Saturday, October 29, 2011

A Very Kolkata Durga Puja

I think it was during the D.C. Fulbright orientation that I first heard about Durga Puja in Kolkata.  At that point in time I had no idea what the festivities were all about, only that they were huge, and that this was THE time to visit Kolkata.  Conveniently, the Navyug schools had four days off for Dussehra/Durga Puja, and the Kendriya Vidyalaya schools (where other ETAs have been placed at) had a full ten days off.  So, three other ETAs (Krish, Joanna, and Stephanie) and myself booked our Kolkata tickets for this time.  Needless to say, we were very excited.

As our plane from Delhi left at 6am on the morning of Saturday, October 1st, we made sure to arrive at the airport extra early.  This meant a taxi at 2:30am.  The driver turned out to be extremely fast.   There were few cars on the road at that time, but we quickly overtook all the vehicles we came across.  It was quite terrifying for us, especially in our sleep-deprived state.  As there were no seatbelts in the backseat, Stephanie and I clutched the handles above our heads, and joined hands across Jo’s body to create an arm seatbelt for her.  Fortunately, we reached the airport safely, and far ahead of time.  It was a long wait, but this was certainly far better than missing our flight. 

Soon after touching down in Kolkata, we found a taxi to take us to our destination: the house of Zoe and Irene, two Kolkata ETAs who were very generously allowing us to stay with them for the duration of our trip.  The drive was long but scenic, and allowed me to get a preview of Kolkata.  I immediately noticed how much more lush Kolkata was than Delhi.  Before we reached the city proper, especially, there were many palm trees, ponds, marshes, and green green fields.  Our driver was a little confused, but eventually we found our way to Zoe and Irene’s house.  

Lush, green, marshy Kolkata scene

Our hosts were exceedingly gracious and welcoming from the very beginning, and helped us to get settled in right away.  It was really great to catch up with them, and to exchange stories about our different experiences living and teaching in India.   There was a lot of overlap in what we had gone through, especially with regards to teaching, but there was also much that was different.  One small but important difference was that these girls had never really had to argue with a rickshaw driver, as Kolkata auto-rickshaws only run on fixed routes with fixed prices.  Additionally, unlike us Delhi ETAs who had spent our three weeks of language training in Mussoorie, far away from our “home” city, the Kolkata cohort had spent their language training time in Kolkata.  This had given them a little more time to get cabin fever, so they had travelled a little more than we had.  Their descriptions and pictures of Puri, Orissa and Bishnapur, West Bengal, were beautiful—these places are definitely now on my “to-visit” list!  They also shared some useful information about travelling to Varanasi and Himachal Pradesh.  The biggest difference, however, was also the most obvious—Delhi and Kolkata are two very different cities: linguistically, culturally, and food-wise.   Needless to say, I was very excited to explore all that Kolkata had to offer.

Our first day was mostly spent recovering from our early morning, but I did manage to take a night walk, during which I witnessed the festivities beginning.  There were colored lights everywhere, music was playing, children were eating cotton candy, and the atmosphere was full of excitement.  Some of the pandals had already been unveiled, so I spent some time admiring those.  The lights, colors, intricate designs, and sheer size of some of these structures were overwhelming!

Before I write any more, I should probably explain something about pandals, because they are a huge part of Durga Puju, and were a huge part of our trip to Kolkata.  The story of the pandal begins with the story of the festival, so I will begin there.  There are several different legends of the Durga Puja festival, but I will share the one that seems to be the most common.  It is said that Mahisasur, the buffalo demon prayed to Lord Brahma for eternal life and invincibility.  Brahma granted him his wish.  Despite his seemingly earnest prayers however, Mahisasur misused his power, and wreaked havoc the world over, even threatening the Gods.  The Gods knew they had to stop him somehow, so they created a ten-armed maiden.  In each hand, they placed a weapon designed to fight the demon.  The maiden, Durga, was given a lion as her mount, and sent to fight the demon.  She slew him, and the world was saved.  For more information, see
Bengali Hindus believe that Durga returns to Earth every year in the month of Aswin (roughly corresponding to September/October).  To celebrate her return, Bengalis create beautiful structures called Pandals.  Pandals are large, almost hall-like constructions that house beautifully made scenes of Durga (who is at the center) slaying the demon.  Surrounding her are her four children, Saraswati (the Goddess of wisdom), Lakshmi (the Goddess of wealth), Ganesh (the remover of obstacles), and Kartik (the protector).  During Durga Puja, Kolkata residents generally spend time at their own Pandals, and then travel around the city admiring others (this is known as “Pandal hopping”).  On the last day of the festival, the Durga idol is taken to one of the holy rivers in the city, immersed, and sent back home to Heaven.  Below is a picture of the first Pandal I saw.  There were many more to come.

Intricate Pandal art (Photo Credit: Stephanie Baker)

 The next day we went to see a Pandal a little further away in North Kolkata.  This pandal had been prepared by the residents of a housing complex in which Sarva, a friend of the Kolkata ETAs, lived.  The Pandal was beautiful, but the highlight of the evening was a ceremony in which Sarva’s daughter, Sky, played the part of Durga:

Sky (centre) as Durga with two friends as Lakshmi (left) and Saraswati (right)  (Photo Credit: Krish Varma)

The next day, we took advantage of a Bengali food festival going on in a hotel close by to Irene and Zoe’s house.  I was very excited to try Bengali food, which is famous all over India.  In particular, West Bengal is known for its excellent fish and prawns, both of which I was very much looking forward to.  Bengali cuisine is also known for its liberal use of mustard and jaggery.  The meal was delicious, and I ate way too much.  


That night, we met up with some of the Calcutta ETAs and their friends. It was very interesting to talk to them, as they were almost all Bengali, born and bred, and very keen to talk about their city and state.  One thing that was particularly striking to me was the intense pride that Bengalis have in their culture.  Because Delhi is a capital city, nearly everyone there is originally from somewhere else, so very few “Delhiites” that I had spoken to had talked about their city with such fervor.  While I certainly did not always agree with these young Bengalis’ disparaging comments about Delhi, I eagerly listened to their recommendations for things to do in Kolkata.

After eating Chinese food, we all went to a dance club together.  It was very fancy, and a lot of fun.  It was also very interesting, as it showed me a side of India that I had not really experienced yet, and reminded me of how diverse and full of contradictions India is.  India is a land of villages, of rice paddies, of Gandhi, jungles, the Taj Mahal, and of poverty stricken slums.  It is also, however, the land of call centers, Bollywood excesses, sleek hookah bars, a class of young, hip, urban elites, and, yes, chic night-clubs.  Each and every one of these things is a legitimate part of India, and if it takes a night out on the town to remind me of this fact, then so be it.

The next day, a large group of us went on a bus tour to a number of the most famous Pandals in Kolkata.  The bus tour, organized for American Fulbrighters in India by a Fulbright alumnus, was extremely efficient and enjoyable.  I was able to see many beautiful pandals, eat a traditional Durga Puja lunch, and also spend time chatting with many other interesting Fulbrighters.  The trip reminded me how lucky I am to be part of this network of intelligent, interesting, earnest people.  Below are some Pandal pictures, mostly from the tour.
Beautiful Pandal

Buddha themed Pandal

Pandal made of recycled materials; reminded me of the Magic Garden in Philly

That night, a group of us decided to do some more Pandal hopping, as most of the pandals are beautifully lit, and therefore best viewed at night.  The pandals were beautiful, but my favorite part of the evening was viewing one pandal that was actually inside someone’s foyer.  The family had opened up the pandal to the public, and therefore many people were coming in off the street and admiring it.  When we did the same, the family grew very excited, asking us where we were from, and what we were doing in India.  We ended up sitting with them for a while, and talking.  The children in the family were especially charming: there was a very eloquent nine year old girl named Diya, a little toddler nicknamed Mishti (which means “sweet” in Bengali) and a seven year old boy nicknamed Prince who was infatuated with America, and a very talented artist.  We chatted with the adults and Diya, admired Prince’s drawings, and laughed at Mishti’s antics.  It was a wonderful evening, and a perfect example of the famous Indian hospitality (one of the many many many examples that I have experienced).

By Wednesday, we Delhiites were a little bit Pandaled out, so we decided to do some Kolkata sightseeing.  First item on the agenda was the Victoria memorial, a beautiful monument to a very interesting (if not necessarily beloved) lady.  Inside the memorial was a very informative museum, which explained a great deal about life in Kolkata during the Raj, and about the days when Kolkata was the British capital of India.

Victoria Memorial (Photo Credit: Krish Varma)

The next item on the agenda was Rabindranath Tagore’s house.  Unfortunately, we arrived only to find it closed.  We were able to peer through the gate though, so that was something.  We spent the rest of the afternoon wandering around the neighborhood, where we stumbled upon a structure known as the marble palace.  It’s a little bit of a surprise when one first comes across this gated property, right in the middle of a dingy, crumbling winding Kolkata neighborhood.  The mansion is a large, white, marble British-style mansion, surrounded by a green garden with fountains and statues.  The gate is guarded, and boasts a huge sign informing all passersby that photo-taking is prohibited, and admission is dependent upon a letter of permission from the Governments of West Bengal and India.  We were allowed to look though, and look we did.  As we walked away from the marble palace and back into a more typical Kolkata back alley, an elderly man beckoned to us and directed us into a large, crumbling building, explaining that there was a “golden Durga” within.  There certainly was, and she was beautiful.  After being so shut out of the palace, it felt very nice to be so warmly invited inside somewhere.

That night, a huge group of Fulbrighters met up for dinner at a fancy Bengali restaurant called “Oh!  Calcutta.”  Bahut tasty.  Afterwards, we headed to Salt Lake, a suburban area of Northern Kolkata, where Julie, Sarah, and Pamela (the other Kolkata ETAs) live.  There we viewed an enormous Pandal, about the size of a three story building.  Beautiful.
HUGE Pandal

The next day, we headed back to Delhi, as most of us had to be in school the day after.  We were sad to miss the immersion of Durga, but grateful to have been able to be in Kolkata during this truly special time.  The trip was very interesting for me for other reasons as well, as it gave me a glimpse of what life would have been like had I been placed in Kolkata. 

In some ways, the trip made me a bit wistful.  Delhi is a booming, cosmopolitan, modern, made-over city, which is wonderful, but can sometimes feel a bit sterile.  Kolkata on the other hand, seems to have experienced little in the way of renovation since 1911, when it lost its capital city status.  Much of Kolkata is disintegrating; old, old buildings with crumbling walls and trees growing out of the roofs line the boulevards.  Desperately poor people conduct their daily lives on the streets.  (This happens in Delhi too, but the phenomenon seems much more widespread in Kolkata.)  Even the nicest houses (maybe especially the nicest houses) can make one feel as if he or she is still living in Victorian times.  I have heard Kolkata described as “falling in on itself,” and as a “shit hole.”  As strange as it seems though, both of these comments came from people who truly, deeply love Kolkata, for this is part of the city’s charm. 

Kolkata Building (Photo Credit: Krish Varma)

Kolkata Street

While Delhi’s appearance speaks to India’s hip, hi-tech future, Kolkata (to the passing tourist’s eye, at least) is a page ripped out of a familiar, beautiful picture-book India that is quickly disappearing.  And perhaps the most wonderful thing about Kolkata, as I mentioned above, is that Kolkatans are fiercely proud of their city, and eager to show it off to visitors.  Delhi on the other hand, sometimes seems not to have an identity of its own. 

Kolkata was beautiful and fascinating, and part of me wishes that I could have spent a year there.  Nevertheless though, I was very happy to return to Delhi.  As I made my way through the following day, I realized how much I had missed my daily routine, my kids, my sabzi-wallah (vegetable seller), my morning walk, and all of the other things that are so unique to my experience in Delhi.  And, despite the fact that most Delhi-ites come from elsewhere, I am realizing more and more that the city has its own identity and personality.  It is its diversity that makes it such an interesting, complicated place.  Thus, even after my amazing vacation in Kolkata (where I would have been equally happy to spend my year), I was very happy to come back HOME to Delhi!

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Mountains and Monkeys

Once, just once, during my semester in Hyderabad, I took three trips in three weekends.  It was exhausting, and it left me tired and ill.  I vowed never to do anything like that this time.  And I have not broken my promise to myself, yet.  However, I did take two consecutive trips.  They left me exhausted, but very, very happy.  Here is the first installment:

Shimla: Friday, September 23rd –Sunday September 25th

At 8:30 pm, Krish and I boarded a bus bound for Shimla, Himachal Pradesh.  The bus had been described as “AC Volvo” on the website that we had booked it through, so we knew it would be pretty nice.  When we boarded, we were not disappointed.  The seats reclined, there was complimentary bottled water, and a large T.V. screen up front.  I thought I would be able to sleep well.  I thought wrong.

When I first saw that T.V. screen, I did not think that it would play loud movies until 1 am.  But it did.  I also had not foreseen the carelessness with which our driver jerked the wheel around, and alternately slammed on the brakes and accelerator.  Worst of all, there was a group of schoolgirls on board who saw fit to giggle and shriek their way through the entire night.  Very little sleeping took place.

We arrived in Shimla at about 6 o’ clock the next morning.  We were tired from the night’s events, but so happy to be back in the mountains in the cool weather.  After watching a beautiful Himalayan (foothills) sunrise, we hiked up over the ridge, and checked into our hotel.

Shimla sunrise

After catching up (part of the way) on sleep, Krish and I headed down to breakfast at The Indian Coffee House at around 8:30.  Yes, it’s “our pick!” in Lonely Planet, but that is NOT why we went.  We went because it was basically the only restaurant/cafĂ©/food vending establishment that was open that early.  But we were glad we did.  The ambience is interesting: the place is dark and cavernous, and all the waiters are dressed exactly as their predecessors who worked back in the 60s (the place was built in 1957!) would have dressed.  The clientele—at least at the fairly non-touristy time at which we went—is mostly made up of local, middle-aged men.  Guidebooks describe the place as an “old boy’s club” for Shimla’s bank and civil service workers.  I’m not a coffee person, but I felt that I had to get some.  And it was quite good!  My veg dosa was even better.
The Indian Coffee House
Coffee House interior (Photo Credit: Krish Varma)

After breakfast, Krish and I headed down the mountain towards the former Viceregal Lodge.  It was not the shortest walk, considering we only really had one full day in Shimla, but it was beautiful, and the weather was perfect.  The whole while I could not stop exclaiming about how beautiful Shimla was, and how happy I was to be out of Delhi for the weekend.  (I love Delhi of course, but I think I love the Himalayas more…)  Krish mentioned that Shimla reminded him a lot of Mussoorie, but was a lot cleaner.  I think I agree.

The walk down to the Viceregal Lodge was not at all well signposted, so there were several times at which I feared we were lost.  We kept asking people we passed if we were on the right track though, and it seemed we were.  Finally we arrived.  Lonely Planet (I promise I’m not an LP devotee; it’s just helpful for travel!) had described the Lodge as looking like Hogwarts.  When I first saw it, the first association that sprung to my mind was Bryn Mawr’s Thomas Hall.  Then I remembered that Bryn Mawr and Hogwarts are basically the same thing.

The Lodge
The Lodge (photo credit, Krish Varma)

Both the building’s exterior and the grounds were beautiful.  I really felt that I could have been on an old estate in the English countryside.  Except for the monkeys of course.  And the imposing peaks in the distance.  But still, a true Raj relic.  After walking around a little bit, Krish and I walked to the building’s entrance for a tour of the interior.  The tour guide explained that the lodge was once the summer home of the British Viceroy, Lord Dufferin, who used this massively grand mansion only a few weeks out of each year!  Several important conferences were held in the lodge; in fact, the decision to partition India 1947 was made there.   After Independence, the lodge remained the summer home of the Indian president, until 1965 when it became the Indian Institute of Advanced Study.  Now it houses an impressive collection of books, and provides a space for scholars to conduct research.

A conference room (Photo credit: Krish Varma)
After walking back up from the Viceregal Lodge, Krish and I had lunch, then headed up to Jhaku Temple, which is one of the most famous sights in Shimla.  The temple, which is dedicated to Hanuman, the monkey God, is famous for being overrun with extremely aggressive rhesus macaques.  So aggressive in fact, that most people recommend that visitors bring a walking stick in order to fight off the monkeys.  Krish and I were quite excited.  It was starting to rain when we set off, so I bought an umbrella.  Because I didn’t want to have to carry an umbrella AND a stick, I bought an umbrella that was big enough to do both jobs.  Because I already had a practical umbrella back in Delhi, I decided that this one might as well be a fun umbrella.  Pictures are below.
Ready for monkeys
Ready for rain

The Jhaku Temple is about a 30 minute walk up a steep hill.  Unfortunately, it started pouring as we were walking, so it took a little longer.  We did make it eventually though, and we paid our respects to Hanuman inside the temple.  We then walked around outside the temple.  At first, we saw very few monkeys, as the rain was very strong.  They came out in full force as the skies began to clear though.  I never had to use my umbrella/monkey weapon, but I did brandish it several times!

Dos and Don'ts of monkey interactions in Shimla

Steps of the Jhaku Temple

HUGE Hanuman Statue

After coming down from the temple, we promenaded around Shimla, and admired the old British architecture.  Especially beautiful was Christ Church, which is actually the second oldest church in North India.  The inside was just as beautiful as the outside, with lovely stained glass windows and an elegant pulpit area.  I was particularly moved by the many plaques covering the walls of the church, some from as long ago as the 1870s and 80s.  They memorialized various members of the congregation, many of whom were Britishers who had died while on their assignments.  Though I am naturally not in sympathy with the people who came in and sought to oppress an entire subcontinent, it was still sad to think that many of them had lived very difficult lives in colonial India, then died far away from home.

Christ Church (Photo credit: Krish Varma)

The next day, Krish and I left Shimla by toy train.  This tiny train runs on a narrow gauge rail through the hills, going through numerous tunnels and revealing splendid views.  I think the pictures convey the trip much better than my words ever could:

Train on the narrow gauge rail (Photo credit: Krish Varma)

Through a tunnel (Photo Credit: Krish Varma)

Our train at the station

Mountains through trees, or, what happens when the train is faster than my photo taking reflexes--I promise there was a beautiful mountain view just seconds before that picture was snapped!
We reached Delhi late that night.  A short trip, but entirely worth it!

Thursday, October 13, 2011

More soon I promise...but for now, pictures!

Hi all!  Sorry for the absence.  I'm actually working on a post right now about my truly amazing trips to Shimla and Kolkata.  It should go up very soon!  For now though, I've finally gone back and inserted some pictures into my past posts, so feel free to take a look.  I know it's not the same as an actual post, but you know what they say: a picture is worth a thousand words...