A few weeks ago, we celebrated the most awaited and significant festival for us Bengalis- the Durga Puja. Having spent a significant number of years of my youth in Calcutta, celebrating Durga Puja in the United States usually stirs nostalgically similar, yet unfamiliar emotions. Durga Puja here is celebrated not per the tithis of the calendar, but during the weekends, in order to suit the calendar of the probashi (NRI) Bangali. Thakur dekha (pandal hopping) is no longer associated with hours of walking, standing in lines, and enduring the sweltering heat or the torrential downpour in Calcutta. Instead, I hop inside my car, drive five to six hours, and visit Ma Durga in the vicinity of community colleges and high school buildings.
I entered the high school vicinity to be greeted with the familiar smells and sounds of Durga Puja, the sound of the ghonta (bells) and shaankh (conch shells), the smell of flowers and incense sticks, combined with that of burning ghee. The sights look all familiar to me. The men are spruced up in dhuti and tussar Panjabi, dutifully handing out lunch coupons and talking stray pandal hoppers like me into buying their annual membership. The women are decked up and look straight out of the sets of a Sanjay Leela Bhansali movie in their gorgeous cream and red saris, vermilion headed, with kohl-smeared eyes. The little ones are running around in their mini-saris and mini-dhotis, looking extremely cute while happily chomping on their “pijjas” and “Mc Dee burgers” especially ordered off the kids menu, replacing the khichuri bhog. The women are enthusiastically discussing clothing and jewelry, annual visits of in-laws, and the newest desi store selling freshwater fish. Standing amongst unknown faces excitedly celebrating puja around me, recreating a home away from home, I am transported to a city thousands of miles away, a city named Calcutta. I am reminded of my friends excitedly asking me, “Kawta jaama holo?” (how many sets of new clothes did you buy/acquire?), a question that promptly opens up the discussion about all the great places in the city to shop at. I am reminded of the scaffolds of the puja pandals decorated with such artistry. Ma Durga and her children look beautiful after thousands of craftsmen have worked diligently for months on recreating what they do every year, only to be immersed in water at the end of the week long celebration. The city pulsates with life. The smell of puja permeates the air- a smell characterized by faith, happiness, by the enthusiasm of shoppers amidst the crazy stampeding, the smell of roadside phuchka and chicken roll, the heart beating to the rhythm of the dhaak, and by loudspeakers blaring “Anjali Mantra”.
Amidst nostalgic thoughts of the past, I am transported back to reality as an elderly woman who is visiting her son and his family from India, smiles and makes small talk with me. I smile, mostly replying to her in monosyllables, solely because my social and conversational skills have gone downhill over the years. I see that our pujari moshai is dutifully chanting mantras, the sacred thread and dhoti a far cry from his regular nine-to-five job look. The dhaaki starts to play the dhaak at some point, ushering people for the session of anjali, picking up fistfuls of yellow and red flowers. I experience the all familiar feeling of getting gooseflesh, tapping my feet to the beat of the dhaak. A strange magic suffused with nostalgia fills the air. Durga Puja will always remain a unique celebration for me, incomparable with the pumpkin carvings during Halloween, or the turkey roasting during Thanksgiving. I am transported to a different era, awash with joyous anticipation. I flip between the past and my present, casually glancing around me to look in vain for the now-extinct group of good looking and single men roughly my age. A corpulent mashima (aunt) just stepped on my sari (and my toes), glaring unapologetically at me for intercepting her as she walks by. I sigh, zoning out of my surroundings for the moment and focusing on the beauty of Ma Durga’s face instead. Of all the things that have changed around me over the years, for better or for worse, my puja experience, people, social dynamics, pompousness and all, Ma Durga is the only one who has not changed, still looking a symbol of beauty, power, and strength, so very feminine. The only thing that brings in unalloyed joy for me is the visage of Ma Durga. The smell of pujo and the music of the dhaak. Not to mention the familiar feeling of excitement I used to have as a kid as I marveled at the six packs and brawns of the demon.
P.S.: All pictures have been taken from the 2011 Durga Puja around the New York/New Jersey area in the U.S.A.