(This is a guest post. It was also published in Hindustan Times, October 2, 2008)
Tagore’s short tale Kabuliwallah concludes right in the middle of autumn—saratkaal. Mini’s marriage takes place during the puja holidays, and Rahman’s own Parbati awaits her father’s return in her distant mountain home. Even as Mini prepares to initiate her journey to her in-laws, Rahman, having been released from his own figurative abode-of-the-in-laws, the jail, seeks home afresh in his “… mountains, the glens, and the forests of his distant home, with his cottage in its setting, and the free and independent life of far-away wilds.” Uma’s arche story is reinvented by Tagore and a secret bond is established between two fathers. But such weaving of the puranic akhyan as a homecoming narrative is realized, or used to be realized shall we say, at a different order where home is also a matter of participating in a certain generous spirit during the pujas. The essence of Kabuliwallah lies in basking in such an aura of human generosity. So, the fundamental question to me is whether such a spirit can be glimpsed during the pujas even today without being overly sentimental about it.
There have always been two sides to durga puja—the economic and the archetypal. These two strands intertwine, now working in tandem, now colliding. And keeping with the changes in the nature of the festivities themselves, the idea of homecoming during pujas seldom remain inert, motionless. It evolves and transforms itself rather. If home refers to a physical space, then the idea of affirming social bonding could be traced even among the patriarchs of the household pujas—among the Kansanarayans and Sabarna Choudhuris of yonder years. On one hand, these early essays to build up a tradition were founded on a shared communal bay, though richly manoeuvred within a chain of command. On the other, these were also named sholo ana pujo—attesting to the fact that the deity represented the wholeness of the village community through material redistribution, each strata receiving a pie—an ana, as it were. So, the economic dimension is not something that arrives merely with the corporate incursion of our times. Solidarity was as much grounded on relationships as on the economic division of labour then. Home, in both strictly material sense as well as a participatory order, was well ensconced within a given pattern. But that very pattern of home was also being refashioned by the likes of Raja Krishnachandra Roy in Nadia around late eighteenth century by innovating a certain sense of grandeur within the established order. And that had a ripple effect over his subject population which in its own way fanned awe and wonder around this annual affair. Home and homecoming found a meaning in immersing in something physically larger than life.
The idea of para (neighbourhoods) in the sarbajanin (commune) sense—developed later beginning late nineteenth century and had a different romanticism imbued within itself. The pujas at Simla Byam Samiti and Bagbazar Sarbajanin gave a subversive spin to the idea of community as the notion of matribandana chugged along with extremist fervour, symbolically fortifying each other. Subhash Chandra Bose inaugurated the Simla Puja in 1939 when he was in the hot chair the President of Indian National Congress. The economic was given an indigenous and martial twist in these affairs, as expected. Para as home, as a shared space, was the nation in miniature. It produced a utopia that was missing otherwise in real terms. Much later, after the pangs of partition and the birth of modern India, this kind of nationalism would nurture within itself the idea of egalitarianism. That very idea of sharing notun jaama frock (new dress) with the deprived destitute—moyanparar meye, made synonymous with the dhyang-kur-kur beatings of the dhak—which Salil Choudhury as a father would bequeath to his daughter through a popular song, is testimony to that kind of a spirit. Choudhury’s is an associative dream, perhaps summoning the good goddess like Blake’s angel with a spirit, who would open up a thousand sooty coffin and set the chimney sweepers in industrialized England free. The economic is highlighted along with the archetype. The idea of para, a powerful incentive for homecoming, resonated a new tradition of militancy. Unemployment was rife. Puja provided the occasion to get scores settled with the rich and the powerful, sometimes almost as extortion through garnering of the chanda (subscriptions) a charivari of sorts that sought retribution for all kind of inequalities abounding in and around Kolkata. For those who felt the urge to return home, puja was a paean to ennui and activity, wastage and hope, complicity and defiance, all at once.
Our story of the entwinement of purse and purity takes an interesting turn since the late eighties. The rise of the saffron as a Pan-Indian phenomenon has emboldened the traditional, sanatan Bengali Hindu, who holds fast onto entrenched caste structures and social adherence. The story of the transformation of the cultural space of durga puja to rapid motifs of secularization, prompted by the orthodox left in Bengal, disturbs violently this entrenched idea of home, so dear to the timeless sacral world of the sanatani. The new age corporate babu, engaged in salvaging his gentrified ghetto from Buffalo to Bangalore is more than happy to acquiesce in such timelessness and deny all social obligations if the notion of home comes well packaged. So, he just cannot afford to give a miss to anjali (sublimations) on astami and his wife shows a vigorous competitive zeal during the conch blowing contest, now de rigour in the hoods. The votaries of mainstream left, on the other hand, quite characteristically have been fashioning their own dual game: duly partaking in the festivities, sometimes even in the rituals and yet denying the cosmogony that moves the festival and its affective dimensions in the first place. The typical left-liberal move that detaches the social from the experiential comes across in the very christening of the festivity as sarodotsav (autumnal) rather than durgotsav, thereby running a wedge and detaching the carnival aspect from the symbolic overtones of the darshan, puja and the wider iconographic world. Durga and her sacral attributes become an afterthought, a prop in the scheme of things. The month of ashwin and saratkaal, bereft of their annual cultural mooring, are left hanging. The devotee is left to settle for a buffered self, his existential longings unattended, unreciprocated.
It is needless to repeat here the rising cost and lure to monumentality in planning a puja these days even within otherwise modest localities. But an interesting by-product to such consumerism has been the return of an aesthetic content in the erection of pandals and images, the choice of music that wafts across, and most importantly, in the artefacts that adorn a puja precinct. Many artists—ranging from local art college graduates to artists from Bastar in Chattisgarh to Kendrapara in Orissa—find a meaningful vent during the pujas these days. A few years ago, Yashoda Devi, a legend from Jitwarpur village in Madhuban district of Bihar had come to the city with her associates to decorate an East Kolkata pandal. She was said to have learnt the craft from her chachi, Jagadamba Devi, a legend who was a recipient of the President’s award and Padmashree. In a similar vein, the names of Bhabotosh Sutar and Amal Sarkar for instance, signify a certain art-house puja, much sought after among the cognoscenti. Artefacts are routinely auctioned once the festivities are over.
What does homecoming during the pujas signify in such a setting? Surely, the idea of Kolkata or Bengal as home has long lost much of its sheen even among those who carry a slice of certain images within. Participation is much diffused and amorphous today. Bengalis have successfully recreated the fundamentals of the puja in distant domiciles for decades now. They evolve and imagine things in their own sweet way, deftly bargaining with the local culture and innovating even as they go forward. But is the centripetal lure all gone? How would then one explain away the aura of the “kolkata artists”, equally coveted in probaash even in such nomadic climes as it used to be a few decades ago? Why do we see franchises of branded culinary houses from Kolkata harvesting it rich in far flung shores? The deeply middle class lure of clutching on to the authentic and an accompanying nostalgia easily seeps in and reproduces endlessly a kitschy and durable version of Bengaliness. The see-saw game that an average Kolkatan plays during the pujas, ever balancing between the demands of tradition and incursions of modernity, is repeated in newer forms among those engaged in recreating home in their own microcosms, beyond the borders of Bengal.
Where is then the lightly held spirit of generosity with which we began? I think it is very much present. One has to salvage it from nooks and crannies, amidst all the pomp and grandeur. I am fortunate to know a couple of people who still practice distribution and sharing as a necessary component of homecoming. There are scores of others who do the same and more and would rather remain unidentified. Talking about homecoming and large-heartedness, at one remove, there hangs a tale of one bhuli-pishima in Sunanda Sikdar’s recently published brilliant memoir Dayamoyeer Kawtha (Dayamoyee’s Tale). The notion of mercy (karuna / daya) unfurls as a key motif as her tale unfolds. A widow at the age of ten, bhuli-pishima, the author’s aunt, simply used to travel in long distance trains, creating and recreating fresh homes across the nation. She often toured without ticket. Sometimes she would be detained and abandoned by the ticket checker in some godforsaken station, where she would spend a few months or a year building up fresh attachments. She’d merrily acknowledge all and sundry as relations and hence had no qualms in accepting money from her benefactors. Someone who was deprived of a family/home thanks to a horrendous human practice, bhuli-pishima’s faith in humans never wavered, Sikdar reminds us. Bhuli-pishima’s imagination helped her master dynamic correspondences within the lived and the everyday. Images truly did speak to her. And so the whole cosmos awaited her.
In the larger scheme of things, the minutely relational may end up sustaining a notion of home and homecoming during the pujas. Modern innovations ideally could provide the base of a sensitive public sphere to that end, if sufficiently radicalised. Situatedness is a wider notion to be held delicately. And discovered innovatively. It is not to be confused with nostalgic locatedness. This is true especially of the pujas, a time of the year when the very idea of home evolves and transforms itself routinely.