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How a new Bengali bride in USA missed Kolkata’s Pujo

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Durga pujo, to me, since all these years of my apparent existence as that elusive ‘NRI’, means the quintessential calling of Bengal, my homeland, the hypnotic chanting of Mahalaya by the good old Birendra Krishna Bhadra, the ever so haunting visual imagery of the Kaash flowers swaying in the gentle autumnal breeze that I now see only in some vintage Bengali movies. But though the autumnal breeze does not physically transport me to my city amid the mad frenzy and festivity of the puja days, we are Bengalis after all, and Kolkata resides within us with all its quirks, its pandemonium and its plethora of festivals.

So, I become a part of the opulent two-day festivities, celebrating the home coming of Maa Durga in my adopted home in the US.The para pujo feel is alive here too, from giving Anjali, to being decked up in a new sari to Mahashtami puja. 

I have stayed with my husband in three cities principally, Buffalo, New York, in the east coast, Omaha, Nebraska in the Midwest and Dallas, Texas in the South-west America, and among these three cities, I have seen quite a volcanic surge of Bengalis during the Durga puja and Bijoya celebrations in Dallas, where I reside currently. In both Buffalo, NY, where I had my first ‘haate-khori’ (initiation) with Durga puja festivities and cultural celebrations as a new bride in 2006, and then, later in Omaha, Nebraska, where we settled for a few years and had my daughters, the Durga puja festival was (it still is) a two-day affair with a much ghorowa (homely) feel.Around 100-150 people at the most, performed in the local Hindu temple, wherein it packedall of it, starting from the Mahashasthi ‘bodhon’ (invoking the Goddess) to the Mahanabami Sandhi puja and the Kumari puja rituals with little girls dressed up as miniature versions of Goddess with fine jewelry and the red dye, ‘alta’ adorning their cute little feet. 

I have been overwhelmed by all of it, the Mahadashami rituals including Ma Durga ‘boron’, the mad, vibrant ‘sindurkhela’ (the smearing of vermillion) and the quintessential ‘dhunuchi dance’ where men and women participate equally, accompanied by the rhythmic interludes of the ‘dhaak.’And not to forget the proverbial Bengali gluttony with the food and the feast offered, starting from the Mahashtami khichuri bhog to the ‘Kosha mangsho’ (spicy mutton curry) and the various sweetmeats that followed suit during the Bijoya celebrations! The savory rosogolla, ‘chaal-erpayesh’ (rice kheer), ‘mishtidoi’, all homemade by some of our enthused Bengali friends, prepared days in advance, embracing the same emotional fervor with which we have welcomed Ma Durga in her earthly abode in Kolkata. 

And oh yes, how can I forget to mention the intense practice sessions and rehearsals of the songs I had sung with or without Karaoke, the drama performances where I took part, the Bengali poems I recited in those overwhelming Saturday evenings, year after year, giving me goosebumps as we, the performers of the cultural program of the Durgotsav welcomed our audiences in a quaint little Kolkata of our own making, ten thousand miles away from our homeland? 

Durga puja organized by Bengali Samiti of Nebraska, in Omaha is also much of a small, homely puja (started in 2006) involving their core members. I remember smearing the red vermillion on a few American ladies wedded to Bong husbands, and colors have united us on the spur of the moment, transcending geographical boundaries, just like the festival of Holi has done. I still feel the tinge of excitement and tears of emotion brimming my eyes when I look at the pictures of my daughters taking part in the ‘kumari puja’ rituals, dressed up as little Durga’s with their brocade silk sarees, my wedding jewelryduring the 2014 Durga puja in Omaha. 

October 2015. I had just stepped in, along with my family, from the pre-winter chills and jitters of the midwestern prairies of Omaha, Nebraska to the warm, sultry early fall in Dallas, in the north of Texas. My indomitable ‘Bangaliana’ would never leave me still, while unpacking the endless number of boxes and mundane belongings in our small, congested apartment then, as it implored me to listen to the Agomoni songs of Durga in Youtube, making me feel the pull of my homeland in my blood and veins. But then, I had made a few ‘Facebook friends’ who happened to be Bengalis, dispersed in various parts of this vast city, and sooner than I had imagined, the invitation to join the local annual Durgotsav organized by Antorik, a Bengali association of Greater Dallas was waiting as a notification as I opened my Facebook profile. I must mention here that while I had felt a wee bit nostalgic about the para Pujo I had left behind in Omaha, Nebraska, the calling and discovery of this new pujo in our new adopted home was nevertheless alluring. As in all bigger cities of the US, where the Durgapujo usually attracts a huge Bong crowd, this pujo in Irving, a suburb near Dallas was held in a local high school, with a fairly big reception lounge and a huge cafeteria where the pujo prasaad and the grand lunch and dinner menus were served by more than 50 enthused volunteers. 

There I found my own footsteps and those of my little girls decked up in Bengali attire, mingling with the footsteps of a huge crowd of nearly 500-600 Bongs loitering at the huge hall, pacing hurriedly, ladies queuing up in close groups decked in gorgeous attires and accessories, huddled together for selfies, with the priest immersed in the Bodhon and Mahasaptami rituals of invoking Ma Durga. Everything was perfectly in place and in sync with the mood of the grand festivities. 

Life has turned a new page this year, as I have returned to Dallas, fresh from the sound and flavors of the pre-pujo Kolkata. Dallas, my adopted home currently, happens to be one of the very few cities in the US to have a Bengali radio station, Radio Antorik, which the local bongs actually tune in to for an hour, every Sunday noon. Two weeks earlier, when I stepped inside the radio station to co-host one of the pre-pujo live adda (you will instantly get the nuances if you are a Bong) and music sessions announcing the artist line-up for this year’s Puja-special cultural program, I felt in my senses, in my blood and being that the feeling of homecoming, which I carry with me like the proverbial Uma every autumn, is way beyond the spatial. All the way from the small pujo of Buffalo to the Hindu temple Durgapujo festivities of Omaha to the mad pandemonium of the Kolkata pandals to the more sophisticated Bong crowd of the Dallas pujo, Durga in the affectionate avatar of Uma and I have walked one step to the next, hand-in-hand, finding our homes in diverse destinations, and reveling in all of them.