This is Calcutta, during the pujas. Of course thousands of people have shown up to worship the goddess. All right, not worship the goddess, worship each other, and food ...
There are about four hundred people in and around the pandal at midnight -- just a trickle, then. I think we got around five thousand in the early evening. Busy night. No surprise there. This is Calcutta, during the pujas. Of course thousands of people have shown up to worship the goddess. All right, not worship the goddess, worship each other, and food, and the fact that they made it through another year.
It's been a horrible year, which means people make more of an effort to celebrate -- they're all out tonight, in their kurtas and their saris. A few hours ago, they were all dancing and twirling with the crazy drummers, and getting high off the smoke and general frenzy in the air. It takes very little for people to cast off the whole city sophisticate thing and become the tribe that the pujas remind them they are.
Every year the faces change a little, and the clothes change a little more, but it's always the same people at the pandal. The cursory visit to the actual idols, token worship, the ten-minute awkward stand near the auditorium where some local hero wails lustily to the sound of … well, Bollywood now, but it used to be Tagore songs. Then, the real pujas begin -- they eat like starving demons and recover on a chair in the park. And the food is usually greasy and horrible, but they don't care -- they wake up next morning ready to do it again. That's the beauty of pandal food.
I love crowds. I've been at pandals, some years, where it's just a family affair, and there are maybe fifty people around. These are all very high-class, old-school, Bengali zamindar family affairs. Boring. This year, I'm doing a pandal in Salt Lake, which used to be a swamp, and then it was a quiet suburb, and now it's a technology hub and almost a part of the city centre. Calcutta changes every year, even though the people who leave it and come only to visit complain that it doesn't change at all. New things come and go like mushrooms, living and dying and coming back. The last few years, it's been phones instead of cameras; everyone's taking pictures of the same people and things they see every year and putting it up on the internet. I guess it helps them feel alive. And it helps them pretend they've been to more pandals than they have. Saves time. Traffic is always terrible. Millions of Calcuttans are out on the streets, plus countless more from outside.
At 1 a.m., the lights around the idols are switched off, leaving only a few lamps and incense sticks to keep the goddess and her children assured that we all still love them. I heave a sigh of relief as the pandal finally empties, and then, when it's dark, I change into my social clothes. When I step out, into the light, I'm looking pretty good -- a handsome young Bengali man in a sharp kurta. It's a classic look. Always works, always will.
The stalls are shutting down, one by one -- I grab the last dirty candyfloss from one stall, shoot the last set of balloons with an airgun at another. I ride the creaky merry-go-round -- it's for kids, really, but Akbar bhai, who runs it, owes me a favour or two. I look ridiculous, a grown man on a children's ride, but I don't care. Pandal management is one of the most stressful jobs in the world.
Purab and Alok arrive in half an hour. The pandals they're running this year are all nearby -- we'd decided we'd do Salt Lake properly this time. We usually find ourselves slots in fashionable South Calcutta, but Purab had insisted we try out the city's new hub. And as they enter the park and wave at me, I notice they're doing well this year -- they've got a girl with them already, a foreign girl.
"This is Claudia," says Purab. "From the Netherlands," says Alok gleefully.
"They told me you would be the best person to explain all this puja," says Claudia.
So I toss a few teenagers from the chairs they've been guarding savagely, and we sit down, and I explain it all. How a pandal is more than just a tent with some clay figures in it. How the goddess Durga, after slaying several asuras, comes to her parents' house with all her kids for a few days every year. Claudia has the usual questions: Who are the four gods around the main Durga-lion-asura idol? Why does Ganesh have an elephant's head? Why is he married to a banana tree? What are the animals doing with the gods? Why are Durga's kids doing nothing while their mother, in every pandal, is so hard at work slaying the horrific green asura with her spear and her angry lion?
I explain to her that the moment every idol depicts -- Durga, the warrior goddess, standing on her lion, driving her spear through the heart of the fearsome asura, is more than just an action scene -- it's the moment the gods really defeated their mortal enemies, the asuras, really set the foundations of the world we live in now. Like all foreigners, she's amazed at the way the whole city turns into a carnival, at the work that goes into making hundreds of thousands of beautiful idols, incredible pandal tents -- and how it's all just thrown into the river when the festival is done.
"I've been to Rio during Carnival," says Claudia. "But this is some-thing else."
"Yes, it's definitely very different," says Purab. Like he's ever been to Brazil. Claudia wins our hearts by immediately asking the best question about the pujas.
"So, the gods all made this ultimate warrior goddess Durga by adding their powers together because the asura was demolishing them, right? But what had the asura done that was actually wrong? As in, why is he the villain?"
"Because he's ugly," says Alok. "And because he dared to take on the gods. That's it. But there are tribes all over India who still think he got a raw deal -- they think the pujas are a time of mourning, and actually worship the asuras. Of course most of these tribes are still living in the Stone Age."
"I wonder what would have happened if he'd won," says Claudia.
"Well, given what happened to the world after the gods won, you have to wonder," says Alok. "Maybe the asuras would have handled things better. But we wouldn't have had the pujas, so it all evens out."
"I'm glad she won," says Claudia. "Girl power, yes? It would've been a pretty sad statue with the big demon killing the young goddess. Also, this is why Calcutta women, why Bengali women are so awesome, yes? The rest of the country is all about men."
Claudia has many more questions, but we have a problem: We're all getting hungry. All that work, plus nothing builds up an appetite more than watching other people eat. But we can't really get started until Subir gets here.
Subir makes his entrance at around three in the morning. He's fairly drunk. We're sitting around, four of us, in an empty field dotted with tacky plastic chairs. To my left, the pandal is asleep, empty except for a sleeping security guard. It's quiet, though the field seems to throb with the echoes of the day's chaos. The city is aglow, the sky grey and yellow, a dull wave of noise washing over us every now and then.
"Anyone hungry?" Subir asks, and we all groan.
"I'm sorted," says Purab, a cloud of smoke drifting from his nostrils, the orange glow of his cigarette reflected in his large, round eyes. Claudia looks at him, and there's a moment that passes between them that we all notice. Purab and Claudia might be one of those puja romances that really work out. Earlier the pujas used to be the only time in the year when young men and women could actually meet without parents breathing down their necks. It was mating season, every year, and that was really why young people looked forward to it. Times have changed, of course, and people meet each other all the time, in the real world and in cyberspace, but people still have puja pairings. It's a thing.
"Have you eaten?" Alok asks Subir.
"Usual. Pandal food. This and that. Just got in from Maddox."
We have to pause for a bit while I explain to Claudia that Maddox Square is Puja Mating Central, where you have to be seen if you're hoping to make your mark in trendy Calcutta society.
"Good crowd?" asks Alok, grinning.
"Lovely. Don't ask me what the pandal looks like, never looked at it. The girls are lovely. There was this one, my god … she could get on a lion and slay me any time. But why do you ask? You've not eaten?"
"I'm going to go find dinner now, in fact. Come?"
"Not if you're going South-side. Won't find transport back at this hour, and I have to be at work in the morning."
"We all have work. Come on!"
"Sorry." Purab gestures towards Alok and Subir. "You going?"
"Depends," Alok grins. "I'm not hungry, but I'm up for some fun. Where will the girls be, this time of night? Subir? There's no point just hanging around with us, you know."
Subir doesn't say anything. But he glares at Alok, and we all laugh, though this is a jibe that gets repeated at every possible occasion. Subir rises and burps, indicating his willingness to leave. So we bid our goodbyes to Purab and Claudia and get into my car.
As I drive off, I see Purab, shaking his head, walk into the pandal with Claudia -- she'd been talking about getting another look at the idols before they left. Claudia blows me a kiss as they enter, fading into the shadows cast by the lamps in front of the idols, until they're just a suggestion of a moving shape, grey-green in the light from a huge glowing hoarding across the street proclaiming the virtues of some antiseptic or other.
We turn the corner and drive on. Alok's next to me, smiling a secret smile to himself as he scans the streets, marvelling at the new, flashing lights and bright colours of the city we watched change before our eyes. We're from the north, of course, and we're all old enough to remember when everything was different; when you could smell the earth and the river, when the pujas, while still a huge carnival, were about people not things, not about smartphones and Best Pandal TV contests, when the lights on the street, the decorations were wonders to gaze in awe at. When the pujas were a source of faith and mystery. Ah well, we were younger ourselves then, and you feel things more deeply when you're young.
"I want to tell you something," says Subir suddenly. "I'm gay."
If he expects us to be shocked, he's in for a disappointment. "We know," says Alok. "And we've always felt bad for you during the pujas -- Calcutta's not really a good hunting ground for attractive men, is it? Still, at least some of them go to gyms now. If they'd only stop wearing net-vests at pandals, you'd be okay.' Subir grumbles, and is silent.
Enough conversation. It's time to eat.
At Maddox, Mating Central, we find what we're looking for -- an attractive young couple wandering around in a little winding lane near the pandal. We get out of the car. They don't even notice us until we're right next to them. It's over quickly, without much of a struggle. Subir eats the boy, I eat the girl, and Alok watches, smiling, snacking on a hand. She's very tasty, though her strange foreign perfume leaves a sour taste in my mouth. Give me old-fashioned sweat any day.
It's almost dawn now. Time to go to work. We drive back to Salt Lake, and I drop Alok and Subir at their pandals. I park my car and walk inside my pandal. I clean up the smear of blood near the lamp -- Purab's getting sloppy in his old age. Poor Claudia. She was nice. Did she come to India to find herself?
"Couldn't save her, could you?" I ask the Durga idol. She stares back at me, her fiery eyes unmoving. I scream at her, at the whole family for a while, ancient challenges, taunts. I wish they'd come back, fight me again. I miss them. Where did they go? Why did they leave?
But it's morning now, and the pandal workers will be here soon. I slouch up to the divine family and their pets. I assume my position, below Durga's spear, in front of the lion's mouth. I stretch my face into a mask of anger and fear, my fangs glistening in the lamp-light, my body now green, strong, well-fed. I freeze. Soon the day will be here, and so will I. Waiting. Maybe you'll come visit me, laugh at the silly asura. And I'll be watching you. Maybe I'll like you. Maybe you'll look good. Good enough to eat.
I love pandal food.
Samit Basu is the author of several speculative fiction novels, born and raised in Calcutta. This story was previously published in Fantasy for Good, an international charity anthology featuring writers such as George R. R. Martin and Neil Gaiman.