Never again. As I wrestle my way through the umpteenth “Puja sale”, barking at fellow shoppers and terrorising already harried shop assistants, I furiously mutter to myself, “Never again, you fool. But you never learn, do you?”
True, I never learn. Every year, I do this to myself — allowing the mad cheer of the festive season to shove my extreme abhorrence of crowded, noisy, sweaty places to the background. And so I find myself stuck at the back of impossibly long pre-Puja shopping queues to buy exceptionally ordinary clothes, shoes and other such undoubtedly life-saving items for near and dear ones, and then, once Puja actually arrives, allow them to chivvy me to one nightmarish pandal after another, all for the sake of pleasure.
I beg forgiveness for injecting this misanthropic rant into what has long been this city’s most important social event, but I really feel incapable of participating in this seasonal madness any longer. Even as I write this, though, I sheepishly recall that I am done with this year’s shopping, acquired a considerable credit card bill, and will probably spend at least one full night tramping from pandal to pointless pandal, grumpily trying to spoil other people’s fun.
Why? Why don’t I simply leave town during Those Five Days (which now threaten to spill into Seven)? Well, not for lack of trying, certainly. I have, on bended knee, implored my friends and family to accompany me on magical mystery mini-breaks during this sacred period, to be met with point blank refusals every time. The fault, undoubtedly, is mine, for not picking my friends and family with greater care.
Therefore, unless I go off on my own, which increasingly seems a very attractive proposition, I’m stuck in the city.
Again, why? Why do I dislike Durga Puja so heartily? Well, that’s the point — I don’t. Not Puja per se. But I really don’t see the point in it any longer. Not that it ever was a religious festival. Right from the time the first sharadiya puja was organised by Raja Nabakrishna Deb of Sovabazar in Kolkata, in 1757, Durga Puja has always been more about showing off than anything else, a time-tested question of ‘is his bigger than mine’? I say ‘his’, with reason. But for a very few exceptions, men have always been at the helm of every known puja committee.
It’s just that today, the competitiveness has reached such fierce proportions that it has become ridiculous. For instance, take this business of sharad samman, or awards for various pujas. I have personally counted 37 awards that are given out to various ‘deserving’ pujas, for best idol, best lighting, best-looking lion, best costumes, best dhaaki, best priest, best fire security, best-looking puja committee… I mean, what the heck? Okay, I made some of these up, but you get the picture.
Naturally, such insane one-upmanship has led to truly monster displays of devotion, with similarly monster budgets that could easily run a state the size of Goa, for example. Just that the more the devotion, the bigger the size of the idol. And the bigger the crowd. And the bigger the crowd, the more the public money pumped into controlling it. Just think of the super efficient traffic management during Puja. Ever wondered why we don’t see the same efficiency at other times of the year? I bet you have. And all this for five days of… what, exactly?
My question is: would people have any less fun if a certain pandal did not look like the Red Fort or the Meenakshi Temple or an igloo? Would Puja become not worth celebrating if we spent a mere Rs 5 lakh instead of 50? What have we gained by blowing a spiritual event so out of proportion that we are conditioning ourselves to believe that any Ashtami evening not spent hopping frenetically from one pandal to another, ticking each one off on a list, is an evening wasted? Don’t get me wrong, I’m not turning all moralistic here and suggesting the puja committees donate to charity instead of burning the money. I just hate being manipulated by other people’s designs.
I know what I really can do, though. Because I can’t beat ’em, I join ’em. Here’s the deal: I launch a small puja of my own, like a start-up, you see, theme it on the earth’s vanishing glaciers (how can that not sell?) and get it sponsored, but I don’t stop there. I get associate sponsors for the arati, dhunuchi naach, sindur khela, and bhaashan. I sell outdoor rights to an event management company (in the footsteps of Badamtala Ashar Sangha), and telecast rights to a channel (a la Maddox Square). In three years, when I have made enough from the start-up, I merge with Badamtala and give it controlling stake.
If you know of a better business plan, tell me about it.