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Will Covid protocols dampen puja fervour this year too?

Pujo comes at that time of the year when the delicate aroma of shiuli begins to waft in the air, the tremulous ‘Kash phools’ quiver in the autumnal wind, and the din of newness and preparation dilates the city. Unfortunately, these whiffs and aromas will have to be capped by the mask and violated by the sanitiser even this year.

Shreya Banerjee | Kolkata |

To invoke Ma Durga is to invoke the boundless spirit of Calcutta during Durga Puja; which is at best, an attempt to turn the fleeting, fragile, buoyant and beautiful into something abiding. Every Calcuttan finds themselves pulsating to the tremor and beauty of this grand spectacle.

Pujo comes at that time of the year when the delicate aroma of shiuli begins to waft in the air, the tremulous Kash phools quiver in the autumnal wind, and the din of newness and preparation dilates the city. Unfortunately, these whiffs and aromas will have to be capped by the mask and violated by the sanitiser even this year.

Two years of being corralled by COVID-19 has limited the magnanimity of Durga Puja. In August 2020, the Department of Health and Family Welfare Govt. of West Bengal, reported 25,996 active cases which were only increasing.

As of August 2021, the Health Ministry of India has been reporting an average of 45,000+cases in the country per day. The tally may seem resounding but every new mutation of the virus places us at crucial intersections. According to WHO, the newly mutated Delta plus variant falls under a ‘Variant of Concern’, which means that the variant is capable of a rise in transmissibility and a decrease in the effectiveness of vaccines.

Experts have also warned of an imminent 3rd wave in the month of October. This year Durga Pujo is slated to start from the 12th of October. As the date approaches, puja organisers of some of the most landmark pujas in the city have implored upon the need to follow COVID-19 guidelines.

“In 2020, the Calcutta High Court had conferred us with the title of ‘Model Pujo’ in 2020”, says a proud Parimal De, President of Beliaghata 33 Pally. But what is a model pujo? Mr De explains that the title was given in recognition of 33 Pally’s commitment towards organizing a Covid compliant Durga Pujo.

“Last year the government allowed 45 people inside the pandal but we have limited it to 15 for greater safety,’’ he added. The Forum for Durgotsab, a platform of 550 community and neighbourhood pujas has issued a comprehensive list of COVID-19 protocols that are to be strictly followed in the pandals.

The forum’s General Secretary, Saswata Basu explained that “Decorators, dhakis, electricians, artists and puja committee people must be fully vaccinated.” “We have impressed upon organisers the need to create pandals which are open on all 4 sides.” “Masks are mandatory, and visitors will be allowed to visit pandals from afar and congregations are strictly discouraged,” he added.

Founded in 1940, Ahiritola Sarbojanin Samity is prized for being one of the most celebrated Puja Pandals in Calcutta. The organisers of this prominent puja are worried as they have another feat to fulfil- the smooth coalescing of pujo rituals and COVID-19 protocols.

Dulal Seal, Joint Secretary of Ahiritola Sarbojanin Durgotsab Samity says that “We are removing the fanfare and festivities and only focusing on matribandana (invoking the goddess).” “In terms of finance, we suffered a big blow because of the pandemic. Our budget has been slashed significantly.” Mr. Seal’s tenor reeked of quiet confidence, although he dreams of a time when the usual laughter, colour, light and sound of Pujo would be able to return to Ahiritola.

Down South, Avijit Majumdar of Singhi Park Sarbojonin recalls 2020’s Pujo as a strange one, devoid of game stalls, hubbub and adda that usually abounds the pandal. “Last year, the Calcutta High Court had issued a 30 feet rule and this year we will follow the same. Currently, we are attempting to initiate a drive-in facility only if the administration approves.”

“We will have a socially distanced pushpanjali for locals. The flowers will be thoroughly fumigated,’’ he affirmed. “Between the stage, we will hang a transparent sheet so that there is a safe veil between people. All our working committee members are fully vaccinated and we are waiting for further notifications from the Government.”

At this precarious juncture, in spite of environs full of fear, Calcuttans are waiting with bated breath for the loving gaze of Ma Durga to be cast on them once again-craving not a clash but a connection that endures.