Quite unlike what Durga Puja means to most people – a time for fun and frolic – many college goers in Kolkata are spending their vacations engaged in serious stuff either by compulsion or by choice.
Meet Gargi Ghosal, 21, a third-year BA English student at Presidency University, India’s oldest college established in 1817. Its alumni constitute a veritable Who’s Who of Indian luminaries including Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen, Swami Vivekananda and Netaji Subhas Bose.
“I lost my mother when I was in Class VII while my father, unable to cope with the loss, became an alcoholic. My uncles take care of my father but I want to pay for my keep,” says Gargi.
During this year’s Durga Puja vacations, she will be engaged in freelance content writing to earn money.
Most students in Kolkata and West Bengal spend their Puja holidays indulging in pandal hopping, lots of junk food, humungous hangouts with friends and of course, romancing.
Not Gargi. Nor others who volunteer to do charity, or offer football coaching to the underprivileged, or produce a magazine or write a term paper or simply go to the river-side and recover from a major accident.
Gargi is a brilliant student having scored 96 percent in her ISC exams. She is from Durgapur, a 3-hour drive from Kolkata. After passing out from Carmel Girl’s High School there, she came to the metropolis to complete her graduation.
Carmel waived her Class XII fees as her father had by then become totally unemployed.
“Here in Kolkata I first got into St Xavier’s on a Delhi Public School (DPS) scholarship but found the college too expensive. So, I shifted to Presidency where the fees are no more than Rs. 4,000 a year,” she says.
She needs to earn at least about Rs. 5,000 a month to pay for her PG accommodation, food and pocket money. She can earn that much from content writing but the question remains – where is the time?
“The Puja holidays give me the time to earn a lot more than what I can do when classes are on or when I have to study for my exams,” she explains.
Ultimately, by earning more during holidays, her earnings average out to what she needs to sustain herself.
For Atraiyee Chowdhury, 24, festivals like Durga Puja are, however, occasions for doing charity work. She is associated with an US-based non-profit Responsible Charity, which has an office in Kolkata.
Now a student of Maya Academy, Kolkata learning 3D animation and VFX, Atraiyee, or Reya as she is known among family and friends, comes from a fairly well-to-do family.
Her father’s firm Atraiyee Infra Projects is a government enlisted constructor while her mother is an HR executive.
Atraiyee’s inspiration is her friend Pranadhika Sinha Devburman. “She has been into social activism working on child and adult sexual abuse for the last 17 years,” Atraiyee says. Pranadhika, 29, runs the organization One Million Against Child/ Adult Sexual Abuse.
“There is also another friend Piyush Raj Singh, a Telecom professional, and we three work together,” Reya explains.
Every month, Atraiyee and friends organize give-aways at Mulvani Home, an old-age home in Kolkata, which houses abut 20-25 elderly people, and they did so in this Puja month as well.
However, at the start of this month, as a pre-Puja activity, the three Musketeers organized a charity event for underprivileged children who are chemotherapy patients at the Tata Medical Centre at Rajarhat, Kolkata.
The children were gifted crayons, pens, notebooks and other nick-knacks while a few games were organized to cheer up the kids with fun activities.
Social work is the flavour of the month for Rahul Sarkar, 24, as well. Now a student of Bhavan’s Asutosh College of Communication and Management, Kolkata, Rahul resides in Thakurpur at the southern tip of the city.
“In our ward No. 125 under Corporator Ghanasree Bag, we recently organized a Blood Donation camp where some 800 people participated and we will be organizing a Clothes Distribution Programme during the Pujas,” he says.
Rahul’s father runs a transport business and he feels he is among the privileged few who should make an effort to help the poor and underprivileged. “I am not business-minded and would not take up my father’s business. I want to be a journalist,” he says.
“I feel satisfied when I am able to save my pocket money and help others,” he tells edinbox.com by way of signing off.
Another Mass Communication student Aniruddha Pramanik, 23, is a budding poet. “Pandal hopping was an exciting activity when I was younger. Now the thrill is gone,” he says echoing the lyrics of a famous B.B. King song.
“In my first year in college I brought out a magazine during the Pujas containing poems, short stories, essays, etc. written by me and my friends. We called it ‘Abhi’, a word Swami Vivekananda used to mean courage,” he says.
“This year I wanted to see whether we could do the same. But all my friends backed out at the last minute and I have no option but stick to organizing a football coaching camp for the underprivileged children,” he rues.
Another Presidency student Ashmita Ghosh, 23, has an entirely different problem on her hands. She is doing her MA majoring in English. “I have to finish writing a term paper before the vacations end,” she says.
“I am comparing the book and the film of Milan Kundera’s ‘The Unbearable Lightness of Being’,” she informs us, adding “I think the book is better.” This Pujas, therefore, Ashmita will be stuck to her desk substantiating her views.
Organizing cultural events with her neighbourhood children was an activity that aspiring journalist Tiyas Pradhan, 21, has always done every year since her childhood. But this year is different.
In November last year, she suffered a major car accident. She was bed-ridden for five months with a broken hip joint, eight fractures in her right hand and three broken ribs. “My mother is a nurse so I have recovered really well,” she told edinbox.com.
“As usual, this year too, I will be going to my maternal grandfather’s place in Haldia. During the Pujas nothing, none of the attractions of a big city like Kolkata, can stop me from going to my Dadu’s place,” she explains.
This year, she is already in Haldia and is planning to leave early morning by bus from her grandfather’s house at around 5 am with her maternal aunt and her cousins – all 10 of them – to go to the riverside.
“There we will take one of the cargo boats – they have come to know us over the years and allow us to take a ride – to cross the river and go to the Mahishadal Rajbari which is now a museum,” she tells us.
“I am still in pain but I keep myself distracted through doing paintings with my left hand and now I am almost ambidextrous,” she says proudly.
“But spending time with my grandfather and grandmother will also rejuvenate me to take up the daily grind of college when I get back to Kolkata after the Pujas,” she says with a tone of steely determination in her voice.
Like Gargi and all the others mentioned here, Tiyas too is an inspiration for all of us. Durga Puja vacations maybe a time for fun for most but there are many who indulge in unusual but inspiring activities.
Special Correspondent, Kolkata