Durga Puja is known affectionately as Pujo to many Bengalis. What are you doing for Pujo this year, the chant goes. Pandal-hopping usually tops the list, at least for those in Calcutta who are spoiled for choice. If you live abroad, like in the United States, you might drive a few hours to the nearest big city like Chicago or Houston or Atlanta, to join fellow Bengalis, attired in silk saris and kurta pajamas, to listen to performances by musicians flown in from India and eat food catered by local Indian restaurants. Despite the fact that usually the entire festival is crammed into a single weekend, organised in high school halls lit by cold, white tube lights, and usually held at least a week after the original dates of celebration in India, the mood at these events is overwhelmingly cheerful.
I feel nostalgic about countless things, but Durga Puja is not one of them. Almost every time I have attended it here in America, I have experienced a feeling of crushing déja vu. It is the opposite of nostalgia. Instead of a yearning to recapture the past, I have felt a desperate longing to get away from the festivities. And it is not because I am haunted by any dark childhood trauma.
Ostentation and profligacy
There is a lot to like about Durga Puja. The pounding of the dhaaks (a double-sided drum played with sticks), the smoky spell of the dhunuchi dance, the communal bhog eaten together, the creative decorations and avatars of the pandals in Calcutta, the excellent literature published in Pujo annuals, the traditions of the barowari or family pujas in old parts of the city, and so on. Yes, I too have some fond memories of Pujo from my teenage years associated with new clothes, staying up all night in the neighbourhood pandal, acting as Hanuman in a play by Sukumar Ray, and the bright lights of Maddox Square, arguably the hippest Pujo in Calcutta back in the day. It is hard not to romanticise some part of it when you are looking back from a great distance.
But there is also so much to dislike about Durga Puja. The year before I left India for the US, I was working for The Statesman in Calcutta, which meant that every day during Durga Puja I had to go to work. This was a blessing because by then I had outgrown the festivities. That autumn, I paid an anti-tribute to the festival by writing a critique of the massive expenditures and waste of resources that the city underwent annually. That year was particularly disturbing in the light of the terrible floods that had ravaged the neighbouring state of Orissa.
I remember visiting different puja committees, the Calcutta Electric Supply Corporation, the municipal corporation and others to investigate the costs involved, and of course they were absurdly high. Neighbourhoods vied with one another to win the best pandal competitions, by being more extravagant than the other. Some of them resembled famous monuments. Their interiors were adorned with chandeliers and brocade. Sure, they looked grand and creative and many came from outside Calcutta to gape open-mouthed at their opulence. But in a country where poverty ran so deep, it all seemed a humongous waste. Certainly, the light displays were breathtaking in their splendour. Street after street was strung with lights that assumed the shape of peacocks, elephants, national monuments and international celebrities. But in a land where millions lived without electricity, it was yet another irony.
In a wise move, the editor of the supplement I was then writing for published next to my lengthy critique a gushing tribute to the importance of Durga Puja for Bengalis. For, practicality rarely triumphs over popular sentiment in these matters. And communities do need celebrations that bring them together. Durga Puja is an integral part of Bengali tradition, affords many people their livelihood – such as the clay idol-makers of Kumartuli or professional dhaakis – and helps preserve Bengali art forms. I was opposed not to celebrating the festival but to its excess.
Cauldron of chaos
I spent my formative years in a high-rise in south Calcutta. Even though our building was in a neighbourhood that was not particularly Bengali in atmosphere, there were enough Bengali residents spread across the 96 flats to justify a communal pujo of our own. I watched this pujo, a microcosm of the city’s Durga Puja culture, as it evolved over the years. From a homely celebration organised by residents and featuring amateur theatre and performances by the families, it expanded into an extravaganza involving professional musicians who charged big sums of money to blast out Bollywood hits over the loudspeaker every evening. The chanda obviously rose five-fold to match these growing costs. Even the theatre became professional with troupes coming in from outside to perform. It is likely that the entertainment was of a higher quality than before but something was lost in the process. That sense of people in the community getting together to celebrate in their own backyard.
Now, whenever I think of my time spent in Calcutta during Durga Puja, this is what I remember. Important thoroughfares across the city blocked for days by pandals and makeshift stages. No attendance in West Bengal educational board schools or government offices for up to a month. Bottleneck jams that backed up traffic for miles every evening. Thick crowds of sweaty people pushing and shoving their way forward to try and catch a glimpse of the idol, the ceaseless cacophony of dhaaks and blaring of music over loudspeakers from dawn to late at night. The city felt like a steaming cauldron to me during those five days.
For those who enjoyed this chaos it was the best time of year. But what of those who did not enjoy it? Those who had lost a loved one and remembered them most at this time, those who were ailing and in need of peace and quiet, those who abhorred religious ritual, or those who were simply introverts and wished for some solitude? Where could they go to get away from it all?
Yes, most religious holidays have been commercialised. Now that I live in America, I find myself rolling my eyes at the unavoidable sentimentality of Christmas, which starts to make its way into people’s lives as early as October. But there is a significant difference. It is possible, to a great extent, to shut out Christmas if you want. You don’t have to put up a tree or watch Hallmark channel. Even if you are obligated to attend the office Christmas party, you can leave early and it does not last five days. But during Durga Puja in Calcutta, it was impossible to be free. Free from the relentless noise or crowds. Free to continue to work or get from point A to B in the city without getting trampled. And most of all, free to disapprove. For, if you claim not to like Durga Puja, you are, according to fellow Bengalis, a terrible person.
The assumption that a Bengali is incomplete unless he or she embraces Durga Puja underscores two other assumptions. First, that every Bengali is religious. Second, that every Bengali enjoys loud, mass celebrations. Obviously, this cannot be true. We Bengalis are as heterogeneous and hybrid a group as any other community. I know I am not alone in my indifference to this important Bengali festival. There are other Bengalis who would crawl out of the woodwork if they weren’t so afraid of being judged by the others.
There is always a flip side to mass celebrations that are unique to a particular religious or racial or linguistic group. They can foster parochialism and exclusion. Instead of welcoming differences of opinion, when Bengalis push us away for not enjoying the same interests, it only makes these clannish celebrations more distasteful.
Whenever I am invited to attend Durga Puja in the city where I now live, I either decline or accept reluctantly only because my friends are going and I do not want to disappoint them. My reluctance is nearly always met with some suspicion. What kind of Bengali does not enjoy Durga Puja? Once an organiser said defensively, obviously offended by the perceived insult – I know our puja is not as grand as the ones in Calcutta but this is all we can manage here. I want to explain that I am an atheist and you would not ask one to attend Christmas Mass so why Durga Puja? I want to say I do not see the point of celebrating the festival the day after it has officially wrapped in India. I want to say no Bengali in her right mind would spend Durga Puja eating cold samosas, saag paneer, chicken tikka masala, and gulab jamuns anyway. Most of all I want to say please do not make me dance to Bollywood music on this night.
But I will not say any of these things. Because the pleasure that most probashi Bengalis derive from the very attempt to recreate this semi-religious, semi-cultural experience from their pasts is immense and almost moving. They clearly enjoy heartfelt warmth on one or two of these short autumn days when the air is turning crisp outside. Who am I to deny them that? In return, I only wish that my fellow Bengalis would not deny me the right to ignore their beloved festival.
Respond to this article with a post
Share your perspective on this article with a post on ScrollStack, and send it to your followers.