The Bengali, worldwide, begins going totally nuts around three and a half months before Durga Puja. Held sometime in September/October of every year (the date varies due to the fact that it is based on the lunar calendar), Durga Puja is not just the biggest festival of Bengal, and not just a Hindu festival. It is a cultural festival, a reaffirmation of one’s Bengali roots, history, and heritage, everywhere on the planet outside of Bengal. Within Bengal, it is one of those rare festivals that are completely enjoyed by all communities, and whose religious significance is the least important thing about it.
The countdown begins, as I said, some three months before the event, with all the satellite channels beginning to air pointed adverts, and promos of Pujo related competitions and such. Text messages start arriving from friends and relatives telling me how many days remain, and chat contacts begin to ask if I will be in Kolkata for the event. When I give an emphatic NO in response, they, especially the ones FROM Kolkata, are flabbergasted, amazed, and confused. “But why!” they ask, after all you are a bengali, so why wouldn’t you wish to enjoy the biggest festival of the Bengali year?
Well, first of all, I am not MISSING anything. Because no matter where they are on the planet, Bengalis always have their Durga Puja. From the full 6 day extravaganza in Chennai, Mumbai, Pune, Hyderabad, et al, to the weekends only but massive affairs in the US, there is no WAY a Bengali is not going to celebrate this single largest event of his/her cultural year. And, secondly, I MUCH prefer the probasi…or outside-of-Bengal version of the festivities. Of course even saying this is enough to cause most of my Kolkata Bengali contacts to freak out completely. From being anti Bengali to being mentally unstable, all kinds of theories will be brought in to explain this complete impossibility. And such is the knee-jerk nature of the response these people have to such a sacrilegious statement that even trying to explain is often futile. To the slightly more rational, my reasons sometimes make sense.
First of all, I am not from Kolkata. And never have been. For most Bengalis and non-Bengalis living in Kolkata, Puja is the time to catch up and hang out with friends and relatives. Like many people go home for Diwali, or Ganpati, Kolkattans flock back to the city, from wherever they may have gone to study or work, for the Puja week. As a result, long lost friends reunite, people you haven’t seen for years are suddenly in town and ready to spend hours in adda at college square, and cousins are vying for the honour of hanging out with you. However, this is true ONLY IF YOU ARE FROM KOLKATA, HAVE GROWN UP THERE, AND HAVE A CONSIDERABLE GROUP THERE! For me, all it means is having to leave home, and be in an unfamiliar city which doesn’t feel like home, and to compete for the attention of the few friends and cousins I have in the city with all their friends! It's meaningless! Why would I want to take them away from their groups, or be the unwanted tagalong with a bunch of people i don't know very well, or at all ?
Secondly, I really don’t enjoy what Puja seems to stand for in Kolkata. All it seems to entail is getting dressed up to the nine pins, stepping out into the impossibly hot and sultry weather, fighting wave after wave of teeming humanity, and walking for miles and miles to get to serpentine queues which can stretch for more than 2 kilometers, for the privilege of standing and sweltering, getting my butt pinched and being felt up, and crawling along foot by foot for hours to get into ONE pandal. Multiply this exercise by about 4 or 5 per evening, and you have basically managed to get a very clear picture of my idea of hell.
Our PROBASI pujas are a lot more user friendly. Having seen the annual event in at least 10 Indian cities, I can see the clear differences. We live far from our roots, in places where if not all the time, at least part of the time we feel like outsiders. So, the festive week is out time to celebrate our cultural and genetic heritage. It is a burst of reveling in our Bengaliness. It is a weeklong fest of Bengali food, music, dance, drama, film, and more. A normal probasi puja day for me goes something like this. We wake, bathe, get dressed up, and head for the pandal. Once congregated, it is one long session of adda, frequently punctuated by such bong yummies as chicken rolls and cutlets, and mishti, until it is time for the BHOG.
The bhog is lunch, and is a massive endeavour, feeding thousands of people in huge batches. Everyone who comes to the pandal gets fed, regardless of language, religion, social or economic standing etc, and they all eat together. The seating, service, and tableware are all the same. The serving is done by volunteers, from among us. That stuck up kid that you dislike so much suddenly seems to forget his/her uppishness, and thinks nothing of carrying heavy buckets of hot khichdi and sabzi to serve to all those rows of hungry people waiting for the Prasad. The only things I can think of where the atmosphere is similar is the Langars of the Gurudwaras. The same communal atmosphere permeates, with very la di da, perfectly made up women thinking nothing of sitting down on the dusty concrete verandah in her muli thousand saree to chop tonnes of vegetables, and normally particular youngsters never wearing anything but the best western clothes begin running around serving hot food with not a care about the spillage and splotches on their expensive ethnic festive wear!
The massive undertaking of lunch being over, the older crowd heads home, while the younger crowd settles down for some more “hangin out”. One does head home around 5 ish, for a change of outfit, before getting back to the pandal around 8. From then on, it’s a fest of culture, with locally produced and imported (from Kolkata usually) shows of Bengali music, dance, dance drama, theatre and so on. After these, late at night, is movie time. Some of my best puja memories involve multiple and disastrous accidents with ancient projectors and trashy commercial bangla films, where half the time you hear nothing, half the time you have no picture, and most of the time its all out of sync anyway. But who cares! That’s part of the fun! And while I have sat through utter trash like “Beder Meye Josna” on these occasions, I have also seen some masterpieces of older Bengali cinema that I would otherwise have missed.
And, unlike in Kolkata, this is all a family event! In Kolkata, all the puja seeing, travel, pandal hopping, seems to be done by the younger crowd only. Even the middle aged don't seem to step out much, forget the senior citizens. And even if they do, it is almost never as families. The kids take off on their own, and the parents do their thing separately. With us, we go as a family. Maybe the older generation leaves sooner to go home, or sits in one central location while the younger bunch does a few surrounding pandals, but overall, its a FAMILY thing. The day only ends at something like 5 am, when we finally stagger home, to catch a few hours of sleep before a repeat performance begins the next morning, usually at a different pandal! After all cool stuff is happening at all of them! Sure we don’t spend lakhs on décor and lighting, but we have a LOT of fun. That’s Durga puja for me, not to mention being around MY friends, hanging out with MY crowd. Now what on earth would I want to give all that up for? So thanks a lot but no thanks is how I feel about KOLAKATAR pujo. Probasi pujo does just fine for me.