On October 24, Vijaya Dashami day, I returned to the Keral Banga Samaskriti Sangha premises in the afternoon for the immersion of the idols, which I’d never witnessed before despite a boyhood spent in Calcutta. The pandhal was more or less deserted; I’d reached early. I killed time by examining the photographs of great sons of Bengal on the wall of the hall.
This is Khudiram Bose, the young freedom struggle revolutionary, who was hanged when he was 18.
And I wonder even how many Indians will recognize a young Swami Vivekananda here. I certainly didn’t, despite being a bona fide Calcuttan. Even the first person I asked at the pandhal didn’t know. But once you’re told, it’s apparent; the child is father of the man.
Slowly, people began trickling in, and this was the first item on the agenda for Vijaya Dashami: applying sindur (vermilion) on the goddess. This is a rite that is apparently performed by married women, after which they offer each other sweets and apply sindur on one another. It can get playful, even boisterous, with coy women and bashful men being literally chased down by determined sindur wielders. In Calcutta, I’d been a spectator at pandhals, one among the throng of onlookers; here, as a more intimate observer, I got to learn something about the rituals and ceremonies embedded in the celebration. The next few photographs show these sindur-centric activities. In the space of a few minutes, the entire assembly had their faces smeared with sindur.
While all this sindur dabbing and smearing was going on, it had begun to rain. The idols were going to be transferred to trucks and taken to the immersion point, a pier in the Naval Base at Thevara. Permission had been taken from the police and the naval authorities. A police jeep would escort us to the Naval Base, but we couldn’t move until the rain stopped, as the colors on the idols would have run, apart from other damage.
At last the rain stopped, and the idols were loaded onto the truck.
A second truck was packed with the women, boys, girls, and kids. Most of the menfolk traveled in cars. I sat next to the driver of the truck carrying the idols.
And away we went, the two trucks in convoy formation, cars ahead and behind us. Soon a police jeep swung ahead of us and led the way to Thevara. The truck passengers were a noisy, boisterous lot, and pedestrians stopped and gaped at the sight of the two trucks, one bearing divine cargo and the other carrying human devotees.
After about half an hour, we arrived at our destination by the backwaters in the Naval Base. Here are the two trucks pulling into the Naval Base. I’d switched to a car during a pit stop and so reached before the trucks.
The idols were now unloaded from the truck and set out on the road next to the backwaters preparatory to immersion. I’d only seen the idols in the pandhals; their juxtaposition next to the backwaters, their final resting place, made for some curious, surreal images.
The idols now out in the open, the revelry commenced. There was sorrow at the departure of the goddess (my father remembers one elderly lady in Calcutta weeping and whispering into the goddess’s ears, begging her to return next year), but also joy at the triumph of good over evil.
In the midst of this adult exuberance, this young boy steals a quiet devotional moment.
They’re dancing to the pulsating rhythm generated by these two percussion players who’ve been brought all the way from Bengal for the season.
These children now say their farewells. The final parting is near.
Finally, we moved on to to the last item on the agenda. The idols were brought to the pier one by one. The goddess Durga was the first to be immersed, followed by the others.
And so another Vijaya Dashami (also called Dussehra) came to a close. Finally, I got to see this day from the inside out, so to speak. My father has always said that the puja season is a psychologically healthy tradition: everybody in Calcutta is out on the streets to celebrate. They wear their best clothes and happy smiles. They bury ancient enmities and greet one another. As the gentleman who offered me a lift in his car said, Bengalis the world over, wherever they are, get together and celebrate Durga Puja.
My father has a point — what he said is true of every festival — but as I gazed at the cheerful, radiant faces in the photos I took, it struck me that only is everybody happy during the puja season, but the wholehearted community participation ensures that nobody is allowed to be unhappy.