significance attached, merely a precursor to the merry-making season coming up. Our concern was about the quality of the kite string and paper, and little else. My Hindu friends’ fathers, others went to the river on Mahalaya and did what they had to do. We went to school. We made our own fireworks with materials bought for us by our elders and blew it all up on the two back-to-back evenings of Kali Pujo and Diwali. Bakrid is what really kicked off the festive season of Calcutta, culminating the next year at Saraswati Puja. This was when biryani and other flavoursome wonders integrated so well into life and living. We would all, Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Sikh, Jain, Parsi, Jew, wait for the upcoming festivals where food was the prime mover of emotion and faith. Some years later I saw a Jishu Pujo, Christmas, as celebrated in an urban village just a short trip out of the city. Today I endorse this as a real definition of secularism, of being cosmopolitan, the true Calcutta heritage.
I remember Santana’s hit Black magic woman being played in a Kali Puja pandal in Park Circus, very much part of Calcutta 16, and thinking it so appropriate. The Kali pandals were far fewer than the impressive Durga ones but they had an aura that gave me goosebumps. We celebrate Durga Puja as an auspicious event of a daughter returning home to be with her loved ones, something north India cannot relate to, because for us it’s a feast for the senses, rather than a deprivation. But Kali Puja is serious. She is the real patron saint of this city, not an Albanian missionary. Ironically enough, that too fits the mould this city sprang from, which they threw away.
Carlos Santana, who really should perform in Calcutta, has collaborated with another old time vocal group, The Isley Brothers, just releasing his new album Power of Peace. The tracks, mainly covers, but also featuring Carlos’ wife Cindy Blackman on her own composition, are themed to reflect love and peace. Santana says, “This CD wakes you up beyond religion, beyond politics, beyond nations. It’s our duty to do this.” This is indeed the power music can have.
PATRICK SL GHOSE
Comments from the web edition as on 19 September 2017