Festivities scaled down as pandemic-forced restrictions are in place
The City of Joy is witnessing a tussle between celebration and caution as the curtain lifts on Durga Puja — a festival it awaits all year and which sees erection of pandals in almost its every nook and cranny — under the shadow of the COVID-19 pandemic.
While there is enthusiasm among people, considering a city accustomed to celebrating its numerous festivals has been forced to show restraint for far too long now, there is also fear and, like last year, there are restrictions in place.
Since pandals have once again been declared as no-entry zones for the public, most of them have been designed in a way that visitors can have a view of the idols from the road, without getting into an enclosure and thus forming a crowd. And the brave ones have already begun pandal-hopping.
“Puja this year looks low-key. There appears to be a definite budget cut as many neighbourhoods were not aglow with lights. Most pandals were cordoned off, people were indeed watching from a distance,” said Suparna Sengupta, a teacher from Bangalore who is visiting her parents and who on Friday evening visited some of the most popular pandals in south Kolkata, such as Ekdalia Evergreen and Ballygunge Cultural Association. “Some pandals are still to be finished. It seems not only the pandemic but even the successive cyclones and incessant unseasonal rains have impacted the celebrations. Kolkata seemed to be a city on tenterhooks — expectant yet cautious.”
The apprehension is palpable, according to Jai Ranjan Ram, one of Kolkata’s top psychiatrists. He observed that the unadulterated joy that is felt during Durga Puja is absent. “There is sadness in the air about lost lives and financial hardships, and there is an unspoken fear about a third wave,” Dr. Ram said. “The much-publicised restrictions also are constant reminders that we need to celebrate with caution. As a result, there is also a very distinct realisation that life is not the same with COVID-19 hovering over our lives. That feeling is having a psychological toll, leading to depression and anxiety.”
In the face of fear, people are celebrating in the little ways they can. Several pandals continue to have a theme, and this year they didn’t have to think very hard. For some, COVID-19 itself is a theme, for some others, it is India’s improved performance in the Olympics. What’s been impacted most is eating out: pre-pandemic, all pandals served lunch to local residents (and thus providing an opportunity for people in the neighbourhood to socialise) while most popular pandals had food stalls for the public.
But doctors feel one shouldn’t feel too sad about these things. “We will have many Pujas in our lifetime. To enjoy those, we need to remain safe now. In West Bengal, the number of COVID-19 cases has not stagnated and, if anything, is slightly on the rise,” said Koushik Lahiri, a founding member of the West Bengal Doctors’ Forum.
Most people have taken the restrictions and the consequent scaled-down celebrations in their stride. Salt Lake City-resident and business-owner Anuradha Mitra has bought herself a few sarees, but the preference this time, she said, was comfort over style, considering one was going to be mostly homebound.
“Puja this time is more like changing the décor around the house and indulging in home-cooked Bengali fare because there won’t be community lunches,” Ms. Mitra said. She then added: “Puja in Kolkata is actually more about people from surrounding towns and villages who earn their livelihood in the city and who bring their kith and kin to show them the pandals and to indulge in the festivities. For two years in a row, this crowd has been missing. One feels very sad for them.”
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