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Wednesday 5 October 2011

Romancing the Goddesses

Romancing the Goddesses
Love in the time of Durga Puja calls for some clever planning and research. Suhel Seth, who mastered the art of romancing women as a young man in Calcutta, tells wannabe lovers how to proceed
Illustration: Debasish Deb
The Pujas have always been special for me. Special to the extent that I would look forward to them as opportunities to flirt; to indulge in some amazing food, and hide and drink some fine Old Monk rum. It was the time when everything came to a standstill in Calcutta, not that many people ever worked before or after!
My finest Pujas were the Pujas of 1986. We had just finished staging the play Bhutto and the play had gone on to become a huge success. That was also the year I had gotten my first ever motorcycle which in those days was an exceptional tool for movement and I still remember that I had purposely not installed either a sari guard (to prevent layers of fine saris getting caught in the rear wheel) or for that matter a pillion rest which meant the woman would have to hold onto me tightly. So with this new tool of romance, I set the streets ablaze but well before the Pujas: this was when you would set out the bait for those willing damsels who would want to see the Pujas whirling on a 200cc motorcycle rather than walking through the post-monsoon muck and that too with parents in tow. Look, the Pujas in those days were about the goddesses who lived in apartment blocks and when you left them you never drowned them in the river like you do with the Goddess. So there had to be a different tack. I could actually write a whole book on romancing in the Pujas but this is neither the place nor the time. So to come back to where I left off, the Pujas were special in the sense they meant a lot to us bachelors. This was the time when the women were all decked up; they actually washed their hair and applied some half-decent fake perfume picked up from the road-side stalls at Chowringhee — it was a time to charm and be charmed. Please remember we actually had to write notes and spell right: those weren’t the days of mobile phones and spell-checks.
1986 was an important year. I was in university and yet had a much younger friend crowd thanks to theatre: add to this the delightful company of Ashoke Viswanathan who had directed Bhutto and who was equally well-known for his ability to speak and act and perhaps to charm. I have always maintained that the best form of catching prey is when you do it in pairs (see how I have avoided the term hunting lest women activists should come and burn my vest). So we began preparations for the Pujas well before Mahalaya. It was about getting the ensemble right, making sure the logistics were in place and avoiding those areas where we would likely meet some resistance: simply put, the para mastans. This was an important bit because the last thing anyone wanted was to be beaten up by a crowd which actually believed you were desecrating the Pujas with romantic overtures. But then, this was also the time when extra-marital affairs came to the fore and it was for everyone to see. The demure boudi and her medical agent lover — suddenly you would notice how that demure housewife and this ill-dressed sales agent would be cozying up in coquettish laughter talking about Tagore when they had perhaps never ever read him! But then, all of this was forgiven. Deceit and nyakami was all part of the Pujas and we all knew that.
We often felt that some of us were being short-changed but that is why you needed to prepare for this rather than wing it. So what I did was to make out a list of the 10 most desirable women I wanted to ensnare. I calculated there would be a 50 per cent drop rate, which meant I would eventually be left with a pool of five to choose from.
My preparations began three months before the Pujas. I began by writing to them and asking them to join me in the celebration of the Goddess’s arrival: which meant I was blocking off their time well before any other joker would. How many of these fellows would ever make bookings three months in advance? And I blocked all 10 of them. Then began the vetting process. There is no point in spending the entire Pujas with just one person; but then again, you would have to be locational, given what traffic was like in those days. So my plans included regional penetration (no pun intended) spread over the six days of the Pujas. You had to factor in three things: (a) the women may fall ill since they’d be eating home-made after ages; (b) they may end up with the usual woman problem which meant they’d be cranky; and (c) suddenly some goddamn neighbour’s NRI bloke may turn up which meant they would much rather be with someone who lived in Manhattan than around Maddox Square. Hence the pre-Pujas research was critical. You had to choose well. The abiding principle was never choose an “only child” because she would be emotionally blackmailed by her parents into spending all her time with the old codgers.
My research lasted about 15 days: traffic grids and patterns were drawn up. You had to also brush up on Puja history and you had to be sure that you went to Gariahat and bought your ensemble well before it became crowded.
My other rule was going for the best in class. The most beautiful woman is often left out by everyone thinking she will be unassailable but these are precisely the women who are left all alone and don’t know what to do with themselves. So everyone I targeted was a beauty and my note began with the oft-abused sentiment: only if your looks matched your infinite wisdom, rather than the other way round. This gave them a high. Again, apply rule 1 here: the prettiest woman always feels she is deemed to be dumb! So to remind you of the process: research, then a save-the-date note and then the locational routing plan. The core idea here is to never, ever target people too close to where you live lest there should be parental complaints or societal disapproval. This meant that because I was living near La Martiniere, I would have to go as far away to Jodhpur Park in the south and College Street in the north. You also choose your accomplices well: there was no point in doing this with someone who would steal a march over you and in the process also steal your women!
And then the Goddess would arrive. You had to ensure your day began early: girls love men (or at least in those days) who would wait like forlorn lovers. You had to ensure you had a cache of Cadbury’s chocolates and that you had stocked up on supplies of Old Monk and you had enough change in your pockets for kathi rolls. But the critical tool was an ample amount of chewing gum. To get rid of the rum and the kathi roll onions.
The fact that Bhutto was a huge success also helped with my save-the-date notes because suddenly a lot of pretty women were not averse to being seen with me. After all, they too could boast they were hanging out with actors. As an adjunct I ensured many appearances on Doordarshan’s Youth Time just before the Pujas so that people actually turned around when you passed and all you did was smile longingly at the girl you were with. Remember, in those days people watched Youth Time just as much as they watch Baba Ramdev in today’s times.
By this time you were all set. You had a list of the prettiest women who had consented to spend the Pujas with you. Now you needed to roster them: which one on which day, and just like the self-rule of staying away from your own neighbourhood you had to plan in such a manner that the girl too was the farthest from her neighbourhood. You had to also ensure you stayed away from all your school and college mates. Women love undiluted attention: they hate to share their man, especially with some boorish schoolmate who might spill past secrets.
And you always went bottom-up: the prettiest of the 10 for the end because then you may just end up in a seamless affair. Also, you had enough time to hone your skills with the other nine.
I still remember I had a dream team in 1986. I obviously cannot take names: some of them are married; others happily divorced but they look like mothers who I would now need to avoid. But the truth of the matter is I keep thanking the Goddess for blessing me with such abundance. Every element of the strategy worked. From that hand-written note with a Rotring pen (for calligraphy) to the Brut perfume sprinkled on the letter-paper to that ensemble from Gariahat, to the enormous mileage that a Hero Honda gave: it was the perfect time.
The lesson of this story is that exploit the time during the Pujas both for theology and romance. Remember, love is in the air; there is an abandonment which you will rarely find at other times and there is something about the aroma in pandals which is heavenly. And to be quite honest, the Pujas in Calcutta are like no other. In Delhi you will end up meeting some political thugs and in Mumbai some worn-out Bengali actress.
Calcutta is where all the action is… and yes, those were the days…
Suhel Seth is Managing Partner, Counselage India;

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