September is almost done, and Puja is on its way. Tea planters look dourly on early sunsets and pleasant evenings and begin to mumble about ‘autumnal flavours’ and an early end to the plucking season. It is really the beginning of a season of economic activity of another kind. Almost all the tea gardens in the Dooars have made annual bonus payments to their workers. Starting today, the weekly ‘Sunday Haat’ at every little town will be transformed into a ‘Bonus Bazaar’. Every worker in tea waits for the Bonus to make the year’s big purchase – in the old days, they confined themselves to cows and bicycles, but today it could be a washing machine, a motorcycle, a new television, a fridge or a cell phone.
New clothes are a must for Puja. Little stalls like these do brisk business, even in the heat of the afternoon. The poor girl, though, seems to have had enough already!
There are any number of people waiting to relieve the workers of their earnings. The first among them are the ‘Kabuliwalas’ – money lenders – who might have lent them sums at exorbitant rates of interest. There are the unions who want to collect their subscriptions as soon as the workers are paid. Then there are those selling the local brew. ‘Haria’, or rice beer, is available everywhere. Women try to keep the big drinkers away from these stalls, so that they don’t lose the entire bonus in a few merry hours.
A lottery is so tempting! Especially if the big prize is so attractive!
This is also the beginning of what is called the ‘Dacoity Season’. This violent criminal activity is also assigned a season here, and blandly given a name. Criminals who are waiting to loot Puja shoppers begin their own round of economic activity. With the sun setting as early as six p.m., looters waylay people heading for towns located on the highways. Their favourite method of operating is to cut a tree and throw it across the (single lane) highway, forcing vehicles to halt. People rarely venture out on cycles or on foot after dark, because of the fear of elephants. Those who go out in vehicles, hired or personal, have to rely on quick reflexes, a good eye and the ability to reverse for up to one kilometer at top speed to escape attack. The highwaymen are always armed. With the national highways in their present condition, no one can speed away from the scene of a robbery. The local administration and the police do take preemptive action and round up the known hoods for a while. It doesn’t seem to help much, though.
Below: Viswakarma Puja, September 17, is a special day when vehicles are cleaned and decorated, and receive Baba Viswakarma's blessings.