It is Durga Pujo or, as any Bengali will tell you, the most wonderful time of the year.
It is the festival that all of us Bengalis look forward to and the excitement heightens when you live away from home. It is celebrated by the Bengali diaspora all over the world.
The religious aspect is one part of it, and is often overshadowed by the joy of getting together and speaking in Bengali for us migrants and the excitement of wearing new clothes and sitting through cultural programmes – which could start from Rabindra Sangeet and go on to Bappi Lahiri or Abhijeet belting out Kishore Kumar songs and, of course, the local kids performing in Bengali plays.
What dominates the festivities for most, one could say, is the celebration of food.
So what could you do if you are in Mumbai and want to get a bit of the Bengali flavour?
You could go to the restaurants, of course. Be assured that they will be packed with smiling Bengalis waiting patiently (ok, who am I kidding?) for a table. For a genteel, posh experience, head to any of the Oh! Calcutta outlets and now Sahara Star offers a five-star Bengali restaurant, 25 Parganas. My favourite spot to head to for Bengali food is Bhojohori Manna. Their outlets are all about food though – don’t expect much creature comfort. Or go to the Hangla’s stalls for some Kolkata rolls (mutton and egg are my picks) and Kolkata biryani.
You can go to these restaurants any time in the year. However, there are some special experiences during the pujos (not pujas) that you should not miss.
Go to any of the community Durga pujos during 1 pm to 3 pm, stand in the queue and enjoy the bhog (feast) which is served to all who come. It is free in a number of places, while others sell tickets. This is a vegetarian meal and consists of dishes like the khichudi, labra (mixed vegetable), beguni (brinjal fry), a sweet chutney and sweets.
If you were to come to the Bandra Notun Polly Durga Pujo for bhog in other years, you might have bumped into me joining the volunteers serving food, an act which connects me with my growing up years in Kolkata. This year I am travelling, though.
While the bhog is vegetarian, as it is first offered to the Goddess (though mutton is offered on some days in Kolkata), Bengalis usually do not turn vegetarian during the pujos. Except during Ashtami, or the main day, at the most.
So all the pujo pandals will be dotted with food stalls. They could be serving Kolkata street food dishes such as rolls, chops, cutlets and Moghlai porothas. Or, in some cases, Bengali mains ranging from fish curries to mutton kosha mangsho and prawn malai curries as well. It works on the principle of a food court in most cases, and you place an order and then sit at one of the community tables placed in front of the stalls and eat.
In recent years, the pujos at Powai, Navi Mumbai and ‘Rani Mukherjee’s’ pujo at Tulip Star have become famous for their food.
Our Bandra pujo has comparatively fewer stalls, but these are always packed. Peetuk Caterers, whose biryani I like, will have a stall at the Bandra Pujo this year. Many head to the food stalls first before going to the pandal where the image of the Goddess and her children are kept.
Like carnival food all over, the food in the pandals is overpriced and not the best in terms of quality and taste.
The atmosphere is electric though, which makes it all worth it.
So here is wishing you a happy Durga Pujo.
Follow Kalyan Karmakar @ Finelychopped
Kalyan Karmakar authors the popular award winning blog, Finely Chopped and is an authority on the food of Mumbai. His extensive knowledge of the city's food scene has been featured in publications such as Femina, Mumbai Mirror and BCC Good Food. He was one of the founding critics of EazyDiner's Mumbai team.