This is Kumortuli. Tucked away among the serpentine byelanes of North Calcutta (Kolkata for quibblers), it is an ancient, dark, dirty, dingy, smelly place. It is also a magical one, because this is where gods are born.
‘Kumor‘ in Bengali means a potter (‘kumhar‘ in Hindi), and ‘tuli‘ is a variation of the word ‘tola‘, meaning neighbourhood. As a Calcuttan, I knew of Kumortuli’s special nature, but only had a vague idea of where it was.
As a features writer with an English daily, however, I took my first steps into the neighbourhood while writing a series on Calcutta’s heritage. I have gone back several times since, for the pleasure of walking through lanes lined with rotting bamboo poles, mountains of river clay and mud, and half-finished idols of almost every deity in the Hindu pantheon.
The ‘studios’ in which the potters work beggar belief. Most of them are partially roofless but dark, have no concrete flooring to speak of, and are DAMP. They are hell holes, but they give life to idols that are exported to all corners of the world. The Ganga flows past Kumortuli, and is an unending source of clay, but like the river, the neighborhood too is in a state of steady decay.
Speak to the craftsmen and you hear the familiar tale of official apathy and neglect, and resentment about broken promises. For a superficial visitor, it is a joyless place, and the sea of sullen faces does little to alter that view. However, I have watched those faces transform as nimble fingers lovingly shape goddess Durga’s heart-shaped face, and those eyes light up as the finished idol is transported out.
There are 15 days to go for Durga Puja this year, and the potters have had a rough time. The monsoon has overstayed its welcome, the clay on the idols has refused to dry, the government has turned a blind eye — Calcuttans know the routine. And yet, magically, not a single deadline will be missed and not a dab of paint be out of place as D-Day arrives. The gods have always seen to that.