7 November, Kolkata, India

By Puja Bhattacharjee

Durga puja is the worship of Goddess Durga. According to Hindu mythology, in autumn, Ma Durga “comes home” to earth for five days from her Himalayan abode. A Bengali eagerly waits for autumn the entire year. Marquees called pandals are erected in neighborhoods and housing societies to worship her. We shop for the best-looking clothes, decide what to wear on each day of the five days; make plans to meet friends, and go pandal-hopping much in advance. The city takes on a whole new and more chaotic character. 

This year’s Durga Puja – arguably the biggest religious and cultural event in eastern India, was vapid. Under strict orders from the Calcutta High Court, organizers had to cordon off the entrances to the pandals, and sentries posted near them discouraged pandal-hoppers from lingering for too long. I managed to visit a few pandals before the festivities began in earnest. The size of the crowd was laughable compared to other years.

In my housing society, a pandal constructed with bamboo poles and covered in colored fabric and tarpaulin is erected every year. Watching the pandal take shape is also an exciting process as we count down the days leading to the puja. This year, the organizers opted for a metal structure that was erected in a few hours. The marquee was huge but the Durga idol was small and gatherings were sparse. There was no life at the festival. Cultural programs, a norm in the evenings during the festival, were axed. Instead, there were some impromptu performances.

Almost immediately after the end of the festival, my mother tested positive for the Coronavirus. I, along with my parents and younger sister, went into self-isolation. Today is the eleventh day of our quarantine. We will be able to go out again after three days. Honestly, I am apprehensive about how people are going to react to us. Will they avoid us out of fear? Will we be censured? Being able to go out again is exciting, but these nagging thoughts are not.

Kali puja or the worship of goddess Kali is next week. She is my favorite Hindu deity. She has dark skin, wild hair; is naked and very, very angry. To me, she is the perfect antithesis of established societal norms. For now, Kali gives me courage. I think of her to keep my anxiety at bay.