As a responsible citizen aiming to be a non-participant in the pandemic (I suffer absolutely no FOMO or fear of missing out, particularly when it comes to Covid-19, thank you very much), you will not be surprised to learn that I have set not so much as the tip of a toe anywhere near a puja pandal this Navratri / Durga Puja.
To be fair to the SARS-CoV-2 virus – which has had bad press since the moment it was born and needs to be shown by us woke people that circumstances of birth alone is no reason to be cast out of society – I also have not been near any puja pandal in the last 30 years if not longer, because I am the Indian version of a Scrooge. From the moment we hit August every year, which, depending on what the lunar calendars are up to at the time, marks the beginning of the festive season, you hear me bah, humbugging all over the place, with emphasis on the ‘bah’.
I do not enjoy crowds. I especially do not enjoy crowds in a hot and sweaty climate punctuated by distinctly uncooling monsoon showers that set my sinuses aflame and cause me to sneeze like a machine gun on speed. I do not enjoy amplified aartis by priests so besura that even Cacofonix the bard would be dashing about with gags and ropes to tie them to trees while Asterix and Obelix stuff their ears with broccoli and tuck into roast boar. I do not enjoy the ‘talent shows’ organised by cooperative housing societies in which uncles attempt stand-up comedy so bad that the YouTube shows look good in comparison, aunties explore their inner item girl and give themselves displaced vertebrae for life and children run even more amuck than they normally do, only this time on a stage with amplifiers.
Finally, I absolutely do not enjoy my eardrums being shattered day after day by the techno-Bollywood remixes that our gods and goddesses are apparently fond of, according to puja and dandiya organisers, with Sheila ki jawani at No. 1 on the pandal charts, Lungi dance at No. 2 and Chammak challo at No. 3, all at ear-splitting volume.
So I was delighted when I read the rules for Navratri in Mumbai this year. Keep it low key, urged the state government. Do not do anything that involves mass gatherings; there will be no garba and no dandiya; discuss viruses and dengue-bearing mosquitoes whenever it appears that a crowd is gathering – that will send everyone home.
Meanwhile, in Kolkata, the high court demanded barricades outside the pandals and a maximum of only 45 people inside at any point depending on the size of the pandal, thus ensuring that 90 per cent of the population of the city would push and shove their way to the barricade, thus maintaining what we might now name ‘antisocial distance’ just to add another virus-related phrase to the Oxford English Dictionary.
“Aha,” said my Scrooge, rubbing its hands with glee as it read these rules in the newspapers. “Maybe I’ll get through this year with my eardrums and sanity intact.”
And so far, dear reader, this whole puja season I have not had to use my ear plugs at all. Instead, there is a blessed silence every day – or at least what passes for silence in urban India with its daily aural mix of shattering power drills, blaring car horns, screaming food processors, piercing pressure cooker whistles and the occasional cawing crow.
And I have to admit it: I am bored witless.
Where are the social media posts about divine bhog that I look forward to every year with my tongue hanging out? Bhog is not permitted, say the state governments. It might contain a certain virus.
How will I know if Sheila ki jawani is still No. 1 on the pandal charts 10 years after it first released or if Chammak challo has finally climbed to the top, pulling the lungi down and revealing its underwear and banian, all modesty damned?
How can I perfect my sneer at the residents of my cooperative housing society when it’s time for them to display their untalents on Navratri nights? (Note for grammar Nazis: if you can unfriend people on social media, you can certainly display an untalent.) I usually get a refresher course during the festive season, but not this year.
I feel so bereft without everything I hate about Navratri and the pujas, that I might actually do the unthinkable today: 30 years or more after I told my parents that if I was old enough to vote, I was old enough to stop participating in the annual family pandal hop, I might just step out of the house and visit a puja pandal. Since it’s the last day of the puja, I doubt if there will be a crowd.
And with a little bit of luck, I will not be hit by an unseasonable monsoon shower, find my sinuses inflamed, sneeze like machine gun on speed, and be arrested for spreading a certain virus.