(Again from The Bengal Post)
A chill wind and a sere sky. Drawing on a moody cigarette in the corner of a deserted car park, I grimaced as the cold stung my nose and made my eyes water. Time to go back inside. To the trestle tables and the scattered chairs. The half-smiles and the distant Durga. To the strange experience of Pujo in the eastern United States.
I’m quite proud of the fact that in the last 35 years I have missed only three Pujos in Calcutta. Of course I found Pujos to join elsewhere, but my one experience of Markeen Sharodiya was quite depressing. Now that our annual tryst with Birendra Krishna Bhadra is done, we have thrilled to the clarity of Hemanta Mukhopadhyay’s “Jaago, tumi jaago”, the school holidays have started, the pandals are nearly complete and half the Bangali population is out of town anyway, spare a thought for those who pass their Pujo in exile. Not for them the resonance of Mohishasura Mordini at dawn, or the clamour of passing dhaakis on Ponchomi. Not for them the luxury of slipping over to the mondop for a half-hour of adda before bed, while sipping tea and watching the passers-by. Not a chance, when the mondop is 20 miles away in a school gymnasium that has to be locked down by 8 p.m. And not when they live in a land where coffee is sold in paper cups and tea is hardly known, let alone the earthen cups that we in India take for granted.
The earliest Pujo I remember clearly was actually in Delhi’s Chittaranjan Park. It was then a suburb on the edge of the outer dark. Alaknanda did not exist, jackals yipped in the fields to the south, buildings were sparsely scattered, the “parks” were unfenced. Yet the Pujo was a great affair. In my memory, the pandal is grand, the protima awe-inspiring, the dhaak loud and the incense strong. And yes, the food was wonderful! I was young, Delhi was home and there was no sense of deprivation for not being in Calcutta. Pujo was a blast. Even my next experience of Pujo in Delhi, 15 years later, was warm and joyous. It most certainly would not have been exile, except that I was young and my thoughts lay in Calcutta.
So Pujo away from home can still be enjoyable. Or not. Forget the theories about religion, ritual, tradition, community. What are the specifics that make a Pujo for the average Bangali? Why did my experience in New Jersey seem so sterile, alien, like something out of Blade Runner?
The first thing that comes to mind is being home. Durga Pujo is about Bangali identity. Roots. The para. There has to be a direct link through either family or neighbourhood. The Pujo mondop must be located in a place that belongs to you by association. Which is why a “neutral venue” in the next county cannot give any sense of ownership. It doesn’t work.
Amit Chaudhuri, in these columns, identified another factor that leads to alienation: silence. Growing up in Bengal, a silent Pujo was unimaginable. Our grandparents grumbled about Pujo songs over loudspeakers; for us, they actually marked the hours of the day. We Indians are more tolerant of noise even in our daily lives. During Pujo, we live in a vast envelope of communal noise that is somehow reassuring. Where there is no hum, no dhaak, no announcements for “Bubai Mondal from Sodepur to join his friends in front of the information booth”, Pujo for us is incomplete. How can we immerse ourselves in the moment if we have to worry about the possibility of the neighbours complaining?
And of course there is the food. Let us face the truth – no Bangali celebration is complete without gormandising. And that really is not possible without the involvement of mashimas and boudis who, flushed from the kitchen heat, triumphantly bear the fruits of their labour to the communal tables. The products of the world’s largest fast-food chains may score more in terms of revenue, but they fail miserably as Pujo food. Mangsher ghugni, kochuri aloo’r dom, bhoger khichuri – how can chicken pizza and bagels compare with these?
The other thing that comes to mind is the sense of being only one of many. The knowledge that “our” Pujo is not the only one within miles, the competition to have a better “cultural programme”, a more gorgeous pandal, a more awe-inspiring Protima – these are not possible in an alien land where pandal-hopping can happen only in cyber-space. Alien. That is the keyword. Pujo cannot be thoroughly enjoyed except as part of a greater whole, it cannot achieve its fullest in an alien environment. As we enter the culminating week of Debi Pokkhyo, let us spare a thought for those less fortunate. Have a good one, readers.