Ranikhet's own traditions and its unique culturehave trumped the charmsof Durga Puja, says Anuradha Roy
(The Telegraph, Sunday 28 September 2014)
(The Telegraph, Sunday 28 September 2014)
Look, there's Manoj.
Not Manoj, can't you see him, he's still at his shop. No, that's Nandu Dhobi. He's Lakshman this year.
Nandu? That three-foot midget as Lakshman? It's someone else.
Below the parapet was an arrangement of tables held together as a stage with ropes and prayers. It had a gleaming maroon backdrop. A hirsute man cradling a mace sat on a stool at a shop nearby, slurping tea. A thickening audience was exchanging raucous notes. Then the microphone crackled, the stage creaked, and Nandu Dhobi appeared in his crown, wig, and robes. His voice had acquired an unfamiliar gravitas. His audience of neighbours stilled themselves, inexplicably respectful. Those of us who had been sheltering over hot rum in the restaurant next to Munir Bux's hauled ourselves over to the parapet for a look.
In the nine days preceding Dussehra, the sun still sets on Ranikhet's hills at the usual time but silence is drummed out. Few stay home. Late in the evening the blackness is broken into clumps by beams from fluorescent torches as people spill out from houses scattered far apart and climb the slopes to converge on Mall Road for the next stage in Ravana's eventual destruction. Dusshera is no homecoming for Durga and her entourage here. Unlike most other towns and cities in India with five Bengalis and a collection box for chanda, Ranikhet has nothing Bengalis would recognise as Puja.
In his essay The Descendants, Arvind K. Mehrotra describes the manner in which the Bengali Diaspora made alien cities its own: "A long migration...brought increasing numbers of Bengalis... to Gangetic upcountry in the second half of the nineteenth century...even today if one goes [to Lukergunj near the station in Allahabad] one gets the feeling that one has come to a different part of the country. The shop signs are in Bengali and banner ads for Ranga-Java Deluxe Sindur hang outside."
My ancestors were part of this nineteenth-century migration and they went first to Agra and then to Jaipur, where they put down roots. Intrepid early settlers of their kind soon enough set up Durga Pujas in different towns. My mother remembers spending all day at the Jaipur Puja-bari through her childhood in the 1950s. There were similar probashi enclaves in towns like Lucknow and Allahabad and Kanpur. My brother and I grew up mostly outside Calcutta, and anywhere in India that we lived, October meant the familiar blend of adda and anjali, overeating, overdressing, and variety-show.
Snapshots of Kumaon till the 1970s bring alive an extraordinary cultural and spiritual efflorescence: from Allaudin Khan, Zohra Sehgal, Ravi Shankar and Bismillah Khan to Allen Ginsberg, Bob Dylan, Anandamayi Ma, and Timothy Leary, it is as if, at this time, the world came to Kumaon. Many who passed through or settled here were Bengali: Rabindranath retreated to Ramgarh after the death of his wife and returned to write parts of the Gitanjali; Vivekananda came to the Kasardevi temple in Almora when writing one of the essays published in From Colombo to Almora. Uday Shankar set up his dance academy at Almora, where he performed Ram Lila ballets (on open-air stages surrounded by deodar and chir). Monica Devi, wife of G. N. Chakravarti — the first vice-chancellor of Lucknow University — took sanyas as Yashoda Ma and, with Ronald Henry Nixon, a British fighter pilot turned Cambridge academic turned Vaishnav ascetic, set up a renowned ashram at Mirtola.
When I got to Ranikhet, this blaze of cultural and spiritual activity had died down, but I encountered people deeply influenced by a dogma-free spirituality I attributed to Mirtola. I would sit in Amit Sen's verandah and listen to stories of the ashram, which he and his wife Anjali, as well as writers like Bill Aitken, had been part of in their time. Now the ashram was almost deserted and most disciples had scattered, but it remained a live presence.
This is the thing about Ranikhet: you might buy your vegetables from Pandeyji in the morning and get your gas stove fixed by Raju in the afternoon, then meet them both at a wedding in the evening and swap friendly insults over a meal about their performances in the Ram Lila the week before. The fortresses of class and hierarchy are less forbidding here. Everyone is addressed with the familiar tum rather than the more formal and distant aap. Gifts are always reciprocated even when you can only afford to give a lauki or a bunch of bananas in return. An acquaintance lurks beyond every loop in the road and, bank manager or goatherd, he must holler out a "Namaste", then demand information about every aspect of your life: why were you at the doctor's that afternoon, is your water supply ok, why are you greying. Gossip is both fundamental right and social glue. This is a small hill town cut off from elsewhere, a world in itself.
The clarity in the air, not just from the mountains but from Mirtola, the ease with which they were absorbed into the daily lives of local people, their minute numbers, their homes scattered across ridges and valleys: perhaps all of this dissolved the need in Ranikhet's Bengali Diaspora for the familiar joys of Puja. Like an aging fax message, Durga Puja faded. It moved to the realm of happy but unlonged-for memories.
I haven't been in Calcutta during Durga Puja for 25 years. If it's October, it has to be Ranikhet.
Anuradha Roy is the author of An Atlas of Impossible Longing and The Folded Earth