“Doorga Pujah…..is the grand general feast of the Gentoos, usually visited by Europeans by invitation, who are treated by the proprietor of the feast with fruits and flowers in season and are entertained every evening while the feasts lasts, with bands of singers and dancers”. -“Important Historical Events”, 1766, J.Z.Holwell
For the nouveau riche, the products of the East India Company’s trade and their tenurial system, Durga Puja became a grand occasion for the display of wealth and for hobnobbing with the sahibs. Initially, the tendency was to celebrate in one’s village home and thereby acquire a reputation for wealth and generosity in the eyes of the local community. But soon one had higher aspirations: wealth was not worth acquiring if it was not used to impress the elite of Calcutta and the sahibs who were the ultimate source of that wealth as well as status. This is how the rural elite of Bengal began to sever the umbilical cord which had bound them to the villages and their people for centuries. Conspicuous consumption rather than display of bhakti was the central motif of these urban festivals. Bhakti, such as it was, was directed as much to the English masters as to the mother of the universe.. –Tapan Raychaudhuri
People ask me a lot, well, not a lot a lot, but more than one time, what is the best thing I’ve done or seen or visited or eaten in India. The first day of a new year feels like as good a time as any to reflect back on the best of things, because of course the worst of things (cough not my president cough cough) is depressing and I would like to put that behind me, although politically we will have to wait until we take back the House. But I digress….
Moving on back to India, I’ve been thinking a lot about the year, and the experiences I’ve had over the course of it. And I would say that even though we’ve all just survived the “holiday season”, it’s actually a little anti-climactic to celebrate Western holidays here in the East, because, um, obviously, geography. Sure, we threw a Hanukkah party, and I spent the evening…telling people what Hanukkah is, and Christmas was a thing that happened, and Mr. India and I watched a movie as I knitted the sleeve of a sweater on New Years so, pretty much living the dream, over here. But it was all a little, well, low energy, I guess. Part of it is the weather, I must say, because it doesn’t really change (NO, Mumbaikers, slightly cooler evenigns where the low is 70 not 80 DO NOT COUNT). The truth is, the real festival season here is the fall, and this was the year I finally have the chance to witness Durga Puja in Kolkata.
When I first moved here, we landed right in the middle of the clusterfuck that is Ganesh Chaturthi. Held during some of the most unpleasantly hot weather Mumbai experiences all year, this holiday celebrating the egalitarian everyman god, Ganesha, has a fascinating history, but the current reality is oceans of worshipers who fill the streets parading their statues of the deity, carrying them out to the literal ocean to immerse the statues in the water. Mr. India and I got caught in the hordes on our way back from a movie, and it was like being a salmon, swimming upstream, as we walked in the opposite direction of millions of Mumbaikers trying to get home. My point? Ganesh Chaturthi is a whole situation. It’s a mess, people, a total mess.
But Durga Puja, on the other hand, is a masterpiece, not just because of what it is, but because of what the rest of the country is doing during it.
First of all, let’s talk about the origins here. Durga Puja is the original YAAS QUEEN. This has no basis in historical fact, but just go with it, okay? Durga is a badass goddess. Her ride is a lion, her many arms hold weapons, and she’s the central deity in Shakti Hindusim. She has her own epic, the Devi Mahatmya, in which she saves the world from the evil water buffalo demon, Mahishasura, and yet this is a country with a falling female employment rate in which marital rape is still legal. Remember this ad campaign? So I say India, and hell, the WORLD, needs Durga more than ever, right? She is the pussy that grabs back. She is the power that creates and destroys the universe, if you believe in that sort of thing, which millions of people here do, apparently. So no offense to Ganesh, who seems like the kind of guy you’d want to get a beer with, not me, of course, I dislike beer, but, you know, the average male voter, but I’ll take the badass Queen on the back of the lion, thanks.
Now, like many holidays here, Durga Puja takes place over a period of several days, and it is regional, largely, with massive celebrations on the Eastern side of the country, specifically the Northeast, with an explosion of celebration centering in Mr. India’s hometown of Kolkata. Durga Puja takes place over the course of another holiday, Navaratri, which also nomially celebrates Durga, in some traditions, while for others they are celebrating the triumph of Rama over the death of the demon, Ravana. Which, hey, obviously also something worth celebrating. But while areas that celebrate Navaratri, like Gujarat, in which this holiday is a BFD, honor the event of good triumphing over evil with fasting, strict vegetarian diets, and abstention from alcohol, over in the Eastern part of the country, Durga is hailed with a less, um, abstinent joy. People who think that Diwali is a time for excess have clearly never seen the city of Kolkata alight with Durga Puja splendor. Johnny Walker Black Label pours through the streets like monsoon floods (which also pour through the streets, obviously) and the sleepy city becomes a 24 hour playground. Women dress in new silk saris daily, their best gold adorning every limb, flowers twining through their hair. Men presumably also do something special but who cares. There are celebrations for unmarried girls and married women and a thousand goats bleat sorrowfully to their deaths to celebrate the mad call for mutton the echoes in every home. But all of that is just, well, the human element. Because what Durga Puja really gives visitors is a taste of the divine.
In every neighborhood, on most streets, down dark alleys and in public parks, the citizens of Kolkata have built pandals, elaborate structures made of wooden frames, covered in cloth, which in the hands of these master craftsmen become dazzling palaces, Mesoamerican temples, a circus tent, the whole world. Each one houses the goddess, for she has thousands of homes in the holiday held in her honor. Surrounded by her retinue, and always depicted literally physically crushing the demon whose death saved the world, she is beautiful, powerful, serene, eternal. She reminds me of the Sabbath bride, who graces our homes for Shabbat, who brings with her rest and calm and reflection and joy. Durga brings this to Kolkata and the surrounding areas, a period of lightness, of extreme happiness, of dazzling art that is by it’s very nature ephemeral, built to live for seven days and die. All of the statues of Durga will be immersed in the river. Her offerings will be fished out and composted, her palaces broken down and remade into something completely different the following year. The artists of Kolkata will work again, imagining new homes for their goddess, new realities for her to call her own.
To me, honestly, Durga Puja represents what is the saddest and the most beautiful thing about Indian craft culture, it’s ephemeral nature. This is a country where clay cups are carefully crafted only to be filled with a dollop of milky tea and then crushed as the owner drinks the last drop. People decorate their homes with elaborate images made of colored sand and flower petals, like building ice sculptures in the desert. Beauty is something to be made, destroyed, and made again, like the universe itself, which, according to many mystics, Jewish and otherwise, is willed into being and destroyed each moment of the day, each millisecond of eternity. Maybe that is as close to divine as we can come, perhaps it is the height of arrogance to try and build to last. I have always been an advocate of older is better, not people, mind you, but stuff. Patina is my passion, and here one can weep daily looking at the way historic object has been destroyed, or stolen, or sits in disrepair. I am not saying that transient is better, and I still want to preserve history everywhere I go, but if living here has given me anything, it has at least given me an appreciation for the temporary, an eye for it’s beauty, part of which comes from it’s very temporariness. It is beautiful because it is fleeting, because it was not built to last, because it represents planning and labor and care, and because it is gone in a moment, moving on for the next thing of beauty or ugliness to take it’s place.
And because it s a goddess who reigns over all of it, the creator of life, a woman, I have faith, perhaps, on a purely intellectual level, of course, don’t worry, rabbi, that it will be remade, again and again. That each year will birth new things, that she is strong enough to take the pain of destruction and suffer through the trauma of creation time and time again. That she will rise beyond the devastation and the million hands tearing down her home each year and inspire them to build her newer, better places in which to dwell. That she will be the product of her pain, but not the slave to it. That she will come back every year and slay the demons and save the world. Because that is what women do. #metoo
So, yeah. I think the holidays were a little bit of a letdown, this year. But, like, after that, honestly, what wouldn’t be, right?
Have the best year, people. Perhaps 2017 in some ways was destructive, yes, but I believe we can rebuild. In Kolkata, they do it all the time.