I have goofed.
In this column last week, I waxed eloquent about the shortcomings of Pujo as celebrated in foreign climes. It doesn’t feel right, said I. It lacks the true community feeling; it isn’t the real McCoy, quoth I. Then I sat back with a certain feeling of righteousness and looked upon what I had wrought. And lo, it did stink most mightily. For look ye, from sundry places in the western realm there arose voices of protest, yea, verily did they raise the roof. Wherefore I hied me to a place of quiet and safety and thought awhile of what had come to pass. And after much thought and beating of the breast (no rending of hair, I’m a little handicapped in that field), I came to the pass of repentance and correction.
Here’s the deal – Pujo as celebrated by Bangalis abroad is fine. No, really. It has everything that one looks for in Pujo here, and then some. The camaraderie, the common effort that leads to a sense of community, the preservation and reinforcement of traditions, even the food. They’re all there in the probashi Pujo. That is the sum and substance of my learning from the protests – dignified, reasoned but seething with indignation – that came my way when I posted last week’s column on the Internet. I was wrong. And I shall quote some of my critics to illustrate where I was wrong.
One commenter sternly reprimanded my “casual and irresponsible rhetoric” that thoughtlessly criticised “the people who have adapted miles away from their homeland, been creative in their undying efforts to recreate their childhood experiences and who have been perhaps more original and credible with less resources than their counterparts in Kolkata.” That’s a valid point. Their Pujo is not inferior just because it’s different. Some aspects are definitely far more commendable. With fewer people to organise each Pujo, there is far greater involvement. In a way, the sense of community is stronger. These Pujos are a celebration of Bangali identity, only in a different way. They establish a little bit of Bengal in “a corner of a foreign field”. I would, however, clarify that I had not criticised the Bangali in exile; I had merely (and perhaps thoughtlessly) stated that the experience of Pujo there does not match my experience of Pujo at home. In the process, however, I had missed much that is commendable and indeed enjoyable about the Pujo in exile.
I must be careful about that term too! One commenter from Dallas explicitly takes umbrage at the word “exile”. Here I hold firm – “expatriate” or “NRI” do not suffice to convey the precise state of mind. I must accept the other point she makes, that Pujo abroad is not significantly different from Pujo in “Bhopal, Pune etc.”
I am ambivalent on one other issue. A “higher decibel level seems sexier but this might be just another of those Kolkata phenomenon (sic) where something obnoxious first becomes acceptable and then lovable”. Well, for those of us who grew up in the ‘70s, the pandal microphones forged a major bond with the latest Bangla adhunik. Our generation’s attachment to RD Burman is partly due to “Pujo’r gaan”. Yes, our indulgent smiles at the incessant announcements over the microphone must be a manifestation of the Stockholm Syndrome, but wait! Even the USA can be tolerant of some noise. A friend points out that even in Somerset, New Jersey, they “have some talented dhaakis too”. Glory be! That’s a major part of the Pujo ambience.
A major issue for probashi Bangalis is the authenticity of the food. My flippant (and passing) mention of chicken pizza has not gone down well and my commenters have taken pains (but of course!) to list the menus at their Pujos. “The standard fare is bhoger khichuri with labra, bhaja, chutney, luchi, payesh and mishti in the afternoon and the evening food is even more grandiose sometimes including dishes like ilisher paturi.” “In Boston and New York … didimas, mashimas and kakimas along with the meshos and kakus are toiling away in kitchens to make authentic bhog.”” Being vegetarian i cannot comment on the quality of the mangsho, but the khichuri is always awesome!” I am bested, rebutted, dismissed – and tempted!
Ladies and gentlemen, I withdraw in much embarrassment and confusion, my arguments blown to the four winds. I accept that I was guilty of “taking just one sample and bad-mouthing the entire population”. I repeat, however, that I had merely pointed out certain aspects of the probashi Pujo that, in my humble opinion, diminished the experience. Some of these are inescapable in a foreign land, where Pujo must of necessity be limited to two days on a convenient weekend and cannot encompass 5 days of celebration. And can a Pujo abroad have any equivalent of the immersion ceremony and the truck-ride that it usually entails?
On the other hand, we are now reassured that the spirit of Bangali Pujo is not only alive and well beyond our borders, it is even growing in strength. If the Bangali cannot come home for the Pujo, he will recreate his home where the Pujo is. Dhaak, montro, and the authentic food to cap it all – shall we look forward to Michelle Obama and perhaps Carla Bruni in laal paar next autumn?