Finding Dhaak

The sights and sounds of Pujo

Today is Navami. The final crescendo of this year’s Durga Pujo. The festival reaches a fever pitch on the ninth night. By Dussehra morning, the intensity of the previous four days begins to wear off. The celebrations are mellower, and conversations veer off into the territory of mourning a departure. Aasche bochor Aabar hobe. Next year, it will happen again.

I have lost count of the number of times I have recommended these two days to friends keen to experience a part of this festival. Day six and seven are great, but this is the meatiest portion of the pie.

This time, I miss Pujo a little more than before. Over the last two years, the weeks leading up to Pujo have felt a bit like how September felt during school and college. The tension and pressure of semester exams kept all other thoughts at a distance, if not entirely at bay. It was only as I wrote the final lines of the last exam — always English, for some reason — that the excitement of Pujo really began to kick in.

Full disclosure — I quite like the working-from-home life and social isolation, but the complete absence of mobility is tough to handle at times. I have been meeting my friends, but don’t remember what a crowd sounds like. 

Crowds are a massive part of the Pujo experience. And not necessarily just your friends and family, but the large gathering of people out to have a party in a shared space. Take it from a Bengali — the actual puja is ancillary. We come and stay for the culinary carnival that most mid to high-budget pandals dish out. We pick our spots based on the most vibrant crowds and best food, even if that means driving 20 kilometres to a distant corner of the city.

I grew up in Noida and Gurgaon. They are adjacent to Delhi, but different cities still. Every year, a substantial amount of time was spent travelling between various pandals. We told ourselves that we were pandal-hopping, but in reality, it was just food-hopping. Pandal-hopping was left for tired mornings if enough people in the group felt like giving their livers a break.

There is a distinct sound to pandals. And it moves with the clock. People begin to come in by early evening, around 6-6:30. The public announcement system starts the evening off with recordings of devotional music. It makes for a soft accompaniment to the chitter-chatter of a crowd waiting for food stalls and cultural programmes. Parking outside the pandal is a mess. It always is. You decide to remind your friends why one should come early. Time in hand, you walk around the pandal to sample the sculptures and food stalls, maybe make a mental note of what and where to eat once they are open. A pack of Tropicana will do for the time being. The drummers — playing a version of hung drums called Dhaak — are taking their positions. Soon.

The party is officially on when the first hits of the drum strike your ears. The initial beats are freestyle, a sort of warm-up routine for the players and the crowd. Maybe a couple of quick triplets followed by four really slow hits. Like clearing your throat. A couple of drummers join in, accompanying the tone set by the lead. As your head starts bobbing, you look around and see people stretching, loosening up. The drummers have found the pocket of rhythm where the entire group can groove in concert. Your feet have followed. The volume and tempo start a slow ascent.

I feel for the drummers sometimes. They are all incredible musicians, blessed with dexterity and endurance. But even they know, no one has come to hear them. They are the bassists of this gig — indispensable but never fully appreciated. In fact, people come near them to check out the deity sculpture, judge its aesthetics with the enthusiasm of art collectors, and leave to savour what they have really come for. On a good day, they will get a glancing look and a nod of appreciation.

By the time the drummers hit a steady tempo and rhythm, a sea of bodies has moved towards the food stalls. For the next hour or so, all else will be forgotten. Just tell me where to find the best mutton roll and fish fry. Food, here, is a communal experience itself. You rarely come to pick one roll. You place a bulk order for your entire group. The shopkeeper asks if you want to try out the new cutlet his cooks are making tonight. Is no even an option? Pack me four. The scent of fresh chicken tikka sweeps over you, questioning your loyalty to the cutlet you just ordered. In this time, four other orders have come to the same shopkeeper from different angles. He notes them all down and passes a piece of white paper to a help. You come back with your food. Maybe it is too spicy; maybe it will hit the right spot. The mystery is part of the charm. Someone carries over a couple of pet bottles of Limca. Always keep Limca or Sprite handy on such days. You need the burp, trust me. 

Round one done with, you walk back to the central area, where a singer from Calcutta is covering Kishore Kumar classics. Elders around you call him Kishore-Konthi. An entire sub-genre of singers who cover Kishore songs for a career. Talk about leaving a legacy.

You hear the drummers go close to the peak and descend, pushing and pulling at you every time. Your ears demand the psychedelia of peak tempo, but not yet. They slow down and build up again. They know when to breach the gates. All this while, they hit a tight cow-skin membrane with a wooden stick, and yet, the sound never hurts your ears. 

To this beat, a group of people are dancing with clay pots, moving their hands in large circles so that the fragrance of camphor can seep into the air. Dhunuchi-naach, we call it. The smell is as intoxicating as the beat.

Someone in your group gets news that Bijoli Grill have set up a stall at some other pandal. The map says 15 minutes. You add 20 more for traffic and parking. Enough time to digest the first round of food. Let’s go. It is time to repeat the entire routine, but at a higher intensity. Even the music in your car is louder now. The evening is at its peak. Pujo is at its peak.

I am what Bengalis call a probashi bangaali — an immigrant to a different land. I have lived all my life outside Calcutta. I have grown up in, and been moulded by, the multicultural air of Delhi. As a result, you wouldn’t know of my roots until I tell you. But if there is one thing distinctly Bengali that I could bottle up with me — a cultural artefact, so to speak — it would be Durga Pujo. It is a loud, sweaty, frenzied carnival. And it is best experienced like that. I don’t want to sound like I don’t understand the gravity of the pandemic. I do. For that, I hope all pandals are purely symbolic this year. Because Pujo, in its best form, is empty without crowds. 

I have silently fostered a wish to visit a packed Durga Pujo pandal once the pandemic truly blows over. I don’t think public spaces will ever be the same again, but I hope Pujo pandals escape that caution. If this September must last a few more years for that to manifest, so be it.