It’s a pleasant October afternoon, somewhere around the late 2000s. A lanky, restless 16-year-old boy rushes home from school, dumps his bag below the study table and picks up an already-packed rucksack and does a last-minute check. Completing his last day at school before Durga Puja vacations, he ticks away a checklist before he’s off on a Gangotri-Cheerbas-Bhujbas-Gomukh-Tapoban trek with his family the next day.
Cut to 2020, the boy, now a full-grown 27-year-old man, ‘masked’ and somewhat confined by the pandemic to his home and its vicinity, can only reminisce his past Puja vacations this year. But he has a plan for celebrating pandemic-hit Puja differently. Deepro Majumder is exploring small villages in the outskirts of his hometown, and some of their traditional pujas including those still run by descendants of royal and zamindar families this year.
For Majumder, born and brought up in Santiniketan — a place which, in spite of being a part of Bengal, has remained far from the perpetual madness surrounding Durga Puja — the Puja vacation always meant travelling to the mountains. “There’s some connection between Durga Puja and mountains for me, that has developed over the years… maybe because we had always, with few exceptions, planned mountain trips at this time of the year, as this was the only common holiday for my parents,” he explains.
Thanks to having lived close to the campus of Visva Bharati, which follows the Brahmo Samaj’s principle of shunning idol worship, the number of Pujas around were less, and so was the excitement surrounding those. “It’s been years since I have been in Santiniketan during the Pujas. I have heard of nearby villages like Hatserandi, where pujas are offered to goddess Durga and her children painted on clay backdrop. I have decided to travel there this time,” he says.
Another village, Moukhira, houses around 20 terracotta temples. “Here, the attraction is not any celebrated Puja, but those temples,” he says, sharing his plan about a bike trip to the place with a few friends. He will also swing by the traditional family-run Pujas in Ruppur, Surul and Taltor, all at motorable distances from Santiniketan. “All these have made it to my list because of their old world charm,” he says, admitting that the very old family pujas have always attracted him more than barowari (community) pujas which are too crowded for his liking.
Then there is the Durga Puja in Boner Pukur Danga in Sonajhuri area started by artist Badhan Das who himself used to make the idols. “This is one of the attractions even for the tourists who visit Santiniketan during the Pujas,” he says, while adding that visitors will need to be careful this time.
Like Majumder, a lot of people in Kolkata too are looking for a breath of fresh air by driving off to places at a three-four hours’ distance, says Shibani Bhattacharya, a Kolkata-based travel agent. She observes that the corona scare among Kolkata people has resulted in two types of behaviours this time. “Unable to gauge the degree of risk outdoors, some people are weary of travelling, while others are travelling to avoid the Kolkata crowd,” she says. “Again, there are those who have been looking for a getaway from the four walls of their homes after months of restricted movement.”
However, bookings are definitely low this time as compared to previous years, Shibani agrees. “But people who are venturing out are opting for short trips to nearby places,” she says. Apart from the popular tourist destinations such as Digha, Mandarmani and Kashpur, they are also interested in exploring Purulia, Mayapur, Nabadweep, Jhargram and even Dooars.
Most of the people are preferring private vehicles while some are hiring cars for touring in short groups. “We are also urging people to restrict their groups to family members to minimise the risk factor,” says Bhattacharya. Most of these trips are just three to four days long, she adds.
Travellers this time are enquiring about the Covid protocols and safety measures taken by the hotels, guest houses and homestays before deciding upon which one to book. “Hotels are mostly running with 50% occupancy. A room vacated by a client is allotted to another only after a two-day gap and proper sanitation. A lot of places are not allowing senior citizens as they are more prone to infection,” she says. The hotels are also providing an SOS number to contact in case of any emergency and get in touch with the nearest medical clinic or doctor available.
Bhattacharya says a lot of the family Durga Pujas in Kolkata too have restricted entries of outsiders this year. “There are travel guides in Kolkata who take people on a tour to these traditional Pujas in old houses, mostly located in North Kolkata, while also narrating in short the fascinating backstories of each of them. This year, such tours are not allowed, unless you show them Covid negative certificates,” she explains.
India Tourism has planned certain packages in which people can visit pujas in nearby villages, enjoy their rural charm and return the same day. “There are 15-20 such Pujas listed by India tourism,” Bhattacharya says.
Gargi Saha and her family are among the very few who are trusting public transport for long tours this Autumn break. Saha, a Kolkata resident, who will be touring Kalimpong-Lolegaon and if possible Darjeeling just after the Pujas will board a train to New Jalpaiguri, the railway station nearest to the hill station. Asked about safety concerns while boarding a train, the 24-year-old engineer says, “We have no way but to believe that the train journey is safe as this trip has become a necessity after months of lockdown.”
Still not confident enough to travel out of Bengal this year, the Saha family decided to settle for a destination within Bengal, but could not find rooms in their preferred hotel. “They are not letting out all the rooms at a time. They suggested we visit there post-Dashami (last day of Durga Pujas) when the rooms will be available again.”
Shumonika Ganguly, who desperately wants to move out of Kolkata during the Pujas because of the rush at pandals, is also on the lookout for a safe place to stay in Bolpur-Santiniketan where she plans to go with her husband and seven-year-old son. “It’s almost impossible to keep my son at home when the Dhakis’ beats come calling during the Pujas,” says Ganguly, a lecturer at a Kolkata college, apparently worried about her child’s exposure to a crowd of at least 300-400 people at their para (of her locality) pandal.
If the trip materialises, the family will be driving to the destination on their car. But the family is used to such trips as her husband is a member of Kolkata on Wheels, an organisation arranging thrilling convoy drives within Kolkata to above 300 kms outside the city. “Though Kolkata on Wheels is not organising driving trips now, we had planned this journey during the Pujas informally with two other families. It somehow did not work out,” Ganguly rues. “Let’s see if the three of us can move out of Kolkata this Puja,” she sighs.