Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Probashi Pujo - apologium

I am Smart. I have realised that my commenters (kind, kind people who spare their time for this blog) also provide material for my column in The Bengal Post!

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?

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

In exile

(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.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Incident in Prague

Quizman said long ago that I’m “effortlessly pompous”. I agree. It certainly applies to the stuff I write for publication.

The Old Town Square in Prague is the most beautiful urban space I have ever seen.

I have fallen in love several times over the last few years. My first infatuation was Paris, where the flowers punctuate the awnings of the cafes on the Champs Elysee and every passing lady leaves a whiff of perfume. Then Lisbon with her laid-back attitude, a beauty in morning deshabille, stole my heart. Later, Istanbul’s joie de vivre marched into my affections like the earthy heroine of an H.E. Bates novel. But when I stood below the astronomical clock at the corner of the Old Town Square and watched the sunset fade on the spiky steeples of the Tyn Church (or, by its bhalo naam, the Church of Our Lady before Tyn), I knew without doubt that it is beyond compare.

Now aesthetic exhilaration is all very well, but we had spent the day driving round a fair part of the Czech Republic on very mundane work. The roads had been clogged and the weather beastly; the schedule of meetings had not left time for lunch. So even as the lights came on and created a quite unrealistically beautiful golden glow over the 12th century buildings, our corporeal selves intruded very forcibly upon our common conscious. My stomach thought my throat had been cut and protested in no uncertain terms. My companions and I looked at each other “with a wild surmise” and proceeded to seek sustenance.

I was firm in my resolve that we would have a fitting meal and not waste our appetite on fast food. I had seen, in the cobbled pedestrian passageway that lies between the Old Town Square and Wenceslas Square, a sign advertising “traditional Czech cuisine’, so despite the protests from my companions I marched them all the way to the Café Mustek (so named because it lies at the head of Ulice Mustek). We were accosted at the gate by a young man the size of a refrigerator, dressed like a medieval executioner. He turned out to be charmingly helpful and found us a table in a corner, gave us menus and directed a bright young lady to take our order.

Overwhelmed by the bounty on offer, we proceeded to order several different kinds of savoury meat – rabbit, duck, chicken, pork knee – and the waitress did not see fit to warn us that even our large appetites would not be able to do justice. When our food arrived, we were already rather full of Pilsner Urquell and so gazed with some alarm on the size of the helpings. Never mind, said I, and we set to. Now, pork knee as served in the Café Mustel is a ritual as much as a meal. It is served on a miniature spit balanced on a nice wooden tray, surrounded by little dishes of mustard, savoury dip and horseradish relish (the last being a close relative of the Japanese wasabi). For a quarter of an hour, conversation flagged as we carved and shared and sated ourselves. We finally paused in our labours, emitted long sighs of satisfaction, took deep draughts of our Pilsners and wiped our mouths with large napkins in the manner of Obelix.

At that point I noticed four pairs of hungry eyes at the next table looking longingly at our lavish spread. Young college students, they had ordered only a beer apiece (at that age, beer is always more important than food). As we watched, they started counting out loose change and ordered just one plate of French fries. My friends and I looked at each other, then at the untouched dish of roast rabbit. We conferred on whether it would be seemly to offer it to the young people. The consensus was that their pride would not permit them to accept. Despite our growing feeling of guilt, we decided not to commit the social gaffe. I had the remaining food packed despite my friends’ objection – they said they had seen no poor people we could offer it to. Never fear, said I, and we proceeded to amble back towards the hotel, myself swinging the packet of food as if it were a clouded cane.

A hundred yards from our hotel door there lay a nightclub of a certain sort. A sallow young man, stubbled and shabby, approached us with the offer of a free trial of the pleasures within. As he tried to hand me a little pamphlet, I had an epiphany. “I can’t give you any business, but would you accept this food instead?” It took a little explanation (his English was none too good, our Czech non-existent) but once he got the drift he smiled a large, large smile. Then he drew himself erect and, pointing to an even thinner and shabbier young man nearby, asked “May I give it to him instead?” I shrugged. Why object, as long as somebody’s hunger is appeased? The packet was handed over and we walked on.

As we turned into our hotel, there was a commotion behind us. We turned and saw the second man capering after us. I was alarmed. Was this a protest, maybe even an assault? No such thing. It was gratitude, expressed in a manner that filled the heart. The young fellow grabbed my hand and poured out an effusion of thanks. “I have not eaten so well in months! This is Christmas come early!” Then “Wait, I will thank you in the Indian manner!” and he actually prostrated himself on the sidewalk in front of us. Severely embarrassed, we escaped into the hotel. But talking it over later, we agreed that more than the fleeting sense of virtue, our day had been made by the youngster’s spontaneous expression of gratitude. Perhaps, for a moment, it even made the inchoate sprawl of Wenceslas Square more beautiful than the picture-book perfection of the Old Town Square.

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Thoughts on 2nd October

Thanks to the Bengal Post, there should be at least one post a week on the Philippic.
More, if certain other things work out.

There are good reasons why the citizens of the USA consider their country to be the greatest in the world. The biggest reason is that Fox TV tells them so. To be fair, their present President does not repeat this statement as often as some of his predecessors. This may be because, in any speech by Obama, B.H., at least 30% of the time is spent in striking a statesmanlike pose and looking at a point about 3 feet above the left shoulder of the cameraman on Centre 1, which leaves less time for uber-patriotic affirmations. Most Americans take this as an indication of (a) statesmanlike intentions, though not necessarily ability or (b) a malfunctioning teleprompter. But any public figure in the USA must, in any public pronouncement, work in a reference to the USA as the leader of the free world and the guardian of democracy. This helps in building public consensus, patriotic fervor, even national unity. The method has been tried and tested by other world leaders such as Hussein, S., Hitler, A. and Dzugashvili, J. It seems to work.

Do these affirmations lead to an overwhelming question? Or does rhetoric lead to a blind acceptance of the maxim of “My country, right or wrong”? My question is limited to the context of our own country. Do we Indians believe in our country because we are told to do so? Or is there a deeper basis – whether rational or emotional - to our patriotism? As far as I am concerned, I live in India because I would not fit in anywhere else. This is my country. I would have no peace or comfort in a country where I can’t buy tea in an earthen cup. But I have sense enough to know that this does not make India the greatest country in the world (as, indeed, “Mom’s apple pie” is not sufficient proof of American superiority). One of the good things about my country is that I can still say this on a public forum without fear of the outcome.

Come to think of it, everybody says this. In the international media the concept of India, incredible or otherwise, exists in the future. We Indians agree. We’re getting there, we may be world leaders some time soon (a decade? A century?), but we’re certainly not there yet. Indians abroad (especially in world heritage sites like New Jersey) tend to have an extreme version of this objectivity. For them, practically nothing about India is acceptable. Not the infrastructure, food, medical facilities, education nor even the air. Not for them the empty rhetoric of world domination. (Curiously enough, this is the demographic that is most likely to buy into the Fox TV view of the USA. But we shall examine this phenomenon anon.) This clear-eyed pragmatic view, alas, rarely extends to Indian icons. The same Bangali who derides the work-culture of Bengal is most likely to get emotional over any criticism of Netaji. Or Swami Vivekananda. Perhaps Bangalis are not a good sample, since they can get equally emotional over Suchitra Sen and (on the evidence of lady friends from DSE) Kaushik Basu. No, let us examine the Indian at large.

Can you criticise his national icons in public and get away with it? Ambedkar, Bose, Nehru, Rajaji, Shivaji – can any of us afford to be less than respectful in our public utterances, without fear of an immediate and often physical reaction? The Americans are quite the opposite in this regard. They are as comfortable with depictions of Jefferson’s peccadilloes with the domestic staff at Monticello as they are with Jay Leno’s wisecracks about the current President. They accept the fallibility of their leaders and icons while maintaining the myth that their country is, by and large, above criticism. Those who do venture to criticise the country as a whole disguise it as criticism of a particular administration, of individuals rather than the collective. Doing otherwise would invite being labeled as a “Liberal”, which as we know is polite American usage for “wacko pinko Fascist Commie faggot”. In India on the other hand, the revered Arundhati Roy can write a brief 82-page essay in a leading weekly about the various ills of the Indian state, but a historian who suggests that the pride of Maharashtra was less than perfect must face a book ban.

I find this strange. What I find even stranger is that the efforts of one man were the single largest factor in creating this system whereby we live in a (reasonably) free and democratic nation, yet this man’s memory is reduced to dry paragraphs in history books and poorly painted portraits in government offices. This man’s life and even his views are beyond the realm of public scrutiny, despite his own experiments with truth which he recorded in frank and sometimes self-flagellating detail. It is sacrilegious, or anti-secular, or just plain traitorous, to suggest that despite his political acumen he made mistakes that led to bloodshed and misery. The real tragedy of the man’s legacy lies in this, and not in those three gunshots at a prayer meeting in 1948. By placing him above and beyond criticism, we have placed him beyond reality. And in the process denied his legacy the light of the truth that he believed in.

Saturday, October 02, 2010

A Pujo primer

(Not for the real Bangali - this is more like a Pujo primer, written for Jetwings on the request of the Skeptic)
(This blog will stop feeling like a blog if I just keep posting published stuff. OK. Shall be back soon. With a Rant. Or several rants. Rants are the life-blood of blogging)
(No, I lie. Comments are the life-blood of a blog. And my readers don't bother)
(Casts accusing look before exiting left)
(Pops head back in to thank those Good Readers who HAVE commented.)

(Oh, all right. The Pujo thingy is below. Go on and read it, will you?)

Saccharum spontaneum. Kaash phool. The sudden appearance of patches of greenery topped with these swaying white plumes signals an uplifting of the spirit, a sense of expectation. It’s supposed to be a perennial grass, but for Bangalis it is associated with one season.

It happens some time in September, after the rains. Suddenly the sunshine is sharper and mellower all at the same time, the morning air smells different. Even though you can’t admit it to yourself – especially if you’re over 40 and have a duty to be respectable – you feel like standing on the balcony and singing. It has to be Robindro Shongeet remembered from many years ago, even if you usually spend your evenings with Thelonious Monk. Singing loud, full-throated, a chest full of song. Because somewhere in your mind you can hear the rhythms of the dhaak, the pandal down the road is taking shape as a lattice-work of bamboos and is that .. yes, that IS a stray banner of kaash phool in the corner of the park.

Pujo. Sharodotshob. Durga Puja. The autumn festival, the high point of the Bangali year. Browning’s Englishman may yearn for England in the spring, but for Bengalis the one time when thoughts must turn to home is during the Pujas. Learned people can expound on the religious roots, the tradition of the Mother Goddess, the difference between Navratri in the rest of India and the six days of Durga Puja. But deep down, we Bangalis know that our Pujo is only incidentally about prayer. It is in the deepest sense a celebration of our identity, a reassurance of community, an affirmation that life can be good.

Puja starts with Mahalaya. Waking at 4 in the morning to switch on the radio, then snuggling under the covers while songs and mantras and the clashing of cymbals roll around the darkened room, interspersed with the theatrical intonation of Birendra Krishna Bhadra. Unique, inimitable, the voice of Pujo, Durga’s herald long after he died in his 80s. Mahalaya is the last day of Pitru Pakksha, the fortnight when Karna was sent back to earth to appease the souls of his forefathers. The more devout will flock to the rivers before dawn to offer prayers for their ancestors, along with offerings of food for the departed souls. Mahalaya also marks the beginning of Debi Pakksha, the fortnight of worship of the Mother Goddess. It is cause for celebration – Pujo is here!

The preparations for the autumn fortnight start nearly a year in advance. Every neighbourhood has its Puja Committee, and they vie to outdo each other in the splendor of their pandals and their images of the Goddess. A pandal is a temporary structure, a bamboo framework draped with coloured cloth. This simple description cannot convey a thousandth part of the grandeur of some of these elaborate structures reaching 60 feet high or more. Some are made as copies of famous shrines, amazing in their reproduction of detail. Last year one Pujo Committee recreated an entire Garhwal village along with the Badrinath shrine. Some are more ambitious fantasies, ranging from Hogwarts School to the space shuttle launch pad complete with Titan rocket and boosters. The objective is to ensure the maximum number of visitors, the maximum coverage in the media. And it’s all a labour of love, since the visitors are not charged a penny for the view.

Once carried inside the pandal by the choking rush of visitors, one may pause to wonder at the idols. These are usually made of clay in the potters’ quarter of Kumartuli (kumor = potter, tolii = neighbourhood), whence they are sent out to Pujas not only around Bengal but around the world. The shipping schedule apparently starts 6 weeks before the actual festival, with the first batch of idols carefully crated and despatched to expatriate Pujos in Seattle, Singapore and Saigon. There has even been a regular Durga Pujo in Switzerland since 2004! Of late, there has been a demand for more durable, re-usable idols, crafted in metal or even fiberglass. But each idol starts with a handful of clay ceremonially collected from the doorstep of a brothel, the rationale being that men leave their better selves there when they enter.

The Bangali Durga Pujo is actually an aberration of sorts. The Mother Goddess was traditionally worshipped in the spring. Myth has it that Rama invoked her protection before his battle against Ravana in the autumn (the festival of Rama’s homecoming, Deepavali, follows within a fortnight). Ever since, Durga has been worshipped in autumn, hence the local term Akaal Bodhan or untimely prayer. Part of the 4 day ritual involves the lighting of 108 lamps which symbolise the lotuses offered by Rama to Durga during his invocation. (He was short of two lotuses, so he planned to pluck out his eyes and offer them instead. This may have been somewhat counter-productive, since he sought the means to defeat Ravana.) As is inevitable with the contentious Bangali, there are different views on the rituals and even the mantras for the actual puja. Personally, it doesn’t make a difference. I am not particularly religious. The rituals are comforting, nostalgic. They bring back memories of schooldays, of aunts and grandmothers in red-bordered saris of white cotton who would settle themselves at the feet of the idol to chop huge basket-loads of fruits for the votive offering, gossiping all the while and chewing on betel leaf that reddened their lips.

There are claims that the Roychoudhury family of Barisha (now a southern suburb) celebrated Durga Puja regularly from 1610. The first such Puja recorded was organised in 1757 by Raja Nabakrishna Deb of Shobhabajar in Calcutta; the unspoken truth is that it was actually meant to fete the conqueror Clive. The tradition of community pujas started 4 years later, from Gooptipara in Hooghly, where 12 young men (12 friends or baro yaar, hence the term baroyaari Pujo) organised a Pujo through community subscription. 250 years on, not only every neighbourhood but every apartment block must have its own Durga Pujo, no matter how small. As they say, one Bangali is a poet, two Bangalis form a political party and 3 Bangalis means 2 Pujo Committees!

There are other conventions about Durga Puja that are cultural or traditional rather than religious, but nonetheless defended with fervor. For decades now, there have been organised competitions for the best pandal, the best lighting, the best protima (idol). Bengal’s celebs (and not a few from Bollywood) troop dutifully round the cities to make their choices, and the results are often hotly disputed. One year it even led to litigation! Every periodical brings out its Sharodiya or Pujo Shonkha, the special autumn edition. Most of the finest and most acclaimed writers of Bengal, from Satyajit Ray to Sunil Gangopadhyay and Buddhadeb Guha, have featured in these editions that celebrate the Bangali literary tradition. The most enduring tradition, of course, is common to all festivities – the chance for the would-be Romeos to look sidelong at the flocks of preening young belles, the little romances that sometimes fade with the strains of Doshomi Pujo and sometimes last. Maddox Square in south Calcutta is by way of being a legend in this context; it is almost mandatory for the 18-25 age group to meet there at least once during the 4 days of festivities. The closest parallel is Chittaranjan Park in Delhi. And then of course there is the organised gawking, especially in Calcutta. Millions of people walk around the city from one pandal to the other, gazing slack-mouthed at the lights and the decorations, bowing deeply before the idol where the deity seems to look right into their souls. Little convoys wind their way through the clogged avenues and little by-lanes from dusk to dawn. Restaurants stay open well past midnight, street food stalls close only when their larders are empty. For those 4 days, the world becomes a heady rush of sound and perfume and bright lights, of friends and festivity and a warm feeling of togetherness even with comparative strangers.

Till the evening of the 10th day of Debi Pokkho, Doshomi. When the Goddess and her children must be bade adieu, carried down to the river in ceremonious procession, there to be set adrift to return to their abode on Mount Kailash. Leaving the Bangali with an after-the-party feeling that he seeks to counter with the Bangali version of next year in Jerusalem!” – Aaschhey bochhor abaar hobe”, once again next year.