So, a couple of days ago, I had a chat with my friends and colleagues here in New York. It went something like this.
Me: I’m going take this weekend off. I can’t teach the weekend workshop. I found someone who’s going to do it for me.
They: Yeah, sure. You deserve a break, man! So, what’s goin’ on this weekend? Mukti’s Kitchen got some cooking? (affectionate laugh…they know about my wife’s little home-based Indian cooking class and catering; Mukti has quickly got some reputation.)
Me: No, this weekend is our religious holiday. I’m going to spend time with my family.
They: What’s the name of it?
Me: You wouldn’t get it.
Me: It’s called Durga Puja.
They: Durago…Puza…that’s great! What is it? (NOTE: my American friend was NOT being disrespectful; he was trying to pronounce it the best possible way.)
Me: (don’t know how to react) It’s our Hindu religious festival. You heard about Diwali? Dusserah?
They: Ha, ha, I’m just kiddin’. You guys have fun…alright? Don’t worry about the class. We’ll take care of it.
(another friend nodded at this time positively; she heard about Diwali.)
Now, this little interaction is nothing new. We’ve been here in America for twenty-five years now. Durga Puja comes and goes once a year — mostly in October. We cannot go to India because it’s in the middle of the school year and it’s not easy to take a few weeks off at this time, dropping everything.
So, we never go to see our family and friends in India at this fun and festive time. And what fun that is! I mean, the one back there.
It’s fascinating, it’s fabulous, it’s folk art, and it’s full of people…millions of people freely frolicking. But we can’t be a part of it. In a quarter of a century, we’ve managed to go there only twice to lick that fun up; in fact, I managed to go only once. I actually did a photo story on my once-in-a-quarter-century revisit experience. If you’re interested, you can look it up here. You’ll get a taste of that incredible, electrifying environment, I promise.
The first few years of our new immigrant life here in America, we completely missed it. We lived in an isolated, small-town, Midwestern place in Illinois back then; the nearest city that had a Bengali-Indian association hosting the puja was Chicago or St. Louis. We didn’t have a car to drive to either place. I remember the first time we went to the St. Louis Bengali association Durga Puja was the third year after coming to America; a Bengali colleague and her husband who liked to hear my Tagore songs drove us down there. And there we sang and we danced. And we ate at the community feast.
The first two years, however, we just looked at the calendar, and called our families a couple of times on those auspicious days (couldn’t call much: international calls were $3.50 per minute).
We put the phone very tight to our earlobe and tried hard to hear the huge noise and big drum (Dhak) play rising up from the streets of Calcutta. Here’s my very short YouTube clip on Dhak.
But thanks to Indian and Bengali media’s “reporting” what I frequently call “Journalism of Exclusion,” people back there have no clue about what emotional roller coaster we go through. It’s not easy to do it every year. And we’re not even that religious.
I shall come back and write more on this very real, very raw emotion. I hope you come back too.
Brooklyn, New York