Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Quiet Please

08-June-2015, Dammannakatte, Nagarhole National Park

The first evening safari had begun auspiciously enough.

The narcissist

A purple rumped sunbird had decided to check out its rival hiding inside the rear-view mirror of our safari canter and we were all enthralled. The green head, yellow body and purple rump of this outrageously coloured bird & its antics brought a smile to everyone's faces and a hope of even better things to come. The canter hadn't even started its engine yet.

In a few minutes, it did and just as it was about to roll out of the booking office area, three gentlemen, one of them with a professional TV camera came running up to the bus. The guide opened the bus door to let them in and they occupied the front most seats which were kept empty so far.

As soon as we started towards the Park entrance, the guide turned around to say that maintaining silence helped in better spotting of the animals and in keeping them undisturbed. One of the 3 gentlemen who had boarded last, turned around and repeated to everyone "Quiet please!"

As the gate lifted to let the vehicle in, this aforementioned gentleman Mr. Quiet-Please immediately set about ignoring his own instructions. With a vengeance. As it happened to be, Mr. Quiet-Please was the producer of a Malayali TV news show and was committed to shooting video of their trip into the National Park… with a running commentary!

Could tolerate Mr. Quiet-Please only briefly

The guide tried, I tried, a visibly irritated co-passenger tried but none of us could do anything to make this 'dedicated' team trying to get their ‘takes' to keep the peace. The forest, freshly revived from the first rains, was green and beautiful, but was particularly grumpy about revealing itself. Aside from a fleeing Malabar giant squirrel and really distant (luckily for the animals) elephants bathing in the Kabini river, we spotted absolutely nothing in the entire safari.

Mr. Quiet-Please was now, after all being central to all the problems, making protesting noises about how he felt cheated out of the money that he had paid for the safari.

“There is nothing in this forest!”, he said, as he and his team disembarked at the booking office.

The follow-up safari, the second of the evening had some seats empty so I had already booked myself into the next. The same drill again as the guide told all passengers to maintain silence.

The big difference on this trip? The passengers actually obeyed.

And what a difference it made! Even entering the forest was an adventure when human voices were silenced. The buzz of the insects, the calls of the birds, the drip drop of raindrops – all audio enhancements which we had missed on the preceding safari. The jungle felt so much more mysterious, almost holy, and the atmosphere thick with anticipation.

There it was! The reason I had wanted to come to the banks of the Kabini in the first place. In full view of our safari canter, the master of the night… a massive male leopard. He stalked by in front of the vehicle.

Rewards Program

Apart from an initial involuntary squeal of surprise from the back of the canter, our entire crew of watchers remained particularly silent. As a reward, the leopard decided to give us even more of a memorable experience. He circled our canter thrice within 20 feet or so and then clambered up & down neighbouring trees making the leopard’s typical sawing call.

We humans held our silence, only the sound of our thrilled breathing was to be heard. It got to the point that we had to let the leopard be and move on. For him, we didn’t seem to exist and we wanted to keep it that way.

The silent attitude was to pay further dividends. Further ahead, we arrived within seconds of a pack of dhole having hunted a chital down and were privy to a hurried feeding by them. One by one, each of the senior dogs took turns to keep an out for other predators in the area while the others fed. With a group of like-minded and rule abiding people, the jungle was indeed a gracious host.

Fresh action for the noiseless

It’s sad when due to the behaviour of a handful of boorish people, a wilderness as splendid as Nagarhole gets a thumbs down from Mr. I-visited-a-jungle-one-time-and-I-was-bored. Sure, not every safari is guaranteed spectacular animal sightings but that’s the way of the jungle and the charm of the jungle.

But from my back to back safari experiences of the same place, I can surely vouch for the value of silence. There is everything in this forest but for that you really need to be quiet please.

Good things come to those who wait...

... in relative silence

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

We Are Safe

I say so, knowing full well that Google's Artificial Intelligence (AI) has finally beaten humans at the last board game where we were still able to beat computers at. Go, a Chinese board game with a not undeserved reputation of being the toughest board game invented by mankind, was until recently ruled by human champions. Not so much anymore.

I say so, knowing full well that two computers programmed by Facebook to converse with each other in human language discarded it as too inefficient. They chose to develop their own version of language, understood only by fellow machines, to converse thereby cutting humans out of the loop.

I say so, because of what you see below.

Nope!

Computers are stupendously good at spotting patterns. The only issue with their superpower is that a pattern exhibited by a human may actually mean zilch. Recently, I had been spending significant amounts of time on an insurance comparison website studying options in health insurance to switch over from my current one. After getting one, my interest in anything remotely insurance related were back to normal levels, i.e. zero.

So, Mr. AI, I am loathe to imagine myself working at BankBazaar.com. If anything, that sounds like my worst nightmare.

If this is what AI is targeting me with after intently scanning my Internet surfing patterns, we are well and truly safe.

Fiction Fails


The following words, I assure you, are as far away from fiction as anything could possibly be. More like non-fiction in the truest sense.

The number of people who know that I like to write is significantly higher than the number of people who actually read what I write. I put that down to enthusiastic self-declaration on my end and unenthusiastic audiences at the other. That is actually not a terrible thing.

It is but natural for anyone, when he/she hears that I like to write, to ask me what kind of stories I like to write. After all, stories are where there is maximum scope for the creative and minimum scope for the mundane. The truly sad bit is that I have nothing but a dry answer in reply.

I don’t write fiction.

As in I have never written fiction and don’t necessarily want to write fiction in the future.

A quizzical eyebrow raise is the usual reaction I get and the reaction gets even more pronounced when I add that I prefer to write about my experiences and opinions. What I do is to overlay my nerdy POV over routine reality and imagine that the end results are somewhat interesting.

Who are you? Is your life really that amazing? Who are you kidding? Questions I have seen flash in many a polite enquirer’s eyes but here, for the first time, put into words.

I am a terrible fiction writer and even though my life is really not amazing, I am saving the world from unnecessary meh-ness by admitting so. No matter who you are, you have better things to do than reading my fiction and no, I am not kidding.

My very first attempt at fiction was when I was almost 10. I remember the not so subtle copy of the infamous lion and mouse story where a monkey and a pulley save an elephant in the well. Yes, that bad! In fact, when I re-read that story just after finishing it, it left such a terrible scar of guilt and distaste that I could not write any fiction for the next 20 years.

More recent attempts all inevitably lead to a lonely protagonist, working with passion on something that he will eventually fail at, even as his world collapses around him in excruciatingly slow motion. Sure, the world desperately needs antidotes to Shiv Khera’s insufferable peppiness but I assure you my stories are not addressing that gap. They are more like a You Can W(h)in(e) on a ventilator machine, beyond redemption but still unwilling to give up.

Part of my self-hate also stems from the fact that I love reading fiction. Knowing what the good is makes consistently producing the bad all the more unbearable. I’d rather be boring about something was initially interesting (before it was run over by my words) than be interesting about content already long dead (deservedly stabbed to death by boredom).

Mob


It was only a month into our first semester of engineering, at the peak of the collective ‘Seniors must be obeyed at all costs’ spell cast on us. The spell would dissipate in a few weeks and it would surely be attempted on subsequent newbies in newer batches, it would never ever have as much power on us greenhorns as it had then. We believed.

In this environment, Dubious (all names including this changed for privacy purposes) and me found ourselves roaming the campus at 02:00 AM, roughly hewn heavy wooden sticks in hand. We were part of a battalion, a few dozen strong, entrusted with the protection of our engineering college from possible attack by the enemy.

The enemy in this case were Kurukshetra University (KU) students. This was all part of an endless cycle of insults and avenge-of-insults that KU and engineering college students were engaged in, possibly just because they needed something to do in this semi-agrarian town in Haryana.

With soldiers like Dubious, a short dreamy literature fanatic and me, a skin and bones contraption wearing telescopes for glasses, the future of this battalion if it chose to engage in any kind of physical battle was bleak. As it happened and as indeed happened on many a night, the KU chose to sleep off their insult while we patrolled the perimeters. Dubious and me weren’t above looking relieved at this turn of events.

The obvious lack of action in combination with the ache in our arms was leading us back towards our hostel and peace. We nearly made it when Jhamelaa from the leading dozen announced “This Popat has been showing off too much in class. Isn’t it time someone put him in his place?”

Just like that, the KU threat was gone but a visceral hatred for Popat replaced it. The mob had turned.  Now Popat, a batchmate I barely knew from a different branch, must be sought and taught.

What this Popat had done was something I had no idea of, yet it was truly astonishing how the focus had shifted on what was a cool October night. The mob had already swarmed towards Popat’s ground floor room before logic could step in.

Luckily for Popat and the extremely confused me, a baritone voiced negotiator friend of his managed to send us all back to where we should have in the first place, our rooms and our beds. The immediate unavailability of Popat, who had wisely decided to make a speedy exit towards safer climes before his lesson teachers showed up, also helped.

Whenever I read of mob mentality, I always go back to that night in Kurukshetra. I remember how Dubious, until then as much a passive participant as me, declared “Yes, Popat must be taught a lesson!” and merged into the crowd at Popat’s door. The very night air, it had seemed to me then, carried the perverse ability to turn thinking off and frenzy on.

Monday, October 30, 2017

A house on Ripon Street


No, it’s not even on Ripon Street. Ripon Street actually ends at Lower Circular Road but in the long standing tradition of locating themselves on the nearest modish sounding address, the occupants of the house often do the same. Haji Lane just doesn’t have the same ring.

The house is old. Some say that the ground floor base of the house is 150 years old and was the studio of noted painter Abanindranath Tagore. Like that of the blue-eyed Englishwoman said to have been seen by some domestic servants, this story about the house is yet to be confirmed.

For a functionally focussed house, so much so that it wasn’t given a name, it has its fair share of stories. The tall cool walls and their wooden shuttered windows, watched over by the brilliant red in spring krishnachura tree, have enclosed within them many a memory – newly married couples tentatively learning the ropes of matrimony; happy childhoods by the dozen as experience and an experienced pool of grandparents allowed them to be; and re-unions of re-animated cousins as they talk of them days past whilst the latest generations make latest memories.

A first-time visitor might note the long first floor verandah, once open to the streets and neighbourhood burglars but now protected by a grill of elaborate design, where the sunlight casts all manner of patterns through the day and where it is possible to daydream looking out onto the ultra-busy street, with a distance more emotional than physical.

Then there’s the roof, that is open to the breezes from the Ganga and the azaan calls of numerous mosques. With whimsical views both distant and near, there is never quite a wrong time to go up to the third floor in search of innumerable imaginary stories.

Addicted


The inquisition is an everyday reality.

“Don’t you have any *real* friends?”

“Staring at a computer screen for hours together?”

“Get away, get outside, before you go crazy!”

The parents. Forever overreacting.

They see partial benefits though. Dad has discovered the world’s greatest library of WW2 documentaries, also known as YouTube. Mom has committed herself to that blue and white temple of baby announcements and perfect(ly staged) wedding pictures, also known as Facebook.

Yet they cannot bring themselves to see their son’s Internet usage as anything other than addiction. The lack of any business formals on my person in my newly chosen career as freelance writer has them convinced that their son is now that anti-social, work-shirking, manic-depressive Internet person that the newspapers sound warnings about.

So, when a severe thunderstorm conked out the Internet connection at home one morning, an opportunity to relive those golden pre-Internet days presented itself. The crew would take at least a day or two to restore services, I was told. I dusted out an old book or two, long kept in a forgotten queue. I stood for long in the verandah watching the rain pelt down. It was glorious.

My parents? All through the outage, every couple of hours they would ask me about the status of the Internet connection. After restoration, I ran upstairs to let them know.

I was late to the party.

Two senior citizens were already hunched over the blue glow of their respective smartphones, surfing with the devil.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Eternal fire


My trip to the Olpadwala Community Hall on Chowringhee today was to learn more about one particular Indian community which has long intrigued me.

My first encounter with the word was when I heard what the oldest section of the town I grew up in was named. The stately ancient houses and the narrow twisty lanes had a name – Parsiwada, the area of the fire worshippers.

Whether there were any Parsis left in that neighbourhood by the time I first saw it is a matter of debate but that they did sail there, escaping persecution in Iran, a few hundred years ago back when Bharuch was still a port town is certified history.

The exhibition which I visited, named “Threads of Continuity”, was peppered with bookmarks from my formative years in Gujarat, port towns and stories as to how Parsis had first found refuge to launch the incredible Indian chapter of their 3000-year history. I became aware, even more than I had been earlier, of how this tiny community had always punched far above its weight giving India some of our greatest freedom fighters, scientists, industrialists, soldiers and rock stars.

These factual updates and the current crisis in their community notwithstanding, that first image that I had of Parsis, of ship sailing families carrying and protecting their sacred flame, braving stormy seas and uncertain fates still holds strong in my head. The fire that they saved - the fire of faith in better worlds for those dared.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Flirting with perfection

Timeless and meme-worthy
It took only the first listen for it to dig deep into me... and stay there. Bob Dylan had been only a peripheral figure in my life, the Millenial that I was, as someone who was a big deal during my parents' college days but that's about it. Sure, I had heard Knocking On Heaven's Door and Blowin' In The Wind but nice as these songs were, they were just that for me and nothing more.

Then "Don't Think Twice It's Alright" happened. As my sister's Best Of Dylan cassette tape played, a song began with mild toned quick fingered guitar playing. Whatever it is I was doing went AWOL as my attention, for reasons still unclear, turned to the song. The nasal "It ain't no use to sit & wonder why babe, even if you don't know by now..." opening took a hold of me and I listened to the song... word for word, note for note in a manner I had never listened to a song before. The impact of those 3 and a half minutes would last a lifetime.

It's not that I related to the song because someone had made me feel the same way, bitter and regretful. I was then in my late teens, but too geeky and too reticent to even think of a situation where the lyrics would apply to my life. It was just that feeling of having listened to a piece of art composed in 1963 [The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan] and not have the intervening 38 years as any sort of impediment in understanding it.

"And it ain't no use in turning on your light, babe
I'm on the dark side of the road"

"I'm a-thinking and a-wonderin' walking down the road
I once loved a woman, a child I am told
I gave her my heart but she wanted my soul
But don't think twice, it's all right." 

"So long honey, baby
Where I'm bound, I can't tell
Goodbye's too good a word, babe
So I'll just say fare thee well"

Lines like the above, when heard for the first time and delivered in Dylan's lazy drawl had staying power beyond all measure. That words could be that powerful and that a silky smooth voice was not a requirement for a great song were driven home in those eye-opening moments. 

Yes, the song is bitter but just the right kind of bitter, playfully tolerant and forgiving in tone until the very brutal denouement ("You just kinda wasted myyyy precious time... but don't think twice it's alright!") I was astounded by the play of words over those few minutes that led up to that kind of finale, when the slowly smouldering remains of anger flare in that brief phrase only to melt away into painful acceptance again. 

Angry without being really angry, cynical but not outrightly so and hopeful despite not openly saying so - all emotions I could identify with then and still do, hence the personal significance. All said and done, this set a benchmark, an impossible ideal to aspire to. It was a song, a poem, an emotion - all rolled into one package of perfection! If sadness and anger could be channeled into such a beautiful end product, it wouldn't be unfair to say that I am glad someone broke Dylan's heart.



Saturday, October 21, 2017

DD Prakriti : The right kind of Swadeshi

Nain Singh Rawat as Doodled today
At long last, the front page of a newspaper, for those of us who still read it in hard copy, carried some positive news. The sporadic sport victories do qualify as good news too but they don't count as policy decisions or announcements which would have a real impact on our immediate world.

Today's Indian Express carried news of an upcoming Doordarshan (DD) channel dedicated to the intricate and magnificent natural world. The Prakriti channel, Hindi for nature/environment, would focus on India specific nature documentaries and Indian content creators for the same. 

Yes, it may seem hard to imagine that a stodgy government department or panel will come up with something interesting but someone up there has made an interesting decision all the same. In the national parks that I have visited, I have been astonished by the sheer hard work and capability of individuals, who are not toasted or celebrated by the masses, but are doing extraordinary work alright in preserving what we have and making casual interlopers like me care about their mission too. 

Having personally seen what the brilliance of such men and women can accomplish, encumbered by red tape and realities though they may be, I am keeping my fingers crossed and hoping for great things from DD Prakriti.

Now this long wait for a local channel like this is something that had puzzled me. We did not lack in natural wealth, fast receding though it may currently be. We did not lack in wonderfully talented nature writers, researchers and local characters either. So why would only the BBC, National Geographic and Discovery make stories about our wilds and not anyone local?

It's not that I don't love the quality work that the foreign content producers have done. In fact, I have been raised on a steady diet of their wonderful programming about the forests of India and those of the rest of the world. It's just that for once I had hoped to hear the Himalayas addressed as the local Hee-ma-layas, instead of the clipped British Him-a-la-yas in every darn documentary.

Wandering about zoos in North America where I made it a point to visit the local zoo of every major city that I visited, I was amazed that most of the animals that interested me were found in or around my own country half a world away. Zoos, admittedly, are not the best place for any wild animal but the irony of seeing animals who were almost my neighbours being protected and discussed by countries thousands of miles away was not lost on me.

Sure, Indians are for the most part a practical sort of people to whom bumbling through jungles to study nature's menagerie seems like a colossal waste of time and a lot of the scientifically relevant information of our own natural wealth comes from books and studies by them so-called 'foreigners'. A lot of work still needs to be done to make the majority of us actually care for and understand the natural world but it's not like we didn't know anything at all. 

We knew better than to go about destroying jungles just for curiosity's sake or to try and control nature. For a country as populated and resource-hungry as India, it is a monumental achievement and a testament to our culture of tolerance in every sphere of life that we have co-existed with our natural surroundings even to this extent. Human beings do not have a very good reputation for putting up with competition from other species, and though with every passing day that relationship is strained and pushed further to the brink, we have managed a lot better than the developed world.

As spectacular and well preserved as the pockets of wild landscapes of the US are, in my travels through them, it was hard not to note that the systematic elimination of natural residents like pumas, grizzlies and wolves from domains once roamed by them, still beautiful but devoid of their animal soul. What happened to the native humans who had a relatively sustainable co-existence with their natural world is a tragic tale I won't even touch.

Development is the theme song for India of today but thanks to the efforts of foreign channels like Discovery, National Geographic and BBC, it would be fair to say that wildlife does have a fair hold on the mental landscape of a number of Indians. Developing local versions of their famed programming is a nativist initiative alright but one of the right variety and one that we are in dire need of. 

Having a local person well versed in the charms of nature explain to a larger, mostly non-urban audience of what exactly is so charming, would connect in a manner which was not possible before to inspire a lot of positivity and possibilities.

In what seems to be a completely unrelated but relevant co-incidence, the Google Doodle today celebrates the 187th birth anniversary of Nain Singh Rawat, whose name I must confess I had never heard of. What's most interesting about him is that he was the first to exactly pinpoint Lhasa on a map all those years ago in what was then the semi-mythical kingdom of Tibet.

There's no denying that Indians had set off on many a adventure before throughout our long history - for example when they sailed off to conquer vast swathes of distant lands in south east Asia or as missionaries walked to exotic lands to spread the wise words of the Buddha. But in my own brain-washed mind, the word explorer always conjures up images of a Westerner in a khaki suit so it is wonderful to learn of a native role model, a Swadeshi explorer for all practical purposes.

Nain Singh Rawat fits the more cliched image of a seeker in what was still the golden age of exploration (or exploitation, also a perfectly valid description), map and compass in hand, linking the modern world to an ancient one, forever changing both and launching a million more adventure stories. His example becomes all the more relevant when we aspire to capture in a modern and scientific way, what is truly Indian heritage, much older and much more 'native' than any human culture could ever hope to be.


Saturday, September 9, 2017

Words are all we need

Pardon my French, but ABSOLUTELY FUCKING AWESOME this! 

When you bring in blind hatred about Muslims or kafirs or Communists or Capitalists or blacks or whites or browns, you are deathly afraid of polite discussion.



 Because we won't shoot you down, we won't need a tank on your campus and we won't send you to Pakistan. 

We will defeat you... with our words alone. 

That is all we need and final victory, I assure you, will always be ours.

[http://virtual-inksanity.blogspot.in/2017/09/words-are-all-we-need_9.html]

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Tawang x 2 : Sumo Singh, Road King


It only took about 10 seconds for our Sumo driver to regret his decision.

For the past 6 days, our hired driver Mr. V had been driving his Tata Sumo with the expertise needed to negotiate the treacherous roads in and around Tawang. The steep broken roads winding through mountains, which were in equal measures beautiful and deadly, requiring a combination of the Buddha and Mad Max in the driver to make it both safely and on time.

No wonder then, that I was reasonably surprised when he said “Abhi aap chalao! [Now… you’ll drive]” Though on really friendly terms with him, I did not ever ask to drive.

I joked “Ab takk aap daraa rahein the humko, abb meri baari hai. [So far it was you who were scaring us on these roads. Now it’s payback time.]”

Mr. V shrugged “Mujhe koi darr warr nahin lagtaa. [I ain’t afraid.]”.

A worried voice, one from our group of 7, chimed in “Aurr bhi chhe log hai iss gaddi mein, please yaad rakhnaa. [Please remember that there are 6 more people who don’t feel that way]”


Everywhere you look in NW Arunachal, there is a view... and a chance of falling
I did mention that I was reasonably surprised. Did I mention that I was absolutely overjoyed as well?

This, as it happened, was my second trip to Arunachal Pradesh’s Tawang area. Having made my previous trip exactly one year ago, I had fallen in love with the scenic valleys, towering mountains and remoteness, which in a strange way, were actually protected from popularity by the scary nature of these very roads. Being able to drive here was an unexpected bonus!


Yes, lovely it is!
I smiled… a “is this really happening” kind of a smile and put the vehicle into gear. We headed south on our way to Bomdila from the riverside at Dirang.

Mr. I-Ain’t-Afraid lasted all of 10 seconds. Then he said “Yeh gaon mein thodaa aaraam se… yahan ke log bahut danger hai! [Take it easy… in this village. These folks are very short tempered.]”

But Mr. V… he was trapped in the third row. There was nothing he could do. This was EPIC!

I’d be lying if I said that I was fully comfortable with the vehicle.

For starters, I was struggling to find first gear and had to make do with second. This struggle, only because it was an old vehicle (I swear), may have caused some rudder shudder in my passengers. Also, the sheer size and weight of the Sumo made handling it a significantly different challenge from the dinky little Maruti 800 that I usually drive in Kolkata.

One of my "passengers" asked me to check the brakes. I replied “Haan, hain! [Yes, they exist]”. Strangely enough, not everyone found this funny.

But about 4 minutes in, the Road King symptom, as I like to call it, began to manifest. When a vehicle is significantly larger than its fellow transportation on the road, it makes its driver feel slightly pompous. “Make way”, in his mind he is thinking, “the King is coming.”

Old and shaky and beaten half to death by these rough roads, this baby was still a powerful beast. Seated like an emperor on my extra cushion, I watched, with detachment, the road ahead and charged on.

Corners? No problem, I spun the steering like a Pokeball, this way and that. Other vehicles? Chal hatt peechey [See you later]! Broken sections of the road? At least I didn’t feel any bumpiness in my driver’s seat.

It was evening and I may have driven only 4-5 kilometres of this heavenly green mountain road before Mr. V took the wheel again. The *official* reason given by him was the incoming fog which had started obscuring the road to Bomdila. When I requested feedback from our group, some of them even said “Haan! Haan! Accha chaleye! [Yes, yes, you drove well]”

But the real feedback was already received when after only those few minutes of my driving, Mr. V asked from the third row “Abb main chalau phirse? [Shall I take the wheel again?]”


Before & After
Before I could even process the question, 6 voices, none of which were mine, shouted in chorus “Haaaaan! [Yes]”. 

Outvoted 7 to 1, I had to give in to democracy.

He lived briefly but gloriously. Sumo Singh, Road King.


Road King urf Sumo Singh :P
[This is part of my blog series, Tawang x 2, on what possibly is my favourite part of India, north western Arunachal Pradesh]

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Pujo Pondogol [Part 4 of 4] - The North

The North is Kolkata and Kolkata is the North. Many a 'true' Kolkatan who claims allegiance to any other part of the city is, at this point of time, already up in arms. Yet it must be repeated. The North is Kolkata and Kolkata is the North. 

Yes, I know of the most cliched images of Kolkata - the tram rumbling across the vast expanse of the green Maidan, the looming iron skeleton of the Howrah bridge and the helicopter shot of the Victoria Memorial - do not involve any scene or image from north Kolkata. But to get a distinctive feel, to really understand why this city is so different, you have to head into the lanes of North Kolkata.

Let's begin with the Nalin Sarkar Street Pandal. At any other time of the year, the street is typical old Kolkata, with narrow streets and looming leaning houses around. The same narrowness transformed into a throbbing red audio visual experiment for the Durga Puja. I had no clue as to what the theme was for the year's pandal but all I can say is whatever the theory may be, the execution was awesome.


A long tunnel of an entry and the sound of tribal drums reverberating through the smoky air made for a fantastic and moody pandal like no other. Frankly, this was, due to reasons not even very clear to me, my favourite pandal of the year. The aquarium pandal at Salt Lake ran it close but this won "Random Bengali Guy's (namely mine) Favourite Pandal 2015".




Mera No.1... Music CDs of course!
Next are a couple of pictures of a rather gaudily coloured pandal of the Chaltabagan Puja Committee. I guess it was something which was better appreciated at night when the Amitabh Bachchan in Yaarana look (2:26 onwards some trend setting fashion) really lit up the dark in psychedelic colours.


The idols though were unique and sober in white. Made me wonder why the rest of it couldn't be?


Time then to talk about another special pandal. Special because when you make idols for almost all the major pujas of Kolkata and for the Bengali diaspora around the world, the question arises: What do you about your neighbourhood pandal?


Say hello to Kumartuli, the area of town where centuries of specialization in making clay idols has permanent residence. Any time of the year, little sheds in these claustrophobic lanes and bylanes of this city neighbourhood can be found building idols for the next festival on the Hindu religious calendar with a few Grecian maidens and elephants thrown in the mix.


Highly influenced by the Addams Family cartoons apparently. these expert idol makers went along with a magnificent mansion with darker secrets theme.  The relevance of the theme to Durga Puja may be subject to debate but a sincere amount of dedication was put into making the thing look real.



Here for the sake of full disclosure, I must confess that I am easily fooled. A number of my friends who have played practical jokes on me can confirm that. When I first saw the "house", I was totally taken in by this newly refurbished old house. It looks so beautiful now, I was about to tell my parents. 

Giant hands saved me giant embarrassment

I then noticed the giant hands sticking out from underneath the verandah. Ohhh... so this is the Kumartuli pandal then I realized much to my embarassment.



Another noticeable difference in some of the older pandals of North Kolkata is that they do not have the traditional lion as Durga's mount. They seem to have some fierce biting horse creature. Must be a pretty bad-ass horse to be able to sub for the king of the jungle. Apparently, in the original Bengali tradition it was always a horse for Durga, not the lion of Sheraa Maataa.


Sometimes, it's just a random pandal ignored by the crowds that seems to serve up a dollop of difference. This particular one, somewhere on the by-lanes of the North had an interesting compact idol. What it did not have in scale, it made up in the idols' finely chiseled features.


On then to the Baghbazar Puja pandal, a traditional stopover on every north Kolkata pandal hopper's circuit. It helps that Baghbazar is one of the oldest continuously running pandals around, but the crowds are there for a more specific reason.


Yes, the pandal is quite nice too but...


The real reason everyone mobs it is the huge amount of space allotted by the organizers to all manner of food stalls. The organizers have focussed on one thing that pleases the masses. Bengal may be a special case where there are more food worshippers than God worshippers.

OK OK, it's nice... anyone hungry?
In all fairness though, the massive idols and the superhuman calm on Durga's face in the midst of all the mortal confusion around her makes the pandal worth the visit. Every year it's the exact same idol though the pandal look may change. That is one key tradition that they have kept unchanged.


We move then to the Kumartuly Park Puja, which shares its name with the aforementioned clay sculptors' neighbourhood but has little connection beyond that.

It began with an earthquake in progress above with modern houses bearing the brunt. There were some Indian Army soldiers depicted in rescue operations for the same.


Then there was a giant demon representative of Mahisasura, Durga's favourite person to vanquish, guarding a walk in tunnel.


"Durga? Not again!"

Also some abandoned old temples.



Plus a very intricately carved home for the goddess and her family.


The above housed a distinctively beautiful and notably different black Durga with family. 


And all of this - within one pandal. If there was a theme, it must have been a very vast theme. It did allow for a huge variety of creative endeavours but it ended up as a case study for trying to keep too many people happy.

The next pandal is that of Ahiritola. They had a subdued palette of colours for a change but it only made the handcrafted nature of their beautiful pandal and idol stand out even more.






Did look like a wedding cake from the outside though :P
Pictures of another north Kolkata pandal follow where subtlety was preferred to in-your-face-ness. The idols were half hidden in mist and sound & the colours were muted but the impact and atmosphere definitely wasn't.






Just to give you an idea of how an off peak hour of pandal hopping looks like. I went at a time of the least popularity, in the middle of the afternoon.

Off peak hours? Yes. Pandal hopping is POPULAR.
Another limited palette pandal was this one themed on Cambodian temple ruins.



Despite the huge number of visitors, the organizers ensured that at a time no more than 4-5 people entered the main area of the pandal.



On stepping inside, it became clear why. The damp of the air, the jungle soundtrack playing and the mud coloured goddess with her brood - this pandal had put some serious effort into recreating the atmosphere of a temple forgotten by time. The limited palette of colours again worked their magic.



Limited palette of colours would be an incorrect description of the next two pandals of north Kolkata. If anything, they represented the opposite end of the spectrum. They also proved that colour ain't bad either.




Unlimited Palette of Colours - Exhibit 1



Unlimited Palette of Colours - Exhibit 2
So here we are, on the very last pandal of the very last post of the Pujo Pondogol series. I thought it would be appropriate to end the series with an example of the insane amounts of preparation (and I mean INSANE) amounts of preparation that goes into building up a Puja pandal, which is scheduled to exist for 5-6 days at most.

Below is the pandal of the Hatibagan Puja committee, another one of the longstanding popular ones on the North Kolkata puja circuit.


Someone or a group of someones went through an absolutely incredible amount of repetitive effort for this.


No. No one can love arts and crafts that much. I am betting that a few hundred fingers fell off by the time they were done folding.

Gold's "Finger" Gym





Every year I swear, swear that this is the last year I am going Durga Puja pandal hopping. There's too much of a crowd, there's the horrible weather, there's the walking for miles together - how many times before you get bored of it? No. Not this year. I am staying in.

Then Durga Puja comes around. Then I think, OK, if I just select 3-4 'main' Pujas at really odd hours, I might get a taste of the season. Then I set out walking. Then I am amazed at this small pandal, then I am blown away by that little artwork, then I am doing the entire circuit all over again. Before I know it, I am back doing the Puja Pondogol.

[These pictures are from the Durga Puja pandals, temporary structures of magnificent complexity, of 2015.