October 17, 2018
Bam! A gunshot, I thought, sweating as I woke up in the bedroom of my sixth-floor apartment. But no, I reminded myself: it was the fluoxetine again. I take it for my PTSD and one of its more severe side effects is nightmares. Outside, firecrackers snap loudly.
I share my apartment with my mother, but she usually wakes up about an hour after me on holidays. So, I made myself comfortable and picked up my Xbox One controller.
The thing I love about video games is that they let me experience life from the perspective of a person whose life is eventful, exciting, ridiculous. I play story-driven role-playing games: Fallout 4, The Witcher 3, Horizon: Zero Dawn, Red Dead Redemption 2, and so forth. For the next hour-and-a-half, I pitted creature against terrifying creature, my trusty blade in hand, a handful of physics-bending spells at the ready. I was the seasoned monster-hunter-turned-concerned-godfather, Geralt of Rivia. By the time I finished, my mother had woken up and was fully dressed for our routine walk in the park. This was my psychiatrist’s doing. She recently suggested that I take regular morning walks. I told her I hate it, so she told me she hates me but still puts up with me because life isn’t fair. I don’t know, maybe she is a bit wrong in the head. She’s a good therapist, though.
This part of Kolkata, aptly named the New Town, is mostly under construction. There isn’t much green space. That’s why we headed to the lovely new government-funded ecological park not far away from the apartment. It’s also under construction, but large swaths of it have been finished. It’s 480 acres, divided into several zones, from bonsai gardens and urban forests to an amusement park with its own amphitheater. We mostly stuck to the area near the gates, an open lounge with cafes, benches and exotic plants.
At about 10:00 in the morning, I took a shower and readied myself to get some work done. Although I live in India, I’m forced to align my schedule to the Central or Eastern Time Zones of the United States, because many of my clients are there. I usually end up working from evening to midnight, hunting for gigs on forums and job boards and sending periodic reminders to existing clients: more freelancing than writing. Today, though, involved a lot of writing. I was proofing and editing 10,000 words of a manuscript on ornithology, and the client was a bit of a perfectionist. I wasn’t done by early evening, but it was the third day of Durga Puja, and ma was going to make me go pandal-hopping one way or another.
In these parts of India, Durga Puja is kind of a big deal. Each year in October-November, the folks here dedicate four days to the worship of the Hindu Goddess Parvati, wife of Lord Shiva. The most remarkable feature of this occasion is the pandals, exquisitely designed makeshift temples of straw, wood and bamboo that often convey a specific theme or social issue like poverty, global warming or the evils of the erstwhile caste system. Each district in town builds their own pandal, and it becomes kind of a contest between the districts. The local media hands out prize money to the best pandals in the city.
Instead of skipping from one pandal to another like most people do, we decided to focus on just one. The streets near the pandal were overflowing with crowds. The mics blared announcement about sales and lotteries and people gone missing in the massive tide of humanity. At the Tridhara Sammilani Durga Puja, this year’s theme seemed to be early-era cottage industries: products made out of jute, clay or other natural substances, and the need for their revival as a means of revitalizing the economy. As we made our way through the long cue, however, my heart began to pound. I hate cramped spaces.
Suddenly, my chest felt congested. The light was too bright. I thought, incongruously, of my father’s heart attack in a railroad station. I struggled to breathe and calm down; if I were to have a panic attack here, I’d be completely exposed in the middle of a large crowd.
As we made our way through the human anthill, the feelings faded. Chandeliers and electric lamps looked warm golden-yellow again. I smiled a little. Wherever I looked, I saw exquisitely hand-carved constructions of jute and canewood. Before long, we were standing in front of a spectacular seven-foot-tall idol made almost entirely of jute and clay.
After a while, we made our way through to the attached fair. Hawkers and peddlers here were selling trinkets of all sorts, mostly related to the city’s homemade cottage industry. There was a variety of masks, statuettes, even some furniture. And then there was the delicious ethno-western street food. The Calcutta Biryani was probably the most popular, followed by the city’s famous street noodles and egg rolls. For dessert, we had this wonderful kheer that an old lady, in her little shop by the pandal, had cooked all by herself.
By the time we returned home at midnight, I had a full belly, a sweat-stained silk shirt, and a mind that was disturbed, but not quite unhinged. Bed, that night, looked really warm.