Text & Mobile Phone photos by Brinda Bose
It is no secret that the carnival of Durga’s homecoming in the autumn – as the skies turn azure and the shiuli flowers fall – takes on a kind of manic cheer in Calcutta, as wondrous as it is strangely unnerving. It is as if the scale of madness and grandeur of the festivities, the transformation of the city’s miserable everydayness into a son et lumière phantasmagoria, is commensurate with the plunging of the index of well-being, of survival, of existence in the city and in the state. A growing terror lurks in such bizarre opulence, such obscene abundance of beauty and merry-making. Somewhere, even as bright new clothes shimmer under a thousand coloured tuni lights and families feast on garish pink candy floss, the magic begins to yield some despair, some misery, some sadness. And as Durga Puja in Bengal reaches for the stars, literally, with the largest, the smartest, the loudest, and the tallest, its capital city begins to crumble beneath the weight of its trumped up happinesses. As the 88-feet ‘tallest ever Durga’ idol at Deshapriya Park proved this year, the highest of ambitions must trip on its hubris and cover its overreacher-pride with a flapping cloth of shame.
But ranged against the world’s tallest Durga – the goddess who ironically could no longer be seen after the first day of the festival – the by-lanes of the city’s nishiddho para (forbidden quarters) sprung some nascent delight in the dead of Saptami night. Two unpretentious pujas tucked away in the large, filthy and shadowy spread of the city’s red-light district, Sonagachhi, offered passionate resistance to the lustre of dirty, crass lucre all over the city. It was probably divine coincidence that these were both located across the road from the city’s idol-making locality, Kumortuli, where emaciated artisans – the kumor – stay awake day and night for months before the Puja season feverishly casting and colouring gods and goddesses who then go away without blessing them with better fortunes. It is likely that they are in empathy with the struggles of some other communities of the city’s underbelly which eke out their living just as precariously in other dingy streets in the sprawling crowded seething neighbourhood.
This year, crouching silent and stark against the bang and shout of the spectacle unfolding in the rest of the city, two Sarbojanin (community) Pujas, organized by transgender women and sex-workers respectively, brought a peculiar mix of sparkling passion and low-life grit and the shadow of hard unsentimental labour to the city’s wonder-week, and redeemed it somewhat.
In a tiny cul-de-sac at the end of Joy Mitra Street a few littered cluttered alleys away from the Sovabazar Metro station in the heart of North Calcutta, an ardhanarishwar Durga stood proudly proclaiming a singular achievement – the first ever community puja organized by members of the Koti, Hijra and other transgender women’s communities – and presented by the Pratyay Gender Trust.
Half-man, half-woman, the ardhanarishwar has been claimed by this non-normative community that toiled without corporate sponsorship and fanfare to host Durga’s homecoming with zeal and commitment. The idol was made by the only woman artist in Kumortuli, China Pal. “This idea is basically half-Shiv and half-Durga. So it’s about ‘Adi Sakti’ (Primeval-power). We didn’t mean anything else. From the beginning, we had decided to have a half-man-half-woman idol if we do a Puja here at all.”
All preparations for the event, from the conceptualization of the idol to the collection of subscriptions to fund the puja to the decoration of the pandal were carried out by transgender women in defiance of the tradition of male and brahminical domination of such tasks.
The murals adorning this pandal marked the distinction of this puja from the numerous small and big marquees dotting the city’s lanes and by-lanes: they depicted scenes of violation, exploitation and extortion that members of the community are subjected to in the public spaces of the city they belong to, sweat and toil in but cannot call their own, despite the Indian government’s granting of a ‘third gender’ identity to them, in passports most of them do not own and have no use for.
Among those who have brought this first puja by the transgender community into being, there is no sustained bitterness about their social and economic ostracization – there is, instead, an odd stoicism coupled with a relentless fighting spirit.
“We haven’t become mainstream. We have been fighting and we have received these rights after fighting for years. If we fight more maybe we will receive more rights.”
Well past midnight, as we walk around the art panels and chat, members of the community are warm and relaxed. They admire our clothes, gazing keenly and dispensing friendly smiles while trying to gauge the tenor of our interest. The ambience in this pandal stands them apart from most community puja pandals one may walk through in the city; we remark on this as they give us directions to another puja in the neighbourhood we want to visit, and cheerfully quarrel among themselves about the shorter route there with less kharap lok (bad people).
Walking through the narrow lanes, we stop at a ‘regular’ small community puja, thronged by late night puja crowds, a staple of the city in this festival week every year. The Hijras’ puja was a contrast, there were no other visitors besides us but the impersonality of this faceless crowd at a nameless puja was countered there by the visible presence of a large group of Hijras sitting around, chatting and laughing.
Down a couple of lanes from the transgender community puja, tucked even deeper inside in a pristine community hall, we find the sex-workers’ puja of Sonagachhi, now in its third year. Organized by the DMSC (Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee), the large collective of over 6500 sex-workers in West Bengal, we are told ruefully that though last year they had fought to find a place out on the road for their puja, this year they had been shoved back inside the community hall “because they don’t want us to be out among everyone.”
Perhaps fittingly (though presumably only because it was past 1 am), we found Durga and her family behind bars at the sex-workers’ puja in Sonagachhi. Durga and her daughters were dressed not in the usual finery but in simple (Bengali) white sarees with red borders and rudraksher mala (necklace of tulasi seeds worn traditionally by seers, denoting spirituality and sacrifice of worldly goods).
The little alcove was decorated by artwork and posters made by the children of sex-workers. This poster proclaimed, “Parvati Ma enters the home of the sex-worker”.
The elaborate programme that hung prominently listed each day’s timings for activities. Here too in the wee hours, male members of DMSC who were minding the site of the locked-and-barred Durga were warm and chatty. They rued the state of affairs that continually pushes them deeper into the belly of the city so that they are not seen participating like regular folk out on its streets which belong to them as much as any other. But they were laughing, and noting that since some progress had been made and they were in their third year, the puja would continue its work of proving that sex-workers could stake their claims on city spaces too. Ironically, beautifully, the entire neighbourhood as we traversed it was lit up by some heavily-made-up and gorgeously-dressed sex-workers who provided stiff competition to the dazzling lights of the puja pandals standing at every few feet in their lanes. Perhaps business was brisk during these carnivalesque nights; perhaps the Durga they had set up was bestowing them with luck; perhaps the pleasure of community worship was also carnal. One could only hope so.
All decorations in the puja area had been done by the children of sex-workers; as were these paintings. The influence of artist Jamini Roy’s style was unmistakable in the artwork, it clearly cut across class and caste in Bengal, as art is wont to do.
Walking across the road toward the dimly-lit, narrow lanes of Kumortuli, we pass one of the neighbourhood’s grand puja pandals. At the entrance, a humongous pair of hands holds up a mansion. There can be no better symbol of the unknown labourer’s hands that have made the splendid and the fine possible, though it is unlikely that this is the what the organizers intended to convey.
In the ghostly lanes of Kumortuli, a lady awaits. Lakshmi, daughter of Durga, is lined up in multiples as she awaits her day in the sun, a few days away. Durga will leave but Lakshmi will take her place for a day’s reprieve from the mundane in Bengal this Tuesday. In Kumortuli, Durga has been forgotten the moment she was rolled out from its lanes, and work in this busy season began again without a heartbeat’s pause.
Lakshmi connotes a special irony for the Kumortuli artists, and for the transgender and the sex-worker communities, whose pujas throng the neighbourhoods around her. The goddess of wealth does not smile easily on any of them. They toil and trouble, and in their spirit of resistance and exhilaration they fight to get a toehold in the city they possess like no other, because they live and breathe and sweat in its very sinews. And there are victories that are tenuous but precious. “It wasn’t totally easy. There were some local boys who were horrible to us. They are quiet now. Maybe they will say something during the Puja. So we have to fight and we are prepared to fight. We have decided to have fun. We will bring the idol with celebration and we will take it for visarjan with celebration as well.”
As we leave the locality around 2 am, this image – of an old artisan working with complete concentration on his idol-making that I captured through a small opening in a dark alley in Kumortuli – stays with me. Ultimately, what survives is tough labour. Unrecognized, dismally-recompensed, recalcitrant, resistant, perhaps it is a labour of love: one that is jagged and ragged, gilded with a roughness of the real that is shared in strange if unequal ways with two of the communities they have supplied their idols to, across the avenue that separates, and joins, them.
Quotes from the transgender community from