Durga Puja – A Probashi (Expatriate) Bengali’s Experience

Durga Puja – A Probashi (Expatriate) Bengali’s Experience

For those in the know, Bengalis in West Bengal and the Bengali diaspora outside West Bengal celebrate Durga Puja in very different ways.

Born and brought up in Delhi, as a probashi(expatriate), I was a part of a family whose elders had got together and started the Durga Puja celebrations in the neighbourhood where we stayed. 

There is an unwritten rule that once a puja is started, it must be continued for at least three years. So, starting a puja was a major decision. But our parents (the Bengali parents of the 70s and 80s) had all jumped in and started the Durga Puja, and I am sure that this is true of their entire generation, wherever they may have resided.

Many set up a Kali temple too. Why Kali and not Durga, in our temples, you may ask? Well, the answer is simple. For us Bengalis, we earthly mortals are a part of her father’s family. We are her maika, so to say and no respectable married daughter stays in her father’s home. She is, at most, a welcome guest. So, each year, Durga in her maatriroop (motherly form) comes home to her father’s place and we prepare to welcome her and her children. 

She starts her journey on the first day of the month of Ashwin and reaches us on Day 5. The celebrations officially start on Day 6 and ends on Day 9. On the 10th day, Ma Durga leaves us to go back home and we immerse her body in the waters of the Ganga, so that she can go back to her husband, Shiva. Thus, Bengalis never build a Durga temple. The feminine form is mostly worshipped as Goddess Kali.

This year’s theme based pandals in Kolkata

Probashi Bengalis immerse themselves in their community puja. Our mothers would take up responsibilities such as cutting vegetables, decorations, preparations for the puja etc. Children were handed minor duties and for those five -six days, the Durga Bari was our life. We would come home to sleep, bathe, wear our next set of new clothes and go back to the pandal.

Probashi Bangalis can identify with the following four areas of experience, which I am sure was common for all:

New clothes – Traditionally, Bengali families gift new clothes on two occasions – birthdays and Durga Puja. So, this was the only time, we got new clothes. These had to last us till the next year. Since gifting to family members was a common practice, one usually ended up with 3-4 sets of new clothes as grandparents, mamas, chacha, maasis and pishi (bua) all pitched in. The ‘best’ clothes were saved for wearing on the Ashtami or 8th day.

Cultural programmes – Durga puja was the time when the ‘artistes’ of West Bengal would migrate to other cities for probashis like us who would bid for them and engage them to perform live. The most talented and famous singers and drama groups would be found performing in cities such as Delhi or Mumbai. Growing up, we were treated to the best of music programmes and dramas during this period. 

Taking part in plays and competitions–The entertainment was divided three categories – the premium were the artiste and clubs mentioned above. Each club or temple could afford only one or two such artists and so one had to pandal hop to get the best available in the city. These programmes were held late night, usually starting after 10 pm and going on till 1am to 2 am. One would get abreak to go home and have a quick dinner and be back for the ‘late night show.’

The early evenings were dedicated to plays enacted by us. Usually the parents’ group put up two plays. Most probashi clubs had a women’s wing – MahilaMahals – and they might have a separate play. And then there were plays staged by us, the children! Preparations for these plays started a month prior with rehearsals every week. This was a great time for bonding and friendships and learning about our ‘Bengali’ culture.

Another category were the competitions. There were sports and drawing competitions. For the elders, there were the ‘Playing the conch shell as well as the dhanuchi dance. The poetry competitions were common to the children and elders. For me, as I am sure with all other Bengali kids growing up outside West Bengal, this is how we learnt Bangla poems by Tagore and Sukumar Roy (filmmaker Satyajit Ray’s father).

Bengali Food – It was not only the artistes who were missing from West Bengal during Durga Puja, their chefs were also in high demand. This was the only time, we could get typical Bong food – starting with Mughlai Paratha, Kosha Mango (Mutton), Motorshutir Kochuri(puris made of maida and stuffed with green pea paste) along with phuchka (bong paanipuri) and jhaal muri (our version of the bhel).

How did the people in West Bengal spend their Durga Puja? Well, I had the occasion to spend one Durga puja in Kolkata. This was in 1988. My cousins insisted that I stay back and experience a ‘real’ Durga Puja. And this, is what I found…..

New clothes and eating out were common but the rest of the time was spent pandal hopping in order to see the ‘lighting’ and decorations. Each pandal would try to outdo the other in how ‘differently’ they were decorated. There would be themes based on movies, current events and anything in the news. And the entire setting would reflect the same. In many of the pandals, even Goddess Durga and her children would have been transformed to suit the theme. 

There was no ‘our’ puja place. The one to which they belonged. At most, one went to the nearest pandal set up and offered the Ashtami prayers. Else, one went and visited another ‘happening’ pandal. 

I never returned for another experience. I realized that I much preferred the way probashis celebrated. We had a puja to call our own.

And I much preferred the maatriroop of Ma Durga. Wherever one might be, when one comes home to one’s mother, one expects a familiar sight. I knew that I wanted to see Ma Durga only in this form. A familiar form. Yes, she can wear newer clothes and accessories and on a yearly basis, I can accept some minor changes, but accepting her in alien and novel forms as how the Kolkata pandals keep reinventing her, didn’t go down well with me.

And I had a whole set of extended uncles, aunts and friends who were the extended family we built.These were lifelong relationship which could be diminished only with distance. Else, these relationships were renewed each year during puja. For almost a month and a half (starting a month before the puja and ending only after bhai dooj), we came together to plan, work, organize and celebrate our culture.

Fortunately, I got married into another probashi family in Chembur, Mumbai where the puja was celebrated in the same homely manner with all families pitching in. 

Chembur has a Kali temple and my family was actively involved with the same. The Durga Puja Committee was separate from the Kali Bari group but the participants were common to both. 

The Puja was held in the grounds behind the Fish market. Most of our time was spent there on the grounds, though we did visit the ‘happening’ pandals at Shivaji Park, Iskcon, Powai and Juhu. Here, too, the celebrations and food were the highlight. I remember how I saw Hema Malini perform live here and also some live performances by Srikanto Acharya and Nachiket. 

Now with the ground behind the Fish market gone, the future of the puja is uncertain regarding where it will be permanently celebrated. 

The Pandemic has changed this. For two years in a row, I shall be missing puja. I guess we have all reached the stage when long to go back to our familiar ways. Let me end by praying for the world to speedily come back to normal.

May Ma Durga bless us all!

Author’s note: I have written this for an Indian audience and so have just italicized the Indian words. I feel that it makes my writing flow more smoothly.