Drinking and Dancing at Bombay’s Durga Puja Festival

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Drinking and Dancing at Bombay's Durga Puja Festival

Sandeep had invited me to join him and his family at the Durga Puja Festival. “The will be much dancing and drinking,” he promised, waggling his head and fixing me with a grin. “I am thinking you will have a very fun time.”

Very large celebrations were happening all over the city, but he said that everyone in the neighborhood gathered at the market a couple of blocks from the Delight Hotel, where he worked and I was staying. The Durga Puja celebrates the Goddess Durga and lasts nine days.

While Calcutta is known for having the largest celebration, Bombay puts on a good show as well. This would the last day and the large crowds and fireworks from the main celebrations didn’t really appeal to me — a quieter, more-intimate experience sounded ideal.

I was joined by Michael, a heavily-built German, who I’d met at the airport when I’d first arrived. He’d lost his passport the day before his flight home and was currently wading his way through a hundred layers of bureaucracy to replace it.

We met Sandeep right at the edge of the market, in a dimly-lit side street not far from the hotel. He was going home to change and pick up his wife and daughter, then would meet us later. The market only covered a few blocks, so I thought we’d bump into him sooner rather than later. As it happened, we never saw him again.

In the distance, I could hear large explosions from fireworks but the market area was pretty quiet. Everyone was dressed in their best finery, but there was little going on that seemed overly celebratory — most people seemed to be running last minute errands.

Drinking and Dancing at Bombay's Durga Puja Festival

Everything from door awnings to cars’ windshields and bumpers was draped in garlands of orange flowers. Ribbons of blinking lights framed openings into alleyways and hundreds of small flags hung across the narrow side streets. Shrines to the Goddess were piled high with offerings of food and flowers and Hindi music drifted out of nearby doorways.

Shrines to the Goddess were piled high with offerings of food and flowers and Hindi music drifted out of nearby doorways.

Turning on to a main street, we passed the first of several Durga statues that were making circuits around the neighborhood. It was a couple of feet tall, heaped with flowers, and rode in a wooden cart pulled by a motorcycle. Hearing Hindi chanting down another alleyway, we found a young couple getting married, surrounded by thirty or forty singing friends and family. We smiled and shook a couple of hands, then retreated rather than intrude upon their moment.

Moving back into the heart of the market, David and I decided to locate some beer — we’d been promised drinking and dancing, by God. As we wandered about in the dark, two young men approached and asked what were were looking for, then offered to lead us to a wine shop a few blocks away, which was doing a very brisk business. We soon learned that Michael and his friend were guides and would very much like to take us to visit the “Slum Dog Millionaire” slums the following day.

I’d noticed that no one seemed to be drinking on the street, despite the large crowd of people buying beer and whiskey. Michael explained that we would have to walk to the nearby harbor shoreline to drink in peace and pointed us in the right direction. Drinking beer at an out-of-the-way sea wall wasn’t exactly what I’d had in mind, so we chugged our beers quickly in order to get back to the festivities and away from the stench — the wall also served as an impromptu urinal.

Back at the market, things had picked up considerably — music was now blaring from a dozen different places and hundreds of people roamed the streets. We fell in behind a procession pulling a small Goddess statue through a narrow, winding street. Behind the statue’s wagon was a smaller one which carried a small generator that powered the lights and speakers. A young man with a hand-held keyboard provided the music, playing with one hand while walking backwards and trying to avoid the wagon’s wheels.

A dozen women in brightly-colored saris danced in front of the traveling shrine and more joined in as they slowly made their way through the neighborhood. We were having a great time just watching the spectacle, but after turning a corner we were both grabbed by the arm and dragged to a long table. Despite our protests that we’d just eaten, we were given heaping plates of rice with spicy chickpeas and lentils. I had just about worked my way through half of the plate, when the woman in charge barked an order and the plate was filled again, despite my protests.

Drinking and Dancing at Bombay's Durga Puja FestivalI ate as much as I could but had already had a large dinner and then had just chugged a large beer. I was beyond full. After thanking everyone several times, we beat a hasty retreat before they could bring more food.

That retreat led us down a very narrow alley, less than three feet wide in places, where we stumbled into a party in a covered courtyard that looked out over the harbor. Everyone smiled and laughed and shook our hands — all night long we would be greeted with open arms, never once feeling like an outsider. We never saw another foreigner the entire night.

There were thirty or forty people gathered in front of a family shrine and as we watched they all traded gifts of a small, dried leaf and hugged each other. This was a “God gift”, someone explained and it was tradition that each person would exchange gifts with everyone else. David and I were each given a few leaves and hugs as well but decided to make our escape when we saw the food being brought out of the kitchen. We wished everyone a good night and ran as fast as our bloated stomachs would allow.

Following yet another narrow path, we found ourselves on a boat ramp where the Durga shrine we’d followed early had finally arrived at the shore. The mood was solemn, with men and women making prayers to the Goddess, waving incense and throwing flowers onto the shrine.

Drinking and Dancing at Bombay's Durga Puja Festival

After the prayers were finished, the statue was carried to the shore and placed into a rowboat where she would be taken into the harbor and given to the sea. Two men climbed in and rowed from shore with little fanfare as the crowd quietly dispersed.

We wandered back towards the market, where we were fed a few more times, though we managed to get away with just a token mouthful. Along the way, we bumped into Michael and his friend again and they joined us, promising to take us to where there was dancing. I learned that Michael lived in the slums and slept at the shore where we had drank our beers — the slum was thirty kilometers away and he couldn’t afford to travel back and forth.

He led us back to the boat ramp where a full-on dance party was now happening. A small group of women in elaborate saris with leaves in their hair were dancing around a pole. A larger ring of men, women and children circled them, dancing an elaborate step and clapping.

When the music stopped to give the dancers some rest, we heard loud Hindi pop pouring out of a small courtyard nearby and headed over to investigate. Here we found a smaller private party that was in full swing. The dance floor was packed with men, women and children and the DJ was playing a selection of what I can only describe as Hindi hip hop.

I was spotted by a middle-aged man who pulled me over to a small table in front of the dance floor. There, I was introduced to Subhash, a large and quiet businessman from Goa, who I soon figured out was the sponsor of the party. He sat next to a case of whiskey and beer which he doled out to all of the guests. I was sat at his side and served whiskey and water and fed delicious baked fish.

Drinking and Dancing at Bombay's Durga Puja Festival

An older woman to my left had apparently taken a liking to me and kept raising her eyebrows and wiggling her hips. She’d lean over and whisper “chicken, chicken, chicken…” in my ear then flash her eyes at me. I asked Michael what the “chicken” phrase meant and he laughed. “It means she thinks you’re a nice ‘English chicken’ and she’d like to eat you up.”

Drinking and Dancing at Bombay's Durga Puja Festival

For the next several hours, David and I were both force-fed whiskey and food and repeatedly pulled onto the dance floor by our new friends, shaking hands and slapping each other on the back. As the night progressed, the women moved to the sides to chat and laugh in small groups as the dance floor was taken over by twenty or thirty drunken men who danced with complete abandon.

They danced like madmen and the courtyard was a blur of sweaty raised fists, stomping feet, and ecstatic, wide smiles. There was no self-conscious posturing or posing — they moved like men possessed, as if each had something inside him that had to be burned out. It was primal thing. I’ve never seen anything like it.

At midnight, they called last dance and we all packed onto the floor for one last time. Even the reserved Subhash, who had spent most of the evening at the table, joined in, waving his arms in the air and singing.

And far too soon, it was over and we all said our goodbyes and headed home.