Tuesday, October 28, 2008

On the Eve of Kali Puja

The first thing that hits you as you emerge from the city’s grubby arrivals terminal is the air: thick and acrid, like a still, poisonous fog. The second thing is the cacophony of traffic. Indians treat their cars as percussion instruments with a wide range of taps, raps and blasts that express their intentions, emotions and position in the hierarchy of the road. The caste system is alive and well here. The diesel-belching trucks are the Brahmin of the road, bullying everyone out of their path in the choked roadway. Buses and taxis compete for second place, the latter unequal in mass, certainly, but they make up for it by their sheer entrepreneurial whim. Then come the skittish passenger cars and the three-wheeled auto rickshaws. Finally, the human propelled rickshaws have their own unique spot in this hierarchy. Because they are the untouchables the rules don’t really apply, allowing them to weave through the fitful flow with a kind of reckless oblivion. And the pedestrians? They are insects, scurrying to preserve their lives.

It takes well over an hour to get to the center of the city, past lakes and ponds, and mud huts with sagging roofs surmounted with great billboards advertising luxury high-rises. Kolkata itself could be a lovely city, a Barcelona on the Ganges. It is full of charming, wacky and just plain odd buildings that remind you of what a peculiar place the Indian raj must have been. The Anglo-
Indian cuisine that developed here is surely one history’s more grotesque miscegenations, but the architecture that dates from the years when Kolkata was the colonial capital is delightful. There are gorgeously crumbling mansions in a vaguely beaux-art meets Taj Mahal style as well as handsome apartment blocks with names like Palace Court. But of course, that isn’t what the first time visitor notices. What you see the trash and the disrepair and the poverty. But please, don’t come here, if you can’t see beyond that, because there is so much more.

It is the eve of Kali Puja, one of the many festivals, or pujas, that Kolkatans celebrate. Elsewhere, the holiday is called Diwali and it is dedicated to the Lakshmi, the goody-two-shoes goddess of grace and prosperity. But not here. In West Bengal it is devoted to Kali, the vengeful mother goddess. Block associations, sports clubs and everyone else with the time and the money puts up shrines all around the city with life-size or mostly bigger idols of the goddess with her necklace of skulls and her tongue stuck out in surprise. There are prizes given for the best shrine, the best lighting and even the best sound effects. Garlands of colored lights make some blocks look like Christmas in Brooklyn. Along S.N. Banerjee Road, garlands of flowers lie in twisted piles of yellow and orange along the side of the dusty road. Opposite, the shops full of carefully framed images of the goddess are fronted by chest-high baskets of sugary sweets dyed in colors too outrageous for mere nature—all watched over hundreds of palm-sized statues of the approving goddess, each hot-pink painted idol, carefully tied in a cellophane cocoon. She gets her sweets tomorrow.

No comments: