Kolkata during Durga Puja

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Since Durga Puja was going on I thought I should write about my trip to Kolkata during Durga Puja in 2007.

To give a background. I was a Management Trainee in a leading FMCG company and had to travel to each branch for a stint. Prior to Kolkata I was shadowing a sales officer for a month in Bangalore/Chennai and then handled 6 towns around Bangalore for a month. Working as a SO and living on SO allowance (Rs 350 for hotel in Chennai…. Rs 250 hotel in Trichy) was the hardest part of the stint. I spent another 1 month in marketing assisting the brand manager and then 1 month in the Manesar factory where DK and I basically killed time. There were 9 of us and we were all together for 2 months in Gurgaon… which was torture because we worked in the same office and stayed in the same guesthouse… we hung out at work and hung out after work… and we competed against each other… in the process, made some friends (DK and AB) and quite a few enemies. So, I was glad to get out of Gurgaon and away from everyone.

With the help of a batchmate from B school I found a good hotel in Salt Lake City. It was far from my office and the main city but it was close to a very good mall. Another MT with me had to travel to Orissa for 15 days so it was just me in that city.

Some weird things I saw in Kolkata which are very specific to that city:

– It feels like it is a 100 years old and modernity has not touched it. It is dirty, polluted and worse than Mumbai

– I really, really liked Park Street. It has such a British feel to it. Makes you feel that there will be antique cars/tongas passing by anytime soon… if you just wait for it long enough. I killed a lot of time in Park Street

– Flurys is so over rated. I had some pastries and they tasted like the ones made by a local bakery in a small town. Why is it famous, again?

– The trams (does any other city have trams) are so damn slow. I mean, I can just walk faster.

– East was the only office where there were significant number of women… which was very good… but this is what would happen. All the 4 women buying clothes in office from a passerby salesman was common. Imagine this scene- you walk into office and see 4 women haggling over clothes. It was hilarious. This would not happen in any other region

– Coming to work on Saturday morning at 9 am and seeing the office locked. The peon comes at 10 am… opens the office and people start trickling in at 11 am. Nope… there were no flexi timings on Sat then. And this wouldn’t happen in any other region.

My project was to work out a liquidation promotion for a coffee based candy which was getting discontinued. The Puja and Diwali period would be the perfect time for this. I got to work… the ASM was already pissed with me because I corrected his calculation in front of his boss and the executive didn’t like me cramping his lifestyle since now he would actually have to work. So, I decided to figure it out on my own. I met Nikhil Jalan of Big Bazaar (a part of Pantaloons then) and showed him the proposal. He was super excited but he needed to know the current stock status in stores before he could raise orders. In those days chains did not have systems which gave them any data at any time. Everything was done manually. Instead of waiting for days and in Big Bazaar’s case… weeks for such a small thing… I visited all the stores in 1 day. All I had to do was ask the store guys where they kept the stock (not in the warehouse thankfully… somewhere on the floor), counted it and noted it down. Today I would not be able to do this… because entry into the store requires permission letters… and a lot of waiting around. Its strange how easy it was then. The next day I showed NJ the stock status and he was shocked. He had no option but to give me the order. Not so easily though… I had to travel to his warehouse the next day which was somewhere outside Kolkata. Purchase orders in hand, I was very, very happy until the executive told me the depot is closed for Durga Puja and supplies will not be done. WTF!!! Great!!! I decided to run the promotion AFTER Durga Puja but in time for Diwali. But this basically meant I didn’t have work for 5 days during DP. During the 1st day of holiday I was lounging in my bed wondering how am going to kill 5 days in Kol when the ASM messaged me. He wanted me to get out of the hotel and take in some culture. Not kidding… thats what he said. Well, ok.. I can do with some culture. The other MT and I then headed to explore pandals. It was a lot of fun because there were no crowds at that time and we saw some unique pandals… I remember one was shaped like a pyramid. Thats how I killed 5 days and is the extent of my experience of Durga Puja.

Some highlights of the trip:

– The other MT was back after 15 days and I was happy to have some company. We went to Victoria Memorial Hall and it was closed. Then we booked movie tickets in a local cinema but the crowd scared me off. We returned the tickets. And then his gf called and sounded super suspicious when she heard we were together ‘alone’. I kept a distance after that. I had had enough of gf dramas in my life by then and wasn’t looking to ruin one more relationship.

– MT and I went to Nalban park. I used to pass by the place and it looked really nice. There was a Rs 10 entry fee which was weird. I mean… which restaurant makes you pay for entry. We were exploring the open area… park… water body… and clicking pics when we saw couples making out… It was a make out place for couples. We, of course, ran out of there asap. I have never come across anything like this before. You pay for space to make out. How great is that. What a wonderful business idea. I wonder if I can get funding from venture capitalists for something like this.

– Kolkata taught me how to live alone… truly alone… when there are no friends/family. It was very important learning. I watched a movie alone for the very first time. I would eat out alone… lived in a hotel alone.

– My daily schedule would be to finish work and go to Park Street (no matter which area I was in) buy Sula’s chenin blanc white wine (still my favorite) from a non shady looking shop.. pick up a chilli chicken thin crust medium pizza from Dominos (another fav… why did they stop making it)… head to the hotel and enjoy it alone with TV. And I did this everyday… for atleast 15 days. Some days I would finish work early and start drinking by 6 pm. Yep… would have surely become an alcoholic in another month or so

– Being bored I ended up calling everyone on my contacts list. KC was one of the victims… we had met in Chennai and kept in touch… and I ended up speaking to him quite often during this stint. Another victim was a guy I was seeing for arranged marriage stuff. Ideally, I shouldn’t been calling so often but I was so damn bored. It didn’t matter who I was speaking to… I just needed to talk to another human being who didn’t work with me.

– In India during festivals… malls are decked up… people go shopping etc. During Durga Puja, everything shuts down. Even the malls and stores are closed. Everyone only goes to the pandals. A non Bengali in Kolkata will surely commit suicide. Its that frustrating

– Before the office closed down there was a special lunch and the Branch Manager asked me to wear a saree. Not kidding. Next day was the lunch and it was 6 pm. I asked him where will I get a saree/blouse/petticoat at 6 pm? He didn’t care… I had to wear a saree. One of the office ladies was kind enough to loan it to me. When you are a MT you have to do what you are told… no matter what it is (nothing unethical though). A MT is at the lowest rung of the corporate chain… even below the housekeeping staff.

When the stint was about to end I got the news that we may have to stay in East for another 2 months. HR was concerned about the flight costs and had decided to save some money. 4 of us were horrified and we appealed to the sales director citing that there was 1 more branch we had not covered. He could not refuse and I was sent off to Mumbai… where KC and I started dating.

Thats the end of the fairytale. And nope, not going back to Kolkata again… unless its a very short visit.



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