Gods of small things

The stories of the working class often go unheard probably because they do not dazzle the listeners. These people’s silent narrations are rarely valued. They have names but no identity. They have contributions but no propaganda. They have pride but not the strength to live up to it. They are known by their work and a broader classification is enough to identify ‘them’.
So when it is time for Durga Puja, one of the biggest festivals of the Hindus, life-size banners and hoardings do not mention their names. As the names of puja committees flash everywhere, those responsible for the razzle dazzle are rarely recognised.
But these faceless people — the pandal makers, the idol makers and the lightmen — remain unfazed by this disregard. They leave their home and families for months and come to Shillong in search of work. They work tirelessly, sometimes overnight, so that they earn enough for the festival season. They care less when they are told that people should know about them and Sunday Shillong wants to acknowledge their work this puja.

The pandal makers in Shillong are migrant workers most of whom come from North Bengal. They reach the hill city — which has a large population of Bengalis and some of the oldest neighbourhoods celebrating Durga Puja — two to three months before the festival. While some take work from local contractors and decorators, others come as a team with contractors from their native land. The cost of living and food is taken care of by the contractors.
Brothers Nripen and Anil Sarkar are farmers in their obscure village in Alipur Duar in West Bengal. They own small plots of land but the produce is not enough to meet ends. So when there is no cropping, they take up odd jobs, like working away from home.
As Cyclone Titli made her presence felt in Shillong days before the puja, the pandal makers were in no mood to entertain any stranger asking odd questions about their ordeal. The pressure of deadline was immense.
Fifty-five-year-old Nripen, who was part of the team working on the pandal in Rynjah, was reluctant to answer the questions posed to him. “I have no children but he (Anil) has. I am new to the hill city,” he replied hurriedly as he looked askance at the stranger who was bombarding him with questions. Anil did not even bother to spare a look.
The Sarkar brothers have been coming to Shillong for the last three years with a contractor from Cooch Behar. They were part of the team of 46, including carpenters like Bablu Barman.
Bablu, a worker in his thirties, was more courteous. “My son and daughter are yet to do their puja shopping. They are all waiting for me,” he said as he helped a co-worker fix a wooden frame. They are making the pandal on ‘Bahubali’ theme to celebrate the 60th year of the puja, informed the contractor.
The daily payment varies between Rs 300-800 depending on the size of the contract and it goes up in case of overtime. For example, in Rilbong, workers are getting as high as Rs 1,200 for night shifts.

Pradip Mondol, also from Cooch Behar, was instructing his colleagues when he was accosted. Though sceptical in the beginning, Pradip gradually opened up, probably to overcome the fatigue. Talking about family and loved ones always soothes the mind. “I work for a decorator in Polo so I often come to Shillong. But this is the first time that I am working in Rilbong. The rain has made our work tougher but we have to finish by Sunday,” said the 25-year-old artiste as he pointed to the muck on the field.
Poverty drove Pradip to take up a job at 14. That was when he first came to Shillong. He dropped out of school after Class IV and never thought of taking up studies again. But this is no reason to feel bad for the young worker for his story is no different from that of 22-year-old Siraz Ali and many others.
Siraz is from Guwahati and could not study beyond matriculation because he had to take the family’s responsibility. He does odd jobs in Assam as well as Meghalaya and puja brings joy as he gets more job opportunities. As revellers were planning their puja outings and earnestly praying to Goddess Durga to keep a watch on the unpredictable Shillong weather, Siraz was in a hurry to finish work and go home to his wife and parents. “I will buy presents for them before leaving,” he said. The twinkle in his eyes camouflaged the despair but not for long.

Subroto Barman, who hails from Alipur Duar’s Kamakhyaguri, took a break from work for two minutes as instructed by his contractor, the owner of a local decorators’ shop in the city. The 34-year-old man at a pandal in Polo sometimes dares to dream and does not mind sharing it with strangers, knowing well that for “their kind”, dreams come at a cost.
“I am doing this work since I was 15. But my son studies in school and I do not want him to get into this job. I want him to study hard and get a proper job,” he said.
Samiran Roychoudhury of Sujata Decorators in Polo did not look too happy. “The workers these days are demanding. They want Rs 600 a day and Rs 1,200 if they do night shift. They come here every year because they get less money in Bengal,” said the canny businessman who, having spent 40 years in this trade, knows “these labourers” well.
Majnu Alam was busy fixing the lights at Jail Road when he was taken aback by a question from a stranger. The 33-year-old electrician from Alipur Duar said lightmen come a fortnight before the puja and stay till the festival is over. “Don’t we have to take off the lights? What about family? They know we are here to earn money so why would they feel sad,” he answered to a naïve question. Each electrician in his team would take home a package of Rs 18,000, enough to make up for their absence, he said.
Amal Barman from Alipur Duar, who is part of the team that came with contractor Sandip Sarkar, does not want to entertain his family’s wish to visit Shillong. Bringing his family will mean extra expenditure. But Amal is a responsible man and with years of experience, he knows how to answer to awkward questions responsibly. “We come here for work and stay together. So accommodation will be a problem if I bring my family along,” he answered for his co-workers, who had nothing new to add. Does his family know that the man comes to ‘Scotland, though of the East’ for livelihood?
The idols

Unlike the pandal makers, idol makers in Shillong work independently and are few in number. Most of them come from Cooch Behar and stay in a makeshift place on Keating Road. The unhygienic workshop of these artistes sits in the middle of one of the busiest parts of the city.
The obnoxious stench of urine that unevenly mixes with the smell of paint, mud and half-cooked rice creates a heady concoction of odours that becomes unbearable after a certain point of time. But 75-year-old Paresh Pal, the veteran artiste, and his team are oblivious to their surroundings as they are driven by deadline. And an intrusion at the time of work only annoys them.
Over the years, Paresh Pal has learned the trick to dodge questions and maintain a poker face. If things go out of control, he tackles the situation with counter questions. For instance, a question like “How long have you been working as an idol maker?” can be countered with “Are you not married? But you look old enough to have a family.” If a stranger can avoid taking offence and persists with the listed questions, Pal might give in. And he did.
The oldest idol maker at the Keating Road workshop said he had been in this business for over 45 years. He comes to Shillong every year and has taught many a young member in the team, including his younger son Sandip, how to make the life-size idols with perfect expressions on their faces.
This year, around 16 of them came to Shillong. Unlike the pandal makers, these artistes leave for home only after Diwali. Despite the hurdles they face while working in Shillong, they agree that the earnings are better here.
“My eldest son stays in Shillong. We come every year and stay together. Prices of idols start from Rs 25,000 and go higher and higher depending on the size and other decorations,” said Pal as he drew the fine lines on the demon’s face to make him look more menacing. The Durga was complete and was smiling down at Pal as his steady hands continued to draw the fine lines on Asura’s cheek bone.

Bhabananda Paul, who has been coming to Shillong for 30 years now, says idol makers come four to five months before Durga Puja and have to stay away from family till Kali Puja is over. “What else can we do? Our families have to celebrate without us because they know we have to earn our living,” said Bhabananda.
The idol makers have to bring raw materials from Guwahati or Cooch Behar because “nothing is available here”.
“On top of that, rain plays spoilsport and we have to be really careful, especially when it is nearing deadline,” said Sandip as he pointed at the plastic covers sitting loosely on bamboo frames over the artistes’ heads.
The idols of Durga, Laxmi, Saraswati and Kali looked comfortably numb under the plastic shield. Three days before the puja, they were ready to be sent to their respective destinations. But the artistes’ work was far from over. After Kali Puja, they have to rush home for more work. “How can we run our families with this earning?”
Echoes from the hills

Durga Puja is not complete without the traditional sound of dhak (drums). Dhakis, or traditional drummers, are a group of people who add rhythm to the festival. Most of them come from Cooch Behar and Alipur Duar. Some puja committees in the city have their regular drummers who also take part in drumming competition organised by the Central Puja Committee. Unlike the pandal makers and sculptors, dhakis will arrive only 2-3 days before puja. Though the sound of the drums reaches far and wide, these people’s stories are seldom heard.
As revellers prepare to pay obeisance to the lifeless idols, they forget the humans who strive to turn these four days of the year into a festival. They also forget that a festival is not complete without the participation of these heroes behind the scenes — the real gods who have the power to transform small things into significant something. So isn’t it time to acknowledge their hard work and feature their names at the entrance of every pandal and on the altar of the Goddess?
~ NM

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