It’s that time of the year, almost. Not here in my adopted country but in my hometown of Kolkata. It is the time when the city dazzles and the people are flushed with inimitable passion and joy. It is the time when people embrace and celebrate their cultural heritage, their love for food, music, the famous Bengali “adda” (the never ending conversation usually over endless cups of tea and snacks!), become tighter as a community, strengthen old bonds while initiating new ones. It is the time when the city lights up to welcome one and all and artistic grandeur is on display all around. Is the time when the “kashful” (the kans grass ) adorns the muddy roads of our “grambangla” (Countryside), the intoxicating smell of the “shiuli” (the night flowering jasmine) and the “dhunuchi” (burning of coconut husk along with camphor or some other incense in an earthen pot) along with the deep thud of the “dhaak” (a drum like Bengali instrument played primarily during the Durga Pujo) fill the souls. It is all-the best-things-in-life-rolled-into-one kind of a thing-it is Durga Pujo.
As someone who has not spent a single Durga Pujo in Kolkata (don’t roll your eyes!), I have not experienced much of this first hand, but am very well aware of all this. I have seen the excitement leading up to the five days of the Pujo and can easily comprehend the fervor that the actual days bring about. I have had friends tell me in detail everything that I miss during the biggest celebration that the city holds and I have seen simple bamboo structures, the “pandals” getting converted into brilliant pieces of art through the exquisite craftsmanship of a handful of people. And I have also seen the dazzling elegance of the idols of Goddess Durga and Her Children as they adorn those “pandals” for the most gratifying five days in a Bengali’s calendar. For most, not being in Kolkata during Pujo is unthinkable and not an option. For some, it is a time to escape to a different city and seek some tranquility among the hill stations or soak up the sun at the many beautiful beaches or visit historical places that have shaped our country, our people. And for some who have chosen to live in their adopted countries many miles away from the streets they could once walk blindfolded on, it is a time to draw upon cherished memories from the yesteryear and make the best of the “Weekend Pujo” that is permitted by time and space there.
So, what does Durga Pujo mean to me who has never been part of the electrifying milieu of Kolkata and who now lives in a land thousands of miles away? When I try to think of what is it that tugs at my heart strings at this time, I find myself overwhelmed with memories of one particular city, one white house (that later got painted to a not-so-good shade of brown/yellow-I never could tell!) and a bunch of faces many of whom are not around anymore. It is where I spent a good twenty five Durga Pujos and of which I have nothing but the fondest memories and utmost respect. The city of Jamshedpur, in the eastern part of India, is where my father grew up and where our ancestral home had been (till this year before being torn down for a hundred reasons) and it is at this place where I spent my most revered days during Pujo.
For me, Pujo was always about finding out from Baba when our tickets to Jamshedpur were and by which train, when were all the others (the very large extended family) arriving and for how long would we be staying. It was also a bit about the mandatory Pujo shopping for new clothes and shoes:) And the day we would reach that big white house where a bunch of smiling crazy faces would be waiting eagerly on the porch to give the loudest welcome to all those who came, it would be the beginning of the best fifteen days of that year for me. Everything that followed was blissful. From cuddles and huddles to ten people checking their hairdos and make up in front of a single mirror before “pandal hopping” ; from eating our meals at the large table where chaos ensued almost every other minute to making beds all over the house wherever a square inch of floor space was free; from being dragged out of bed in the wee hours of the morning to smell the shiuli- a smell so fragrant that it was almost intoxicating-and then pick up some for garlands that would later be strewn by the elders of the family for the purposes of worship; from frivolous squabbles to bursting out into peels of laughter over the silliest of jokes; from sitting on the front porch with people closest to my heart and sipping on the tea that was an occasional allowance during this time while our “thakur” (the cook) would fire up the “unoon” (earthen clay stove, fired up usually by wood or coal) whose heady smell mixed with the sweet autumn breeze would fill the air; from the most ardent feeling of comfort and contentment that cannot be put into words to a serenity that the rolling hills in the distance brought-was what Durga Pujo meant to me. And though it is a very different story now many years later and thousands of miles away, in my mind Durga Pujo is still that and it has been very difficult to find an alternative that comes close.
(This is the house that holds my most precious moments…this picture was taken a few months before being torn down)
In today’s fast paced life where we are probably connected more digitally than ever before, one can’t always head home for the Pujo. We adapt and we learn how to celebrate wherever we are. In this land far far away from the maddening crowd, Pujo is generally confined to whichever weekend (around the real Pujo dates) a particular school auditorium is available and five days of religious and social celebrations are packed into a rushed 48 hours. There is the actual ‘pujo’ (worshiping the Goddess), ‘pushpanjali’ (offering of prayer and flowers to the Goddess), ‘bhog’ (the typical Pujo lunch and dinner), cultural ‘anusthan’ (program), ‘sindoor khela’ (married women smearing vermilion on each other at the end of the celebration) and men, women and children decked in the best of clothes and jewelry gleefully soaking in every moment. We create memories that might not be able to match up to the ones we still fondly talk about in our “addas” but nonetheless they get stored in our pocketbook of memories.
I have spent nine Pujo-s in this far away land and each has had its own flavor. the first two have been the most special where everything was more homely and the Bengali Students’ Society of Minnesota made everyone feel involved and we all lent our two cents! From the Protima (the idol) to the Pujo, it was all a labor of love and hard work and the fun was “nirbhejal” (unadulterated). The other Pujos have been different. They have been somewhat like showing up at the venue all dressed up, doing the customary chitchat, enjoying the ‘cultural’ part of the Pujo-listening to ‘artists from Kolkata or Mumbai’ entertaining the audience with popular songs-and reliving a slice of Pujo back home when rickety loudspeakers (before they were banned) would be blaring those out at every “pandal” and a group of children would be dancing to those while some elders would indefinitely frown at the loss of “sanskriti”.
(These two pictures were not taken by me but by a dear friend from Minneapolis)
Pujo has been different since I no longer could go to Jamshedpur (work and then marriage took me away eventually!) and I no longer try to fight the emptiness that still lingers somewhere deep down inside of me. It has now become a part of the Pujo feeling that I cherish as I proudly reminisce the moments that have shaped the person I am today. Now I dress my little one in “Punjabi’s” (traditional Indian attire for boys and men) while the good man also does his best to dust off his and off we go “Thakur dekhte” (visit the Pujos). Our boy, a little music enthusiast that he is, gets excited beyond words at the “dhaak” and even tried his hand at playing one in his own way and that has become one of my most treasured moments from Pujo here, one of those moments that assure you that celebrations can be different across continents but bits and pieces remain the same and it is up to us to be part of the merriment and keep adding pages to our personal stories:)