It has been weeks since it last rained, but, as usual, the entire city is flooded. One of the world’s most densely populated urban centers, Kolkata always seems to be on the verge of dissolving under the strain of a perpetual deluge; not the water kind.
Wave after wave began pouring in a few days ago. They came to celebrate the biggest festival in Hinduism in the largest city in the region and pay tribute to the most important gods in their pantheon.
I was told Hindus believe rivers and streams are divine sources of life. From down here in the crush of flowing masses, I could use some divine intervention to prevent from being swept away.
I look up and in the distance I catch a glimpse of the illuminated paper-mache spires that line the colorful entrance to one of the city’s many puja pandals. Like giant ocean liners, these elegant makeshift temples float high above the dark tangle of narrow alleys that throb and undulate with colorful swells of humanity. Eddies of lit candles, neon trinkets, and sparkling tinsel shimmer atop the viscous torrent of heads. Slowly, they percolate through the towering, ribbon-laced archways that tentatively dam the relentless flow of admirers. Inside the enormous cardboard palaces, giant clay idols of the goddess, Durga, and her four children, welcome adoring subjects like benevolent monarchs holding court.
As we near the shrine, the street narrows and the storefront walls begin to constrict around us. The pressure builds. On all sides, I am squeezed by a vice of multi-hued saris, dazzling bangles and sinuous limbs.
Like a fish rising for a gulp of air, I thrust my head upward in an effort to pierce the hot surface of bobbing heads. Above me, I catch surreal glimpses of a giant feathery tail attached to a dhaki’s pulsating drum. With his rhythmic dance he carves out a hollow space in the mass of elbows, hands and knees beside me. I selfishly try to claim that bubble of space as my own but the vacuum quickly fills with a surge of gyrating hips.
“Excuse me. Are we almost there?” I yell into the ear of an overweight man resting his meaty arm on my shoulders in what I can only assume is a friendly intimation.
He turns his head; grazing his nose on mine. His biryani scented breath mixes with the peppery smells of incense smoke, fresh garlands, and spice-infused sweat. A brilliant smile slices the dark silhouette of his round face as he answers my question with a quick, graceful cock of the head. The foreign gesture leaves me confused and I begin to repeat myself, but his bellowing laughter interrupts me. “Oh! You are not Indian,” he merrily announces. “Yes! We are very almost inside one of Kolkata’s much most beautiful pandals.”
Tonight, tides of devotees ebb around these altars. Tomorrow, thousands of idols will be immersed in rivers symbolizing Durga’s return home.
Hindus believe rivers are divine sources of life. That life itself can only be understood in the ephemeral, the transitional. That the answers to the world’s mysteries are in liquiform.
Maybe they are right. I don’t know. For now, I simply want to go with the flow.