On Durga’s Migrant Trails
By Bhaswati Ghosh
A group of children – between six to eight years in age – sat on a dusty rug on the ground with drawing sheets on boards before them. After drawing out scenes depicting one of the three theme choices provided to them, they furiously pushed crayons over the pencilled sketches. My brother was one of the contestants of this on-the-spot- painting competition, interestingly called “boshey anko protijogita” in Bengali, literally meaning sit-and-draw contest. He drew a Christmas scene, having chosen the theme, “Your favourite festival.” A couple of hours later, when the results were out, he had real reason to celebrate – he had won the first prize.
There was nothing unusual about this except his choice of festival; the contest was part of a Durga puja celebration. Given that most of the festival entries depicted the ten-armed goddess and her rejoicing devotees and a few portrayed Diwali, which would approach in less than a month, the judges must have been either too brave or too liberal to adjudge a Christmas image as the best entry.
Was this because the venue of the puja and, therefore, the contest was outside mainland Bengal, in Delhi? I can’t really tell, for I was born and raised in what bonafide Bengalis call probaash – a sentiment-laced word for foreign land.
As my brother drew on his sheet of paper, at a distance in the same pandal (puja venue) a stage beckoned me. This was a makeshift platform of wooden planks that came together with disciplined fervour during this autumnal festival every year. I was up there to recite a poem. At age five, my major challenge wasn’t reciting the memorized poem; it was the preface to it – a namaskar (joining of palms), followed by announcing the title of the poem, and the poet’s name. For me, pronouncing Rabindranath Thakur proved tougher than uttering the contents of the poem itself.
In another two years, our family caravan bid adieu to the predominantly Punjabi neighbourhood of Lajpat Nagar to move southwards – to Srinivas Puri, a government colony that boasted a better sprinkling of regional India. A handful of Bengali families scraped themselves off the neighbourhood’s surface to celebrate Durga puja at the colony’s community centre.
My brother and I signed up as volunteers and reveled in our insider status. Despite being the focal point of the event, goddess Durga benignly remained in the background. For us, the excitement of arranging flowers and other worship items, getting together with friends, the chance to wear new clothes for three days and an evening, far exceeded our sense of religious piety or devotion. And, of course, the competitions were there. My brother’s sit-down painting and my stand-up recitation had followed our trail.
On the evening of dashami – the tenth day when the goddess’s idol is submerged – something unexpected happened. My grandfather who usually avoided going to puja pandals, finding greater solace in poring over the words of the Upanishads or rationalist thinkers, went to the puja venue that evening to receive the customary shanti-jal or holy water, gathered from the river in which the idol is immersed.
After completing the evening’s rituals, the priest turned to mingle with the devotees by way of kolakuli – an act in which two people embrace each other. As the elderly priest approached my grandfather, they got talking and discovered they were from the same desh – a village in East Bengal they had to leave in the wake of the Partition. Even more stunningly, they remembered each other. After nearly four decades, the arc of their displacement had found a moment of redeeming embrace in probaash.
Our journey in Delhi continued. This time, the packed suitcases travelled deeper south – to Chittaranjan Park, C. R. Park for short – to our own house. From age 10 when I moved to this all-Bengali neighbourhood until the next two and a half decades, this final geographical movement within the city would form my most decisive and enduring impression of Durga puja.
From the smattering of Bengali families in my earlier neighbourhoods, I had landed into a sea of Bengalis. To the outsider, visitor, and occasional onlooker, C. R. Park was “Little Calcutta.” This was an odd expression for the insiders – the neighbourhood’s origins lay in creating a space for the East Bengalis who had lost their land and belongings to Partition, the very reason my grandmother could buy a plot of land here.
In every sense, though, this indeed was little Bengal if not little Calcutta. Most, if not all, shopkeepers in C. R. Park’s four market plazas were Bengalis. All things Bengali – from bonthi, the vegetable chopping blade Bengalis use in the kitchen, to fruits, spices, and sweets from Bengal and a cornucopia of fish caught fresh in the Yamuna and brought to markets every evening – stormed our senses. This wasn’t all. Like the number of market plazas, there were four different Durga Puja venues.
For the first time, Puja began for us not on Shasthi, the sixth day of Durga’s arrival on earth, when the first worship of the idol happens, but a month before that – with the building of the makeshift pandals stretching over expansive municipality parks and playgrounds. Two weeks before the puja date, the competitions began. My territory had expanded now – I recited poetry by Tagore, Sukanta, Nazrul across the four pandals and sang Tagore songs in as many.
A week before the start of the puja, the cultural evenings began. This was the first time I had witnessed jatra – the popular Bengali folk theatre enacted on open stages in which actors double as on-stage singers. From folklore to mythology to political satires, the jatras would keep us engrossed through the evening in awe, jest or disgust.
Barely a few days before the puja, the movie screenings began. At night, after everyone had finished eating dinner, we would make a trip to the pandal with newspapers – they came handy when the few chairs and rugs spread on the ground had all been occupied. The films – fading prints of mostly black and white Bengali films of the Uttam (Kumar) era were played on a projector. A man manually ran the projecting machine as the audience chortled, sighed, and mocked at the story playing out on the screen – with glitched scenes, abrupt editing, and songs that were out-of-tune in places due to show reel damage.
My brother recalls that on one occasion, an outcry erupted in the pandal as the crowd protested the abrupt ending of an Uttam-Suchitra starrer. The operator calmed the protesters down by saying one half of the reel had been left in another pandal and a person had gone to bring it back. The part-eager, part-drowsy crowd was instantly pacified. Such was the power of an old Bengali flick at a time when satellite television and its infinite channels hadn’t yet invaded India.
I was still in probaash, but one that Bengal had penetrated deeply. This included the Bengalis’ notorious trait for internecine splintering.
Within a decade of my living in C. R Park, the number of Pujas had nearly trebled. This meant more pandal hopping within the neighbourhood, comparing the decorations and idols’ faces over gossip during the evening’s cultural shows – mostly featuring artists brought especially from Calcutta. This also meant massive corporate sponsorship. I remember one year my brother wrote the words “Next year, no Castrol, no Coke on the gates. Can we have our ordinary pujo back please?” on a t-shirt that he sported as he visited different pandals on the last day of the puja.
Wasn’t that how it all began? The glitz and the glamour, I mean. When Nabakrishna Deb of Shovabazar Rajbari in Calcutta started the tradition of community Durga puja in 1775, Robert Clive was the chief guest and nautch girls from Muslim gharanas were brought to entertain him and other English invitees. I wonder what the bideshi Clive’s impressions of pujo would be like.
A couple of decades later, I got married and drifted off the eastern shore in my journey of migration. North America redefined the meanings of probaash and puja in a way I hadn’t foreseen. The first taste of this happened in the Bay Area in California, where my husband worked as an IT engineer. Durga puja was a two-day affair, held not on the actual puja dates, but the weekend closest to it. The pandal decoration looked minimal as opposed to the ornate embellishments my eyes had become used to in C. R. Park. The goddess’s idol, too, remained a constant for years. Bhog – the puja day lunch distributed so liberally in all our Delhi neighbourhoods – had to be paid for here. Same with the cultural shows in the evening, all of which were ticketed – the most expensive one being the concert of a Bollywood singer.
The drift continued – a year later I had floated across to Toronto as a landed immigrant to Canada. According to official data, Bengali is among the major language groups in Toronto. So multiple Durga pujas were a given, although some organizers followed the weekend concept. Bhog was free, too, and so were the cultural shows. I could get used to this. I had even begun visualizing joining the choir comprising women of assorted ages singing devotional songs at one of the puja venues.
Instead I found myself volunteering in a Durga puja kitchen in a new city the following year. Making ghee by melting butter, stirring a huge pot of khichuri (cooked rice and lentils) for the afternoon bhog and frying green chilies for tempering the food.
In the summer of that year we found ourselves faced with a fresh migration notice on account of my husband’s change of job. We moved further south in Ontario to one of those cities with a deceptive name – London. After searching high and low for a Durga puja celebration in this predominantly Caucasian city, we found the only one that is held in a local Hindu temple. I contacted the organizers and signed up as a volunteer.
After all those decades of soaking in Durga puja’s Bengali ethos in north India’s little Bengal, the puja in Canada’s London proved to be a curious case of reverse migration for me. Unlike in all the Durga puja worship ceremonies I had attended thus far, the priest for this puja happened to be a non-Bengali Brahmin. The temple itself, part of an institution called Hindu Cultural Center (HCC), housed deities mostly worshipped in north India – Ram and Sita being the most prominent ones.
And so the Durga puja was an awkward blend of cultural practices – the priest sang bhajans and aartis in Hindi, in praise of Ambe Ma, a name by which Durga is worshipped in much of India’s Hindi belt. But he read out pushpanjali mantras in Sanskrit as is the custom among Bengalis. On the first day, a senior Bengali gentleman, evidently one of the organizers, gingerly asked the priest if a few women devotees could sing an agomonee gaan – one of the many songs sung to invoke goddess Durga.
The most peculiar moment for me was on the evening of navami (the ninth day) puja. Before beginning the worship, the priest took the microphone in his hands and started singing a Ram bhajan. In all my years of growing up in a Bengali neighbourhood in Delhi, I had seen many gods being worshipped at our local temple. Rama wasn’t one of them. In all my three and a half decades of existence, this was the first time I had heard a Ram bhajan being sung as part of Durga puja worship. Later, Bengali and Gujarati devotees got together to distribute prasadam.
A few days after the puja, I received an email from the chief of the Durga puja committee. Besides giving a break-up of the puja expenses, the message also praised the efforts of the HCC, adding, “This is the only venue in Southwestern Ontario where we can celebrate our festivals as Indians.”
In my migratory experience, Durga has had to contend with forces of varying types and strengths – from Castrol and Coke to Rama’s paean being sung ahead of hers. For, over the course of her own annual migration to her father’s house on earth, she, like us, must contend with the globalized globe that thinks and lives outside the map.
I await the day when I would run into someone from Delhi at a North American puja pandal on dashami. I want to experience the kolakuli magic my grandfather did in his probaash all those years ago, in what is now mine.
Bhaswati Ghosh writes and translates fiction, non-fiction and poetry. She is the Editor-at-Large at Cafe Dissensus. Look up her website here.
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