A Puja Pandel in Guwahati.

If Mahashashti is when Durga Puja festivities show the first signs of life, Mahasaptami is when crowds begin to gather inside pandals. Venues hosting popular pujas attract devotees. Roadside stalls selling toys, street food, and other goodies do brisk business. With offices shut and many office-goers opting for leave even if they are not, the festival is a metaphor for five days of devotion, joy and relaxation.

This year, too, the Goddess has arrived to bless her devotees on time. But, the joy that accompanies Her arrival appears to have diminished.

The curse of Covid-19 has forced state governments to issue rigid guidelines to ensure social distancing, which would have been non-existent had pujas been held in the familiar atmosphere of good old times. That would have been outright dangerous, which governments, as well as devotees, know well.

Be it in Assam or Tripura, Bihar or Bengal which is home to the best pujas in India, organisers are following the guidelines laid down by their respective state governments. What does this mean for the people in general? While Mahashtami, one of the most exciting days of festivities, is a few hours away, everybody planning to step out knows that the SOPs must be followed.

Separate entry and exit gates in pandals have been made compulsory in Assam. Sanitizers and masks are, understandably, mandatory. Volunteers of puja committees have to ensure physical distancing, while pillion riding for males is not permitted. No puja committee can organise cultural programmes. These are just a handful of clauses in the long list of guidelines.

In Tripura, among other things, processions and cultural activities during puja days have been banned. Priests are chanting mantras on loudspeakers to prevent gatherings. Not more than 15 people can offer ‘anjali’ to the Goddess. Besides, Covid-testing teams must be present in every major puja.

How much has life changed? A few days before the Goddess was scheduled to arrive last year, discussions on new clothes had taken centre stage in countless households. The sheer thought of ‘bhog’ in earthen pots on Mahashtami and Mahanavami gave rise to delicious daydreams. In the evenings, we set out on journeys across the city, doing what is known as pandal-hopping.

Today, many devotees are wary of stepping out of homes and breaking social distancing norms. Besides, strict rules are in place, leading to diminished prospects of celebrating without restraint anyway.

Consider Nagaland, where pandals have been erected only in temples. The state has banned the setting up of pandals by the roadside, and stalls must not be set up near these temporary homes for the goddess either. Have these guidelines led to a reduction in the number of pujas? Your guess is as good as mine.

Fear of multiplying infections has transformed the way Durga Puja is being celebrated this year. Let us hope 2021 will take us back to the old normal when the world was a much better place to live in.

Biswadeep Ghosh

Biswadeep Ghosh is an author and freelance journalist. He has been a part of the India media for three decades. Among his books is MSD: The Man The Leader, the bestselling biography of cricketer MS Dhoni....