In The Thick Of Kali Pooja, In Calcutta

We landed in Calcutta early in the morning, and hired one of the innumerable yellow cabs in the city to take us to our hotel, near New Market. The husband and I sat near the two windows on the back seat, gawping at the old, old buildings we passed on the way. The bub, sandwiched in between us, dozed off. I started clicking pictures of this and that from the cab window. How could I resist?

We had covered almost half the distance to the hotel, when we began noticing huge pandals, some with idols inside – with their eyes covered with a piece of cloth, some without. Some pandals had a plethora of stalls outside them – ice creams and chaats and games and what not – all empty. The husband asked the cab driver whether these pandals were standing since Durga Pujo, and he shook his head vehemently. ‘No, no! These are Kali Pujo pandals. It is Kali Pujo in two days’ time! These pandals will all be lit up and crowded then! There will be no space to drive here then!,’ he said. That was the precise moment when we realised that we had, somehow, managed to land in Calcutta in the thick of one of the city’s biggest festivals, Kali Pujo. Before that, we had, in all our ignorance, believed that Durga Pujo was the only festival that Calcutta celebrated with a whole lot of gaiety. Just how mistaken we were, we got to know in the next few days we spent in Calcutta.

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We reached our hotel and breakfasted, and the husband left to his client’s place to begin work. The bub and I stayed back in the hotel, played for a while and then fell asleep – we needed our beauty sleep!

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That was the scene at New Market when the bub and I dozed off

At around 5, when we woke up, it was pitch dark in the hotel room (It used to get dark that early in Calcutta, I wonder why!). I pushed aside the window curtains and was stunned to take in what I could see – all of New Market was brilliantly lit up, there were stalls selling this and that, and the area was simply milling with people! What a transformation from the quiet place that we came to just that morning!

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.. And that was the New Market we woke up to!

Loudspeakers were getting ready, chairs were being put up, and a stage was being decorated, right in front of our hotel window – I was as terrified of that as I was excited to see that. Would we be able to sleep that night?, I wondered.

At around 7 PM, by the time the husband returned to the hotel, the celebrations had started in full swing. I saw that a gorgeous Kali Maa pandal had almost miraculously come up near our hotel.

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The Kali Pooja pandal near our hotel

A swamiji delivered a lecture on the stage opposite our hotel, which was followed by some local celebrities (male and female) singing some popular Hindi songs. The husband, bub and I walked around New Market, taking in the festive fervour, the lights, the sounds and smells, getting more and more awed by the minute.

The last we saw, at around 11 PM, a girl, clad in skimpy mini skirt was gyrating on the stage to the beats of some ‘Rajaji… Saiyyan‘ song. Then, there was a smoke effect on stage, and the said (hot) girl started rolling on the stage, with hundreds of men gawping. Red light started flowing over the girl. It left me wondering if, soon, the performance would turn into a strip-tease. We didn’t stay to find out.

And, yes, we did sleep through all the noise that night. We were exhausted and drifted away into oblivion, thankfully. We were told the performances continued till about 1 in the night.

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Through the next couple of days, we walked around parts of Calcutta, taking in the Kali Pujo pandals that we saw here and there. EVERYWHERE was lit up, and it is tough not to feel a surge of the festive spirit in a situation like that.

Oh, the lights! They were nothing short of gorgeous. The lights depicted everything from little girls and guys, gods and goddesses to snails, insects, the Eiffel Tower, birds and animals, Gandhiji and hot air balloons.

The New Market area, where we were staying, was teeming with people from early morning till midnight, shopping, eating, talking, meeting other people and what not.

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Flowers and lamps and other pooja paraphernalia on sale, just before Kali Pujo, at New Market

There were Kali Pujo pandals EVERYWHERE we went, even in the narrowest of nooks and crannies. Every single pandal was different, everywhere playing a different sort of music.

The tinkle tinkle of the rickshaw pullers’ bells, the music from the pujo pandals, the hum of people talking, the calls of vendors – can you imagine just how noisy it would have been? Strangely, though, nothing disturbed us for the next few days we were in Calcutta – we were caught up in the fervour of Kali Pooja apparently.

One one particular day of our stay in Calcutta, I remember, we could hear strains of Sai bhajan, Yo Yo Honey Singh, an ancient Rajesh Khanna song and some funky English beats from nearby Kali Pujo pandals, as we walked around our hotel. Cultural medley, anyone?

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Through our almost week-long stay in Calcutta, the programs on the stage in front of our hotel continued. One day, it was a magic show, on another it was a traditional Bengali play. We took it all in, in awe.

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Can you see the hugeness of the crowd?

Miraculously, we continued to sleep soundly through all the noise, through programs that continued well into the night. Of course, exhaustion from walking through the city all day also played a part in this!

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We hunted down South Indian restaurants and homely vegetarian food in Calcutta, painstakingly, for the time we stayed in Calcutta. We went to the most expensive of restaurants. The little one just refused to eat much, leaving us saddened, with no other resort than feeding her fruits and milk.

Just before we were about to leave, she broke her fast with the khichuri that was distributed free of cost at a Kali Pooja pandal, as bhog. We got hold of a cupful of it, along with hundreds of other people, including the old, the infirm, and the homeless. The khichuri probably reminded the bub of home, and she loved it. What do I feel at an instance like that, if not blessed?

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The Bengali Bhog-er Khichuri that I tried to replicate, once we got back home

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There is definitely something very, very beautiful about a woman dressed up to the hilt, every inch of her persona reflecting that she is married. I felt that time and time again, throughout Kali Pooja in Calcutta.

The kumkum splashed generously in her forehead parting. The white silk saree and the red blouse. The alta on her feet and hands. The elegantly tied bun of hair, pinned into place with a gorgeous jewelled pin. The big red bindi. The shankh pola. The mangalsutra around her neck. The elaborate finger rings. The toe rings.

The key point is – such attire is beautiful to the wearer only when she is not forced into it.

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Over the few days that we were in Calcutta, the husband and I started to think of the Kali Pooja pandal right next our hotel as ‘our pandal‘. We would visit the pandal at different times of the day, every day, and watch the idols being garlanded, prayed to, photographed and selfie-ed. I didn’t realise how much we had grown attached to the pandal till the day we left Calcutta.

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Our Kali Maa, all decked up grandly, on the day she was to leave – it didn’t strike us, even on seeing the grand decorations that day, that she was to leave soon!

We left Calcutta the day of Kali Visarjan, the day when Kali Maa was leaving Calcutta too. We hadn’t known it was Visarjan day, and came back to our hotel after a visit to the nearby Indian Museum, with about four hours to go for our flight back home. I spotted the pandal near the hotel empty, and the husband and I frantically began looking around. We were just in time to spot the idol of Kali Maa disappearing around the corner of the road, on her way to immersion. There was a pang in the husband’s heart, just as there was in mine. I can’t explain it any better.

Just then, a nearby cracker almost drove us deaf, and shocked the little one into a stunned silence. A passerby tapped the husband on the shoulder and told us something had happened to the bub. We were so very worried when she didn’t speak anything for close to two minutes. Then, all was fine and she started speaking normally, and we breathed a sigh of relief. By that time, ‘our’ Kali Maa idol had completely disappeared and we were rushed out of the hotel early, by the staff, to ensure we didn’t get stuck in any traffic jams and that we reached the airport on time.

That was why I didn’t get to take any parting pictures of ‘our’ Kali Maa, but that scene of her just about to turn the corner of the road while we were just about to enter the hotel is still fresh in my mind. It keeps coming to me again and again and again. I think both Kali Maa and we bid farewell to each other in that moment.

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The image of Calcutta we left with..

I did manage to take a shaky picture is of another Kali Maa idol, on the way to immersion. I took this shot out of the window of our moving taxi, on the way to the airport, just for keepsakes.

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At the end of it all, I can only say that being a part of Kali Pujo in Calcutta is an experience. You cannot describe it perfectly. You can only feel it.

I hope we get to do this experience all over again. This, and Durga Pujo in the city, too.

I do know that, the next time we visit Calcutta, it has to be during a festival, or we will miss the festivities sorely.

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