Durga Puja 2011: One Year On

Written by  //  October 6, 2011  //  Philosophy, Religion, Culture  //  1 Comment

Sequels rarely work. But sometimes sequels break the mould of their illustrious predecessors and are seen as masterpieces in their own right (Think: Ray’s Aparajito and Apur Sansar, Amitav Ghosh’s River of Smoke and Coppola’s Godfather II, amongst several others). Durga Pujo last year in London was exhilarating: GPS-navigated drives to far-flung destinations where yet another Bengali splinter group had started its own pujo, volunteering at the neighbourhood pandal watching Bengalis jostle with each other for bhog, the tiny fragments of bel pata during the anjali and for almost about anything else which was in short supply and meant to be shared, and being witness to amateurish cultural performances that took me back to warm autumn nights of puja performances in Calcutta where earnestness, effort and the sense of community were more than sufficient substitutes for real talent.

The sequel, Durga Pujo 2011, though could not have been more different- I didn’t volunteer at any pandal, didn’t have the patience to sit through yet another promising musical evening with ‘famous artists from Calcutta’ always too famous to be named, and most tragically didn’t have a car that would ensure that pandal-hopping in London was achieved with minimal effort, something which appeals deeply to my largely sedentary lifestyle. Nonetheless, it was an unforgettable five days— adda sessions deep into the night, reuniting old bonds that I had once thought were lost, making new acquaintances with the same giddy childlike innocence that pervaded teenage conversations at Maddox Square and discovering that walking wasn’t that bad after all.

A combination of an insatiable desire for seeing Ma Durga in as many places as possible, a reserve of intrepidity that only reveals itself during these five days of the year and like-minded company meant that distant Fairlop was our starting point on pandal-hopping Ashtami. Apart from the sense of adventure of travelling on a Hainault via Newbury Park train to a station on Central Line’s terminal loop, Fairlop provided a particularly English setting to a Bengali festival. The expanse of rugby fields and the din of long distance trains in the backdrop provided a surreal contrast to the loud Sanskritic chants of the pujo and garrulous Bengalis engaging in making light of the world’s problems through their ready solutions. The cherry on this Benglish pie was provided by an old grandmother-like lady who embraced me with deep affection when she heard that I read law at Balliol, and looked at my friend with equally deep disdain when she heard that though he too was at Oxford, he was at Mansfield College- “In our time, with due respect, Mansfield wasn’t really considered much of a college.” Fair reward for a formidable trek to Fairlop?

Undeterred, and in fact keenly looking forward to newer insights into the Bengali mind conditioned by an extended spell in England, we ploughed on (on foot, wherever possible) into the innards of Harrow, Ealing, Wembley, Ilford, Upton Park, King’s Cross and Belsize Park. From confused Brit bong accents announcing Bengali cultural programmes to bizarre requests in the middle of an arati (“Do you have a Blackberry phone charger?”), from Gujarati businessmen hoping to make a quick buck by selling grossly overpriced sarees to unsuspecting Bengali clients to collecting free HDFC Home Loan bags at every puja; bags that became the true mark of an official pandal hopper (“You have only three bags; I have five! Take that. ) the days passed in a whirl, giving way to long, meaningless evenings, where we too, unleashed the Bengali within us (or provoked the dormant Bengali in friends from other communities and countries) by chatting away the world’s problems, laughing at the most politically incorrect humour and drowning in passionate discussions on subjects that were close to our hearts. Old connections were rekindled, new ones were formed, as adda once again, spread its all-pervading tentacles to absorb everything and everyone in its warm embrace.

As I sat in the Belsize Park pujo pandal on Nabami evening, I felt that I was part of a celebration of fraternity that is rather sadly an anachronism in today’s world. As the ladies gave the traditional uludhwani, and the sound of the conch shell resonated around the hall, beautiful Bengali damsels traipsed around causing many an eyeball to turn, not least my grandmother’s who sensed a prospect, followed around by anxious Bengali males, hoping to steal that glance that would give them the license to dream. It was a mix of the spiritual and the sensual—innocent, hopeful and uniquely Bengali. And then the arati began and once more She became the centre of my attention— dressed in her finery, resplendent in her vermilion, looking straight at me with a hint of a smile, lighting up my life and answering my unarticulated prayers.

Shubho Bijoya to all.

About the Author

Arghya is currently doing the doctorate in law at the University of Oxford. Dithering between academia and litigation for a future career but sanguine in Oxford with his current researcher status.

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One Comment on "Durga Puja 2011: One Year On"

  1. neha October 8, 2011 at 6:49 am ·

    With a touch of self-reflexive irony, I have to say: exhilarating post!

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