Back in the late 70’s in Sharpsburg, a working-class neighborhood along the Allegheny River in Pittsburgh, we attended a carnival that arrived every August. It was a small carnival, enclosed in a two-acre grassy patch in the middle of Sharpsburg, between the 7-Eleven (now Co-Go’s) and the basketball court (now a parking lot). Carnivals bring to my mind an image of rusty bolts on creaking tilt-a-whirls, and a memory of Judd Nelson in The Breakfast Club saying, “Screws fall out all the time. The world’s an imperfect place.” But a ride is a ride when you’re nine, and for a quarter it certainly felt like a bargain worth risking being tossed onto the pavement of N. Canal St. or flattened under twisted metal next to some kid in a Steelers jacket who ten years later would kick the side of your car when you went in to pay for gas at the Co-Go’s.Puja in Calcutta, unlike the carnival in Sharpsburg, is a huge deal. The month of September is spent by Calcutters shopping. And I mean shop-ping! This is make or break time for many of the smaller merchants, with the incomes derived from this mass purchasing of clothes and gifts by every Bengali supporting families until the next Durga Puja. (The retail sector here merits a separate discussion). Bengalis pronounce words ending in -a as if they ended in -o. Hence, puja becomes pujo. It’s an infectious linguistic habit, and combined with my propensity to repeat phrases as if I were an autistic child, I’ve been muttering “pujo, pujo” for the past 5 days, especially to Kailash, who couldn’t care less and is probably pleases that someone is apparently speaking in his own form of infant gibberish.
The sites to see are the pandals, which contain statues of Durga and her compatriots. The pandals themselves are immense, vary in material and construction, and competition between pandal makers is intense. We trekked down to the Guriahat District, and into the maze of streets and alleys that had been converted into a den of carnival stalls and lights directing the masses between pandal after pandal. We stopped to shoot at balloons with air rifles. The ammunition appeared to be small pieces of metal that the booth attendant placed in his mouth momentarily before sliding it into the chamber of the rifle. A lesson in the relativity of customer safety and the difficulty in hitting small balloons from 10 feet, though I was an enviable 50% until I began hoping that there was no one inadvertently walking behind the large cardboard screen that the balloons were taped on. If Dick Cheney had really been worried about hitting his hunting friend, he would have missed.
Durga is a kick-ass combination of the divine trinity of Brahma (the creator), Vishnu (the preserver) and Shiva (the destroyer). As legend goes, she was created out of the union of these three plus a number of lesser deities to defeat a demon who was ravaging the world of gods and men alike. “There is power in a union,” sang Billy Bragg, and in Communist W. Bengal, that’s what it took to save the world.