Keeping Durga Puja alive is what keeps it real

Durga Puja 2009, Texas

“It’s difficult to consider the American Durga Pujo as even a mildly authentic experience,” says Arnab Ray in a rather jaw-droppingly short-sighted piece at the New York Times India blog— one that has me seeing red and wishing I had eight more arms so I could shake 10 fists in his general direction.

“I have a standard operating procedure for this time of the year,” says Ray, as he longs for the halcyon days of his Kolkata puja experiences. “I go online, find out the venues (usually schools) and the dates (usually weekends) of each of the local Durga Pujos.” Wow, that’s awesome…that he has to go online and search rather than knowing outright because he’s active enough in the American Bengali community to have, say, helped arrange one. But it’s easier to “snigger” at cultural programs than to be a part of them, no? Easier to become misty-eyed for what was than to throw yourself wholesale into what now is.

I’ve been to Durga Puja everywhere from the Bay Area to suburbs of Houston to the midwest, and while there are always plenty of “weekend Bengalis” like Ray who show up for the food, there are more who roll up their sleeves and get involved, determined to make the experience as fun as possible. Sure, it’s not going to be what they had back in the Motherland, but it’s a facsimile meant to keep Bengali heritage and custom alive for each other and for their children.

The Bengali community that has emerged in North America over the past 30-40 years has worked hard to bring festivals from home to these shores and then adapt them accordingly to work schedules and venue availability. Ray might not get “warm fuzzies” from sitting in a high school cafeteria that’s been converted for a puja or a mela but, for some of us, it’s fuzzy and then some. My parents helped form Agrani, Cincinnati’s Bengali Association, which is celebrating its 25th year. They’ve been part of the Ohio/Kentucky/Indiana Tri-State Durga Puja from the get-go, and that organization just had its 28th annual Durga Puja this past weekend. As a second-generation Bengali American, I’ve had the pleasure of wearing a lal-paar sari and dancing awkwardly in many of those oh-so snigger-worthy cultural programs. I’ve watched my elders dance to the dhak during evening arati and the women of our community joyously attack each other with shidoor. And my dad and honorary uncles doing bijoya koola-kooli never fails to put a smile on my face. That it’s not happening on the streets of Kolkata makes it no less authentic, no less real.

“The new Durga Pujo is an optional social event, scheduled around my life,” says Ray. That’s not the puja‘s fault. That’s his. Because it’s the people that bring authenticity to a festival — the mashis tearing up flowers and hovering over prasad trays, the uncles on khichuri and goat meat duty, the bored teenagers and hyperactive kids who get dragged into the event but, 20 years later, still remember and value their part in it. We’ve created our own “real thing” here in America, and perhaps what NRIs like Arnab Ray should really be pining for is their distinct lack of that community spirit.

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