Posted by: Monideepa Tarafdar | September 20, 2009

Autumn Song

There is an interesting conundrum that those of us who celebrate our childhood festivals in lands far away from where we were born or raised, face. On the one hand with the global spread of populations of almost every country (in my case, India), it is possible to find a community to belong to and celebrate with, wherever one may happen to be. It is therefore quite possible to keep to  pretty much all the customs and rituals that one grew up with. On the other hand, there is always that inexplicable and gnawing feeling that inspite of the everything, something is missing.

Last year’s Durga Pujo found me in Chicago, half a world away from Calcutta in terms of physical distance and many many worlds away in terms of many other things.

As we drove to the venue, I wondered at the differences – the blustery wind of Chicago instead of the gentle autumn calm of Calcutta, gray skies instead of the post-monsoon azure, a flaming Fall with leaves that had turned orange and yellow, instead of the billowy white kaash*.

I wished for the 6 days of Pujo instead of the two-and-a-half days of a-weekend-nearest-to-the-Pujos, for the stream of glittering and awe-evoking pandals instead of the lone school-venue in several hundred square miles in a darkened-by-night neighborhood, and for the sound of endless, traffic-stopping and chaotic human bustle pouring out into the Chandipath-filled-air instead of the silent hum of our car speeding effortlessly through the orderly freeway.

We reached on the evening of the first day. The school auditorium where the Pujo was being celebrated was packed with the anticipation of hundreds of radiant faces. There she was — the Goddess with her children. The priest was doing “Bodhon”—  that is, welcoming them to their earthly home. We watched as he put weapons in their hands, anointed their foreheads with red, and arranged hibiscus and marigold garlands around their necks. Someone was playing the drums so that it sounded like dhak**. Amid the chanting, the incense, the lamps, the prayers and the smoke we watched the Goddess smile.

Since the Pujo was to be compressed into two days, and those who lived far away often came for only one day, Pushpanjali was performed everyday morning and evening. We did Pushpanjali*** – we bowed our heads, closed our hands around clumps of flower and leaf, and mouthed the chants. Sharanye Triyambake Gauri Narayani Namastute.

The women wore beautiful sarees and sparkling jewellery. The men discussed the fate of the world and solved its problems, sitting across tables. This was Bengali-land after all. The children ran around and played their games and even though most of them could not fully understand what was going on, they seemed to sense that this was the one time their parents wanted to be in a far-away world. That, I mused,  of distant drums, echoing conches, glorious faith, and adda.

The priest was doing Arati, to the rising of Jago Durga Jago Ashuro Vinashini. From another corner of the gymnasium wafted Akash Bhora Shurjo Taara. Suddenly it became clear – sometimes the song rises in Chicago and reaches Calcutta, sometimes it ascends from Calcutta and reaches every Bengali in every corner of the world who is listening for it. And it does not matter. Because wherever the song comes from, it gathers us all into its comfort-filled fold and fills us anew with the joy of the season, with the gentle strength and wonderful constancy of well-loved tradition, and with the shining grace of our highest selves.

Ya Devi Sarvabhuteshu Matri Roopen Sansthitah, Namastasyai Namoh Namah

* Kaash: White flowers on long grass-like stems that bloom in eastern India during September – November, after the monsoons. Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali has a beautiful scene depicting a steam engine pulled train racing through a field of kaash flowers

** Dhak:Drums that are played in festivals in eastern India. These are large drums that the players (known as “dhakis”) hang on their shoulders and play with two small sticks

*** Pushpanjali: Ceremonial offering with flowers and leaves. Typically accompanied by chanting of holy verses or “mantras”

I wrote an edited version of this post for the online Kolkata edition of the Times of India


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