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.


Anonymous said...

Chokhey aar jibhey ek saathey jol eshey gelo...
Mama I am coming home!
Calcutta( not Kolkata...till they name DI as BiBaDi Songho and CC as Kolkata Songho) is perfect if you stay outside...

ab said...

Just like you ain't a communist if you are left handed, all pujos organized by the non resident bengalis are not of the lifeless, sterile variety. In fact some of the pujos, in spite of their less noise (fail to understand why higher decibel level seems sexier but this might be just another of those kolkata phenomenon where something obnoxious first becomes acceptable and then lovable) are truly more authentic and credible than some of the so called iconic pujos of koklata. I would rather watch performances which are not really that shabby of friends, relatives and their kids than have glamour artistes from bombay be the star attraction of my pujo or another kishore kumar clone from bollywood trying to impress. I have been to pujos in boston and new york where the didimas, mashimas and kakimas along with the meshos and kakus are toiling away in kitchens to make authentic bhog and really good bengali vegetarian and non vegetarian food. Can all these ever replace the pujo experience in kolkata? Obviously not, but that is true for a lot of things when one is away from home. At the same time, can it make us feel ever so nostalgic, being in touch with our roots and the sense of being part of the greatest community on earth? Absolutely yes! It is easy to use one wide brush and create an image of an exile based on limited experience of attending pujos in north america or outside india. What gets missed in this casual and irresponsible rhetoric are 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. They are the underdogs and it seems the proverbial bengali brotherly love for them is missing in this case.

Ah well..peace out..

Lazyani said...

Absolutely , empathize with you . The pujos spent at Jamshedpur were fine. But the years spent in the extreme north-eastern periphery of the country were tough:)

I have posted something on the same lines, but from a different point of view.

Tania said...

Isn’t that taking just one sample and bad mouthing the entire population? I have never eaten chicken pizza or bagel at my local pujo. 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. I have four Pujos here in a radius of 50 miles( you can call it the inherited Bangali rivalry or in your case “competition”) and every one of them tries their best to create the ambience. All the music that I have heard in Calcutta is the latest Bollywood hit over the loud speaker.I would say the average “alien” Pujo can boast of a better quality of music that suits the Aantel Kolkata Bangali. You feel you are a part of the whole when you are involved in the adults or the kids cultural programme. I guess we Probashis are much more into getting our children in touch with their roots than an average Kolkatta bashi. The bone crushing pandal hopping is not in the lines of having fun in my case.

Anonymous said...

dude, life is about making lemonade. while puja outside of india may indeed not be quite as indulgent a time, it is what is available and one runs with it. for all the pujas missed, there are new cultures to understand, new traditions to enjoy. time to become a world citizen and broaden one's horizons.

Anonymous said...

Your romanticism shouldn't be at the cost of making everything else uglier. Your writing is becoming shabby old man.


(You asked now don't complain!)

J. Alfred Prufrock said...

AB, Tania, Anon - mea culpa. Thank you for pointing out where I was wrong (particularly the sad truth that I was generalising on the basis of one bad experience).
Next Monday's column in the Post will be an apology and an expiation. I shall even venture to quote all of you.

AB, I particularly like your quoting from S&G's Philippic to illustrate your point!

W-B, noted. One shall endeavour to mend one's ways.

Ani, beware! We're both on dangerous ground here.


Sue said...

Subho bijoya, grumpy old man. Hope yours wasn't too bad. We had a lovely, mad one.

Sue said...

Tania -- They play all kinds of music at the pandals. And the neighbourhood women do indeed come out and help with the pujo and the bhog. The probashi pujos are fun but the feel is restricted to the venue. Here the whole city celebrates. It's a completely different experience. Having been a probashi myself I can tell you, nothing, and I mean nothing beats Pujo in Cal.

If you can get over the traffic, that is, which I easily can!