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Psst, may I speak confidentially?

Updated: Dec 10, 2018

Inside a south Kolkata pandal, 2018. Photo by Nina Furstenau

KOLKATA, India-- I feel, as Lilian Boxfish did in the novel Lilian Boxfish Takes a Walk, that there’s a low-grade lunacy to life in a city. Granted, I normally reside on a farm, so cities in general are over the top for me. But blustering happens here frequently. Serendipitous and magical things happen here, too, all the time, and yet I speak softly, just like Lilian, as if I’m afraid of being overheard. Listen well, and I say this fondly: it’s outdated wisdom that considers this city too much, too poor, too chaotic.

Pandals, feasts and fasts

For this post, I’m taking on Durga Puja in Kolkata. Tall order, I know. And one in which city lunacy mentioned above amplifies to great heights. It has taken me this month to process all that the festival of the goddess means to Kolkata and what residents do, every year, to make it memorable. I am stunned by the numerous outdoor pandals (marquees), the elaborate art they contain, the sound, and the light. It’s jaw dropping. You really need to see it for yourself.

In Kolkata for Durga Puja? I recommend staying at the Elgin Fairlawn if you like Old World charm with a Miss Haversham feel. This is the type of thing that makes me swoon.

For much of October, city residents spill into the streets and behave like the crowd I was part of when going to a Chicago White Sox baseball game last year with our son: namely with anticipation and geniality. Except these folks are out eating street food and shopping and sightseeing and talking and singing (via loud speakers, even at 4 a.m.) for three weeks straight, or so it seems. If you’re not in a hurry you’ll enjoy the mass of people moving along in the evenings, nipping to the side to buy a sweet or fried foods from the vendors with colorful canopies lining the side streets, re-joining their families, pausing in awe at the craftsmanship of potters that make the images, marveling at the facades that look like real stone or ancient sculptures, the molded clay with bold or sometimes delicately painted faces that embody an ancient tale, the decorations that hang above and cross the very road that you suddenly realize the pandal has straddled, the street musicians and drummers. If you have to be somewhere quickly, maybe enjoy isn’t the right word.

Traditional potters, called kumars, in Kumartuli, create clay and straw sculptures with finely painted details. Visitors that arrive in the days prior to Durga Puja can walk through the north Kolkata neighborhood and see work in progress. Photo by Nina Furstenau

It’s a miracle really that all this comes together every year and has for hundreds of years. No doubt the festival has grown as the city of Kolkata has. Each neighborhood competes for the best pandal, much like floats in a town parade in the American Midwest. Unlike most small American towns, though, hundreds of artisans are employed in Bengal and everywhere in India for months prior to the puja to create its evocative art. I have never been in a celebration of this scale, and likely never will again. It was a feast in all ways.

What's it about?

I would describe the story thus: Maa Durga, representing aspects of the divine feminine, rides a lion into town to vanquish the catastrophic dark energy of our inner demons with her unlimited power and, though she runs the risk of creating a terrifying paradox between good and evil, she prevails by vanquishing Mahishasura, a demon in the shape of a man-buffalo. Or, she will do so each year, by the 9th day of Durga Puja. Each day has its celebrations and prayers, drummers and dancers and theater and food, particular to the day and what it represents.

Durga sleighing the demon inside a 2018 Kolkata pandal. Websites such as have concise lists to help you narrow down which of the hundreds of pandals to visit. Plan on starting in the afternoon to avoid the largest crowds. Or, consider heading out in the morning. You don't get the lights and dazzle, but the advantage is breathing room. Photo by Nina Furstenau

It’s not all Durga. In the lunar season of Sharat, while rice ripens in the fields, the potters (kumars) build straw and clay images of three goddesses: Durga, Lakshmi and Kali, brilliantly detailed to represent age-old stories. A new friend took us to a celebration of Kali, held for 270 years straight by an old-Kolkata family. Priests held the gathering spellbound with ancient and precise rituals, while the father encouraged his growing son to gradually take his place as the caretaker of the tradition. Incense gathered in the air and coursed through beautiful floral decorations while thrumming chants and increasingly loud music culminated around dawn with tasty and symbolic foods shared by all. It was a heart stopping glimpse of India few get to see.

To me, the Sharat festivals are a sensory showcase of something like the yin/yang principle. All stories here have both the feminine and masculine represented in a real way, but in the autumn, the raw power of the feminine comes to visit, and mostly saves the day.

One of the helpers we have here through the great good fortune of a building owner that provided a house cleaner with the rent, enacted Durga for me coming to slay the demon. She was stone-faced serious as she eyed the imaginary bad guy, aimed down into what would be the demon's prone body, pulled her arrow back well above her shoulder, and fired with intent and a great stomp of her foot. As she finished up, and without realizing it, her gait was still strong as she went down the stairs going home. Was this what Durga meant to people and the city--a chance to acknowledge the ability within each of us to stand our ground, tidy up the messy bits of life, and set things straight? Thinking it through, that IS worth a stomp and loud speaker or two.

Feasts and fasts

Lest we forget, festivals pivot on food choices. And in India, timing is everything. For example, on the second day of Durga Puja, Ashtami, everyone is supposed to fast, until after bathing, visiting the nearest place of worship (in Kolkata, that’s almost every block) where the priest chants special prayers three times and offers flowers and foods to the goddess. The idea, in my view, is linking the mind, body and spirit through the tangible earthly intimacy of food. After the chants, devotees break their fast with vegetarian foods.

For lunch this often means the golden, fried luchi, a round puffy bread made with fine white flour, tasty alur dam, a slow-cooked potato dish, and dal, a lentil dish simmered with light spices. Since onions and garlic are considered non-vegetarian, strictly speaking, perhaps because they were a late addition to cuisine here brought in by northerners, they are avoided at this time by some and spices like asafetida are used instead. The last day of the festival, Navami, flips the gastronomic focus and there is meat eating galore. And later in the month, for Laksmi’s celebration, there are desserts like payesh and so much more. I could seriously go on for a long time.

What I notice as I shift through all the experiences of puja in Kolkata, is the foods of festival are the comfort foods of my childhood in the American heartland. Warm luchi (which I sometimes rolled up with a little sugar), alur dam, dal and payesh, the king of desserts, and so many more of the foods tasted and relished this month. Even in Pittsburg, Kansas, without pandals and dance and song, we had it all.

What foods of festival do you remember fondly from your community? How did they help link the spirit and body?

*Author Nina Mukerjee Furstenau is a 2018-19 Fulbright Global Scholar in Kolkata, India, researching her upcoming book, Green Chili & Other Impostors.

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