Thursday, October 16, 2008

Durga Puja

Monday October 6

Monday at work I try to blow through as much of chapter nine as I possibly can while still maintaining the quality of my edits. Because I fly out on Friday instead of Saturday, I won’t have that day to work, and Thursday is Dusshera, a holiday, and Tuesday is the day the people from London are filming the video of me. This leaves just Monday and Wednesday as full work days this week. I get a fair amount of work done before five o’clock when I leave with Jonaki and Shinjini to attend a Durga Puja celebration in CR Park.

Shinjini rides in a separate hired cab and Jonaki rides with me in Palminder’s cab. The second cab will take Jonaki and Shinjini home when we’re done so Palminder doesn’t have to drive way out of his way.

Jonaki suggested we go to a smaller celebration that Anindo from work invited us to, but Shinjini is set on this one where we hear the crowds can be choking and the queues can be labyrinthine. Jonaki hopes we don’t blow up or get hijacked or have hijinx. Our track record of going out together includes both landslides and bombings. But when we get to the street where the festival is set up, there are no throngs. There are people around, but certainly not long lines for anything. This festival is several days long. We may have missed the crowds by coming the day before the apex of the event.

Soma told me if I didn’t sample the street food tonight, “It would be a culinary sin.” Shinjini leads us straight up to a pushka vendor. Pushka sounds Polish, I tell Jonaki. She agrees. It is decidedly not a Polish food, though. It is a little crusty puff, which the vendor makes a hole in with his finger, then ladles in a spicy, soupy mixture of vegetables. You have to pop the whole thing into your mouth at once, else the soup will get everywhere.

“I’ve never gotten sick from this,” Shinjini tells me, but she has an Indian belly. Mine’s still American. The questionable part is the watery mixture. I don’t think the water’s been boiled, and I don’t think it’s bottled water. They keep it cold by floating a big piece of ice in it. Is that ice made with Aquafina? I don’t think so. No matter. Before I know it, pushkas are being handed to me one at a time in little foil bowls. The vendor passes them out methodically, one to each person gathered around the stand, and we pop them into our mouths, trying to avoid dribbling. I swallow thinking, “I hope there are no parasites. I hope there are no parasites.” We eat three or four each and Shinjini asks if I want more. Nope. That’s enough. She pays the man and we walk on toward the main celebration.

There is a railing made of bamboo that leads into a large tent-like structure that was built for this three-day celebration. We walk through the lane made by the bamboo, obviously meant to contain a long line of people, but now almost empty, then get to the security check at the entrance to the tent. Our bags are searched and we are combed over with metal detecting wands, then we can enter.

Inside there are big screen television sets, a car showroom, a booth selling a sports beverage called Horliks, elaborate chandeliers and, the main attraction, a one-story tall glittering idol of the Goddess Durga and her family. Durga is depicted at the moment she is defeating the evil Ravana, a glowering green guy who is emerging from a bull. Ravana had the power to shape shift, so was almost undefeatable, but Durga killed him as he was in the middle of changing into his human form. As the myth has it, Rama invoked Durga to help him defeat Ravana because Ravana had a wish granted to him that he could not be beaten by any man.

Durga Puja is a Bengali festival. Jonaki and Shinjini are both Bengali, so the celebration reminds them of home. Delhi being a mishmash of Indians from everywhere, you can find Durga Puja pandals being set up all over the place. There’s a large tent and a glittering, many-armed icon in the park by the Ahuja Residency, and many more scattered about the city.

We sit before the pandal waiting for the ceremony to happen. People mill about and find seats behind us. A pair of reporters approaches us and starts asking about the celebration. When do the pujas take place? What is the story behind the pandal? When they leave, Jonaki remarks about how little they knew. Where have they been? Why don’t they have a clue? They were as clueless as me, I offer, laughing. It is only after Shinjini loudly agrees that we realize the journalists are setting up their camera directly behind us. We sit on our hands in momentary embarrassed silence.

The ceremony begins. There is an insistent drum beat and offerings are made to Durga, held up before her then displayed for onlookers. There is food then flowers then fire. Officiators bring pots of fire to the crowd and they stick their hands in it, just as they did at the Iskcon Temple. The drumming goes on and on and soon Jonaki asks if I’ve seen enough. There’s still more to do. We can walk through the carnival area and we still need to eat, then there’s a whole other pandal in B Block that we can look at.

We meet up with a former Pearson employee who now works at Sage Publications and wander through a lane full of food vendors and carnival games and little kiddie carnival rides. Kids shoot bb guns at a wall full of balloons. More kids ride a tiny ferris wheel. There are vendors selling toys, decorations, graphic novels of Hindu myths and other baubles. The streets are lined with endless strings of colored lights. This is much more festive than church bingo, I offer. This is a full-on street party.

The B Block pandal is an elaborate golden wall of gods and goddesses with four-foot Ganesh statues lining the sides of the enclosure. There are the same chandeliers and ceiling fans set up inside this huge building that is erected mostly out of bamboo and fabric solely for this three-day festival. At this enclosure there is also a sound stage with live singers.

At the next food booth I eat momos: little dumplings with cabbage and other vegetables inside. The dumpling dough is thin and delicate and the dipping sauce is sufficiently spicy to clear my sinuses.

By the time we finish eating, it’s almost nine thirty, which is bad because Jonaki told Palminder we’d be done by eight o’clock. I get a little antsy, as does she, yet we still need to stop at a sweet shop on our way back to the cars. The evening wouldn’t be complete without it.

At nine forty, we leave the sweet shop and walk to the cabs, but the party we leave behind looks like it’s just getting started. The band plays on, the lights glow, the vendors hawk, the people munch on street food.

Just when I thought my time here would get boring, with nothing to look forward to but coming home, I am treated to this kaleidoscope of sights and sounds and tastes. I just hope my stomach is sturdy enough to handle those pushkas.

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