It was maddening traffic outside. A yellow cab, some white ubers, motely crowd of audi, honda and few others were stuck on the red light as a procession for immersion slowly weaved its way on the road. A clay figurine of a God, probably Vishwakarma, the celestial architect and craftsman, was being taken for immersion after its puja. The young boys accompanying the idol enjoy a smoke between shouting slogans, the wind blowing the ashes right on top of the face of the deity.
Sometimes one wonders how many puja can there be. In Calcutta, each day becomes a day of puja, with the queen of all puja, the Durga Puja, stopping everything in mid for ten days. And we are only talking about the Hinduism culture. On another days there are the various forms of Id and sometimes innocent people sleeping are woken with sounds of exploding crackers at three in the morning , as another procession for Chhaat makes way, a primarily bihari migrant population festival.
Days without puja seem to be few and far in between. Noisy processions stop life midway. Commerce depends on these festivals. The central avenues get blocked and traffic stands waiting. In other cities while the policemen tell traffic to stop, in Calcutta, the policemen actually go on the street and wave the traffic to move ahead quickly as people and drivers slowly crawl on the road.
Such is the movement and languid pace of a city, once been and lost somewhere in its crowded culture.
Today is Rath Yatra. As an Indian, its tough keeping track of all our festivals. There seems to be one every single day.
A very cute deity picture appeared in the local daily as an advertisement and that is what informed us, the outsiders, of the event.
It is surprising how many such events a single city can have. Marketers opportunity indeed! Apart from a handful (a million?) of the population, there is not much involvement of the middle and above middle classes in these events, unless ofcourse there is some political affiliation.
Bengalis seem to like two things, one is things to eat and the other is intellectual pursuits. It is ironical however that a place which gives the world so much talent, itself hasn’t grown with the rest of the world.
Reading an eighth grade textbook with a neighbor’s kid enlightened me to some historic facts. Amid many yawns that history textbooks bring, it was almost like a modern day thriller.
In short here is what happened:
1500s: Europe wanted cinnamon for their bread. and silks. They form trading companies and set asea. They find Bengal, a treasure trove of natural resources, gold and silks.
1600s: they establish east India trading companies, after bowing a part of the profits to their queen.
1700s: last of mughal rulers died. British companies look at the divided princely states and start their policy of quietly annexing states one by one. They promise to protect one ruler of a princely state from another, however, they annex one state after another.
1800s: Industrialization begins and Europeans want coal for their trains and markets for their “manufactured” goods. They kill the self sufficient cottage industry of Bengal and start sending in imported “manufactured” goods to the natives. An age of plundering and corruption begins. They take the 16 year old son of the last ruler, give him passage to the royal family in Britain along with a British military doctor, as his guardian. Shrewdly they get the young king to pass over the family jewels to the crown. The Kohinoor diamond included.
1900s: world wars happen. Britain transfers debt of war to India and exits.
2000s: Neo colonials, unscrupulous traders and political machinery still carries forward the legacy of loot and corruption.( I need to stop here, otherwise they put people in jail)
People tend to turn a blind eye (?) and carry on work as if nothing happened. Education machinery works overtime and kids are brought up to be prepared to be “educated” and mostly they leave the state.
Then some religious event happens and all unite to celebrate the forgotten prosperity and good times. Of some 400 years before.
The Rath yatra today, celebrates an event of 625 years before.
Lets write about a place,
We can neither love nor hate,
Located in the corners of our mind,
The connections ‘tween we find.
There is no race nor class,
No flag nor anthem too,
No boundaries hold its country,
Yet ’tis deep inside of you.
Tis endless and infinite,
Holding our memories tight,
We let go and start to dream,
And get a light, a beam.
Things seem so much clearer,
Not shrouded by any terror,
Nor imposed by ‘nothers will,
It belongs to you still.
When you feel this connection,
The spark ignites you within,
You reach others in this light,
And together you will win.
Together we can freely flow,
Like an endless river towards the bow,
Connected yet no relation,
We are Imagi Nation.
Prompted by the Word: Imaginary
“Invoke the Goddess in you!” shouted a billboard lit by the strong halogen , next to the crowded flyover. Of all the places that I’ve stayed in , Calcutta has the most powerful design message in its traditional jewellery. Women all over India do love to play dress up and ironically its the age group above 30 that is more experimental and loud.
Come Poila Baisakh ( Bengali new year) and you would see “Goddesses” everywhere. Kolkata gets its name from the famous “Kali” temple at Kalighat, the fierce looking form of Durga, the feminine personification of “Shakti”.
The color blood red therefore is found almost everywhere. Whether the powdery sindoor, the reddened lips, that pallu of a shaada palla shari, the hibiscus offerings or simply the round red bindi on the forehead to signify the third eye.
Contrast it with pure white of jasmine flowers, coconut & pure crisp cotton.
Kohl eyes complete the look, eyes outlined aka the goddess removing any leftover vestige of mortality and transcending into the next dimension.
Welcome to Kali Ma land.
A North Indian Spectator.
When the Spring Equinox ends, the day is celebrated in many places in India by various names. In Bengal its called “Pohela Boishakh”. A north Indian might call it “pahela Baisakh” with a lot of tongue curling.
The little pavement shops were dressed for the occasion. A lot of Red, glitter, pottery painted with designs and a Haal Khaata, or an accounts book ready for the morning ritual.
I sometimes wonder the need of an accounts book. Majority of the Bengali Hindus are not really known for their business acumen. That is left to the Marwari community and this prosperity is evident by their really large houses in the poshest localities of the city. Even then, they would get down from their Audi, or the least a mercedes, as the entire family, and extended family, would plan a sunday trip to the Jhalmuri wala. The matronly mother would then order a dozen or so jhalmuris (a kind of a mixed salad with puffed rice), keenly noting the amount of sufficient almonds to go into it. The eldest male member would then make the payment after sufficient negotiation with the roadside vendor.
The rest of the Bengali community has two major occupations, one is slaving for the above community and the second is the intellectual class; who’s children leave Calcutta for better prospects as fast as they grow up. And they do extremely well, …. but outside Calcutta.
Then the mind wanders to intellectual Bengalis and the name “Amartya Sen” comes to the mind. I haven’t googled him yet, but I believe he is known for his studies relating to poverty which got him a noble prize.
The gaze then shifts back to the roadside dweller, a sickly thin lady, wearing nothing but a blouseless sari and eating the scraping from a used curd bowl.
Wonder if she has heard about him too. I suspect not.
Kolkata sleeps early. So when by chance I met a certain gentleman (whom the local newspaper later reported was a Mr. Poddar) at around 9.00 pm somewhere on the street, we were intrigued by his car.
“It’s a custom made car….” He said. The vehicle was a twin seater with huge wheels resembling a Go-karting sportster. We were amazed at the unusual vehicle. What we didn’t know that he was probably just returning from an exhibition of these jet setting beauties at a prominent mall.
Fast forward to Chetla market. Nestled at the backside of the outrageously priced Alipore Road is this humble settlement on both sides of the road. Gracious local shopkeepers invited me to view their merchandise.
“No, I’m not interested in the fishing nets, but can I stand here and wait for my cab?” They seemed surprisingly courteous.
The road was lined with buses. Tomorrow is Election Day. Cars are moving at snail’s pace. Its takes us 45 minutes to cross a 2 km stretch. Somewhere in a building nearby, a supervisor seems to be giving instructions to party workers in Bengali. A hand cart vendor tries to negotiate the road. A pedestrian tries his luck as well in an attempt to board his bus. Among this chaos, a premium styled Jaguar is also stuck with the same fate. With traffic, it equalizes the rich and the poor. No one furthers faster.
Its early Sunday morning. Sounds of Traditional Drums. Bright orange turbans. Carpeted stretch of road. Loudspeakers blare music. An MC somewhere in the distance. Selfie Point! Runners. Lycra Sportswear. Branded footwear. French perfumes.
Pavement dwellers watch the show from the comfort of their (un)homes, lying on the cardboard sheet which is their bed.
“A Marathon?” Trying to make sense of what is this fuss about.”Whats that?”
Her name is Saneedha. That’s what she told me. After the morning encounter, she was totally on my mind.
“Will money suffice?” I asked myself.
The feet took me towards her “dwelling”, which was an occupied strip on the pavement, on way to my evening stroll on the promenade. After a brief chat I parted with a crisp note which I hoped would alleviate her misery. She was smiling. I then asked her to explain what had happened in the morning. Reminded of the incident, she burst into tears again.
The next evening on way to the promenade, I glanced in her direction. Her toddler was playing with a brand new toy truck and a tiny airplane. The mother was lost in the joy of the play to notice. Feeling happy I continued my walk on the drive till the sun set and a hue of reddish pink became the sky.
On the way back, she saw me and beckoned me.
“I lost the money you gave me yesterday!” she said with a smile.
I nodded towards her and continued to go back towards the gated building compound leaving the noise, dust and poverty behind me.
I never knew her name. Not in the two years we have maintained eye contact. Sometimes in the early morning of the sun, she wouldn’t still be awake as I’d pass her makeshift bed on the pavement. But sometimes she would lift her head and wave to me. Some passersby thought that she was insane were ready to help me out and to “shoo” her away. But my smile and the wave back would puzzle them.
Today was different. I started in the same usual way. Stepped out from the wicket. Waited for my cab.
Then I saw her approaching my direction. With tarpaulin slung over her shoulder, I expected her to give me the same sweet smile that she had been giving for months and I was eager to smile back to her.
She soon came within an arms distance and recognized me. Instead of a smile she burst into tears.
“He stole everything” she cried, pointing at a group of men on the other side of the street.
Amazed, I looked at them in shock and they reciprocated the same. The building security guard waiting to wave her away from me. Time seemed to stand still.
“That one!”, she said pointing at the group hidden by the bushes on the other side. ” I had left everything under a tree and he stole it and put it under his. Even the ( couldn’t understand this word) that my mother had given me. Report him to the police. He is a thief! ”
A cab arrived and I stepped in while consoling her that I would. I saw her move forward with her only belonging, the tarpaulin, slung from one shoulder, brushing the ground against her petite frame. The cab sped off.
“She lost her husband a couple of years ago,” I told the cab driver. ” Stays on the street.”
He gave me sympathetic nod and asked me “Where to?”.
I told him the way to the design insights class and we proceeded on a quiet journey ahead. Discussing about technology, for people, who already have everything, was the last thing on my mind today.