It’s that time of year again. The annual and eternal fight between Halloween and Christmas. Stores line their shelves with Halloween decorations in one hall, Christmas decorations in another, and Thanksgiving decorations out of sight. I must admit, I also enjoy participating in this debate (Christmas decorations can only be put up the weekend after Thanksgiving). However, for me, the fall festive season starts, not with Halloween, Thanksgiving or an early Christmas. Rather, the season begins with an age-old festival that people in my family have celebrated for 700 years. For me, the season begins with Durga Pujo. Well, what is Durga Pujo? Durga Pujo has many different definitions. Some call it a festival to celebrate the good Goddess Durga triumphing over the evil demon Mahishasura. Others might yet call it an annual harvest festival. In my heart, Durga Pujo has so many aspects to it that I can’t just roll it into one phrase, or even one essay. But, I’ll try my best to focus on just two definitions that I find : connection to people and connection to culture.
Durga Pujo, first and foremost, represents connection to people. One of the biggest parts of most Indian cultures is this ginormous extended family that you can do anything with. I could ask my father’s, cousin-uncle’s, little daughter to walk with me to school, and that would be possible. But life in the States is quite different. Here too, I have a family and a community, but it’s nowhere close to the kind of support and belonging there is in India. It’s as if a spider made a smaller web, outside the bigger web, and connected it to the main web as well as a bunch of smaller webs of different spiders using a thin thread. Normally that thread would break at the slightest breeze, but in some situations that thread can be strengthened. Durga Pujo is one of those situations.
When I was quite young, my dad would turn on these Bengali cartoons during Durga Pujo that talked about all different kinds of folk stories. At the time, my bengali was quite weak, so I couldn’t understand it all and had to have my parents translate every other sentence. But then I’d spend the rest of the day thinking about it and talking to me parents about what I saw, asking them questions about it and what they knew about it. Sometimes, I’d even learn a bit about their time as a kid, and hearing about those experiences made me feel like a part of that big family. Then, when we’d go to the festival hall for celebrations, I’d run around and ask all the other kids if they knew about the story, and if they didn’t I’d gush about it to them. In that time running around, I used to, and still do, get approached by different parents, who treat me like one of their own . Every new person seemed like an old friend and no matter who I talked to, I felt like I was just talking to someone I’d known for years. When my parents were off helping with Pujo preparations, I’d just sit with an Aunty or Uncle and talk my head off about something or the other, and they’d always patiently listen to me. These festivities also connect me to my family back in India. Every day, I get on the call with my grandparents and they tell me about whatever new Pujo Pandal (various centers of festivities during Durga Pujo) they’d gone to. They show me pictures, and intricately describe what they’d done that day. When they are done, I gush about my own experiences, the stories I heard, the things I did. Sometimes, if they’re in public, they’d even pull in some friend who I had met many years prior and barely remembered, but who remembered me and treated me like their little grandchild. In that moment, I didn’t feel so far away from them or from that culture. Rather, I felt like I was walking right alongside them.
Durga Pujo is also a cultural overload. Celebrating over a weekend here in Portland, the people dance, sing, eat and partake in a myriad of rituals. What Durga Pujo is said to be a dedication to, is in its name; The Goddess Durga. But, that was never all it was devoted to in my eyes. Instead, Durga Pujo is a celebration of a rich, ancient yet constantly evolving culture. Living in America, I’m not nearly as connected to my culture as someone who actually lived in India, someone who grew up in this culture and experienced it first hand. However, when we celebrate Durga Pujo here in Portland, I do feel that connection. For example, as Bengalis, we have a vibrant artistic community. I mean, how can we not when we produced the fine Rabindranath Thakur, a Nobal Laureate widely praised for his literature. At Durga Pujo, I see that culture come alive. We have dances. People sing songs, new and old. Some even recite poetry passed down through generations. One of my favorite experiences at Durga Pujo was when I was part of a musical composed entirely of children and directed by my very own mother. It was hectic, getting everything organized, but the whole process was so much fun, especially when practicing my part in Bengali. I felt like I was truly Bengali at that moment.
I also thoroughly enjoy dressing up. Personally, I love wearing traditional Indian clothing. Something about it makes me feel elated. I can’t say if it’s the feeling of the soft silk, close enough that the wind doesn’t chill my bones but loose enough that I don’t feel choked, or perhaps all the little designs that I’d track down my body. Or maybe it was all of it and more, I can’t quite say.
Now, how can anyone talk about any festival without talking about the FOOD! I adore the food I get to eat during Durga Pujo. I love watching my mom gather with all the different aunties in the community, carefully crafting a slew of mishtis filled with sugar, their love, and even more sugar. I love smelling the aroma of rice or the spices, sizzling in the pan. And eating them was a whole nother delight. When I was younger I’d always make sure to stay near the food stands, so when they would open up I’d immediately jump in and get all the food, piping hot.
And then there was the most important part, the rituals. I think my favorite ritual of all is the ritual known as Pushpanjali. Pushpanjali is the offering of flowers to the gods, filled with the hopes and prayers of the masses. It’s not a ritual unique to Durga Pujo per se, but it’s the one where I’d see the most people come together for it. Everyone clambers for a handful of petals, but then when it comes time for prayer, everyone becomes quiet and simply follows along in the chant. I clench my flowers tight, trying to imbibe them with every hope and I have: safety for those I love, strength of conviction, good grades. Whatever I could dream of. And then we’d offer them to Durga. I love smelling my hands after too, as the scent of the flowers is so captivating that it deserves its own recognition. All-in-all, Durga Pujo’s various festivities also illustrate the vibrant culture that we hold, and over the period of 5 days that we celebrate it for, it makes me feel a part of this community spread out across the globe.
I can’t say Durga Pujo is just one thing because it represents a vast array of things. Instead, the way I perceive it, Durga Pujo is a combination of my unique experiences that paint the lens through which I view it. In my lens, Durga Pujo is the way I strengthen the thread connecting me to my family and the vibrant culture I belong to. Still, for someone else, it might mean a million different things. Ultimately, that’s what I find most magical about this festival. Durga Pujo, on the books, is a celebration of good over evil, harvest, and the motherly aspect of creation. But Durga Pujo is also so much more than that, and I hope we can always preserve that sacredness that the festival holds. As my mother once told me, “Durga Pujo isn’t a festival; it’s a sensation.”