Memories of Durga Puja

I have immigrated more than 25 years ago, and that was the last time I saw a Kolkata Durga Pujo. Today is Ashtami, a day usually filled with work, kids and very little else in the US. I have not even visited my local Durga Pujo in Houston in years. Yet my facebook home page is filled with greetings for Durga Pujo. Memories of Pujos past come flooding back to me. Maybe facebook and social media will do what immigration or emigration could not create, a true melting pot world.

This was the Kolkata of the 1970s. The excitement started about a month before when we used to buy cloth and take it to the local tailor to make into dresses. I still remember the dark blue frilly dress (frock in Indian English) I had as a child. And then of course there were bell bottoms, and hanging earrings in the 70s. The clothes would arrive from the tailor, but we could not wear it until Shasti. But before that came Mahalaya— the start of the festivities. On a new moon day, we would set our alarm clocks to 4 am. We would get up and turn the radio on for the Mahalaya program, inviting Devi Durga into our world. We would fight to stay up. I would not understand the Sanskrit chants, but just as I would be dozing off a well known song would come on and wake me up. After the radio program, people would go to the Ganga to offer prayers for their forefathers.

On the sixth day after that came Shasti. This was the start of the five day festival. We would break out one of the new clothes and go see the richly decorated images and their elaborate, lighted bases called “pandals.” Kolkata, the city with limited power supply would illuminate into thousands of lights and elaborate decorations the likes of which I have yet to see in the Western world. And of course as with anything else in Kolkata, the pujos were in direct competition with each other. There were awards for the best “pandal”, best lighting, best sound effects, best image. Nothing like capitalist competition to spruce up religion.

Ashtami was the biggest day. We would reserve our best clothes for that day. After coming back from viewing the images (pratimas) we would have the same supper every year— luchi (puri) which is fried dough and goat curry. And then of course sweets. We Bengalis covered all our food groups: fat, carbs and spices.

Then came Bijoya Dashami. The pujo was over, the pratimas were dismantled. People formed huge procession, with light and band playing and carried their pratima to the Ganges to be thrown into the water. Art to us is dynamic, to be enjoyed fleetingly in this transient world and then destroyed to be rebuild again next year. We also went to all our relatives houses to touch the feet of elders and seek their blessings. They gave us sweets and fried samosas, nimkins, etc. No supper, just desserts and junk food, that one day of the year.

I wonder how many of these traditions have survived today. My older relatives do not go to see images any more, its too crowded. Many would not be able to digest goat and puri in their health condition. Yet the sounds of the drums (dhak) come drifting through the air from the pandals, the crisp new saris of people walking on the streets, the sound of the band after dashami will never be lost. Neither will the competition to build a bigger, better pandal for a prettier image die from people to whom cultural expression is greater than the need to make money. It is this spirit of Kolkata that I miss.

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