Our American Durga Puja

O Mother, Give Us Back Our Soul!

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This evening, my family and I came back from another community Durga Puja organized by a Bengali-Indian organization in New York.

Once again, just like any other year, instead of feeling a part of an excitement and exuberance — trademark feelings Durga Puja is normally supposed to create — I felt it was a meaningless few hours of my time (the horrific bumper-to-bumper driving time included, and that jam too, not because of the puja of course). Once again, I thought Bengali-Indian immigrants are desperately trying to celebrate their biggest social and religious event of the year — without a purpose.

I felt as if there was no soul attached to it.

Now, let’s talk about the social and religious background, just in case you’re not aware of it. The four-day Hindu festival Durga Puja takes place every fall all over India. Puja is a Sanskrit word for worship and Durga is a goddess who vanquishes the demon Asura with her ten arms. According to the Bengali Hindu traditions, Mother Goddess Durga comes down from her Himalayan abode on to the plains for those four autumn days, and brings along her children Ganesha, Lakshmi, Saraswati and Kartik, who each symbolizes a special force.

The combination of Durga’s warrior image and image of a mother yearly-visiting her parents is purely non-fundamentalist, and has little to do with more stringent versions of Hinduism. Liberal, progressive Bengalis and Indians are proud to have departed from fundamentalist dogmas, once and for all.

Particularly in West Bengal and Bangladesh, where Hindus celebrate it with much fanfare, and Muslims and Christians enthusiastically visit their Hindu friends’ communities on this special occasion, it’s really more about expressing incredible folk artistry and music rather than the religion itself. Don’t believe me? You can check out Tareq and Catherine Masud’s award-winning movie The Clay Bird. [Brother Tareq, RIP.]

The entire experience is simply electrifying.

But here in America, you wouldn’t know it. Even though the big city community pujas gather together hundreds of Bengalis (almost everywhere on weekends — practically never following the actual auspicious days), their Indian friends, and occasionally their [almost-exclusively white] American spouses and school mates, they neither have the feeling of all-inclusiveness, secularism and diversity, nor do they have that charged atmosphere.

If anything, as more years are going by and old-time immigrant organizers are getting older, Bengali-Indian-American immigrants’ Durga Puja is wearing a more inwardly depressed and desolate look than ever before (you need to look hard beyond the glitzy surface).

Plus, in many places, they now charge mandatory entry fees, which is unthinkable for a community religious and social gathering that should be by default open and free. I say to them: look, if you can’t afford the high costs of singers and dancers you’re importing from “back home,” don’t import them. Invite artists and performers from your own community, would you? There are quite a few highly skilled performers around here, whom you’re excluding on purpose!

Moreover, there are many poor, working-class Bengalis who cannot afford the exorbitant fees, and would never show up — only to avoid the embarrassment. But most of them are Bangladeshi Bengalis — Hindu or Muslim — and more affluent Indian Bengalis couldn’t care less about them. Period!

The new-generation organizers (if any — I see the same-old faces every single year) do not invite their American friends to be a part of it. They do not invite mainstream media to report on it; such a colorful festivity always remains out of the news-hungry media’s radar screen, even here in New York City — the seat of American diversity. The organizers do their best to un-invite their Muslim friends, they have no Latino or Chinese friends; and they always go out of their way (with rare exception) to un-welcome their black brothers and sisters. The words “friends,” “brothers” and “sisters” in the above sentence are purely matters of playful imagination.

I remember many years ago, when we first started going to the St. Louis celebration, I saw a beautiful, black woman doctor who would show up with her Bengali-Indian husband, perhaps with hopes to know more about the festivity and also to make some new friends. I would, however, see her sitting in the back of the audience, all by herself, not particularly overjoyed at the blatant and obvious disregard of the members of her husband’s community — a community she thought would be her own.

I’m not sure the exclusion, bias and elitism have changed over the years. I doubt it has gotten any better, even with the rise of a new-generation, young, second-generation immigrants. It is still largely a boring, monochromatic display of the so-called diversity, where a group of un-imaginative, self-alienated, otherwise-well-to-do immigrants is displaying an annual exercise of the so-called religiosity and social togetherness, and gratification of personal egos. There is no purpose.

(Plus, like we lament frequently: when you’re in trouble, you’d be hard-pressed to find a couple of “good friends in need” out of this glitzy gala; in fact, you’d be lucky if you found even one. Indeed!)

But Indians and Bengalis living in India and Bengal wouldn’t have a clue, thanks to a totally distorted, exaggerated and artificially flamboyant media description of an American Durga Puja.

Sure, there are exceptions. But don’t exceptions only prove the rule?

Will tell more personal stories in my next post. Please visit again. Comment freely on my posts. I’d much welcome them.

Sincerely Writing,

Partha

Brooklyn, New York

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Make-believe Reality.
Make-believe Reality.

15 thoughts on “Our American Durga Puja

  1. Well, Partho, the “business” of Durga Puja is big business. It is a media event, an advertising opportunity, an opportunity for gaining political mileage by political parties. It is big business for performing artists. The “soul” perhaps is still retained in Kolkata where you just slip in to the swaying masses and keep moving as they push you. For a few hours you submit yourself to being a zombie. You feast on the roadside relishes of chop cutlet and oily rolls. It is a well organised five day party which you hope will never end!

    1. When I think about the millions of dollars (in rupee and taka) spent on these thousands of community events, I can’t help but think about the meaninglessness of it. I mean, India and Bangladesh are countries where people regularly die of poverty, hunger and lack of health care. These are places where children can’t go to school, and women are constantly subjugated to oppression, violence and social undermining. And we are worshiping the goddess of the highest order who would vanquish the demon. What an irony! I’ll write some about the hollow futility about Durga Puja back there too, if my readers promise they will not leave me en masse. What a terrible waste of human energy!

    1. Thank you, Neva, as always. I think you like what I have to say, because you believe in what I have to say. More importantly, as you’ve noticed, I do not ever fake it. This is what it is.

  2. Partha,d’you realize you’re carping about the discrepencies of a celebratory effort to someone who’s not had the good fortune to experience a celebration in years? Try living in Saudi Arabia & you’ll know! I think you should honor & give thanks that you’ve the freedom(unlike us) to attend something( however short it may fall of your expectations!)that commemorates a festival so close to your roots & heart! And please don’t tick me off your friend list for having said this! 😀

    1. Bindu, I’m not so thin-skinned to unfriend a friend like you just because you did not agree with me on this 100 percent. But, you know where the problem really is? It’s the fakeness of it. It’s so unbelievably hollow! You come to a puja organized by a group of working-class Bangladeshi immigrants here in America; your experience would be much more positive. It’s the class and its elitism, Bindu. And it’s their meaningless display of fakeness. I just added a line today in the text that out of this glitzy professional-class Indian gala, you’d feel yourself lucky if your car was stalled on the road 100 yards from the puja hall and if a single person from this event came forward to help you out. This is literal, and this is also a metaphor. But it is what it is. I have countless examples of this lack of solidarity and “friend-in-need-is-a-friend-indeed”-ness. It’s appalling! I don’t know about Saudi Arabia; but I know it’s a closed society. But sometimes, togetherness builds out of an oppressive situation. Here in U.S., the funny thing is, there is extreme oppression especially for poor and working-class immigrants, and yet, people outside of this country think this is heaven. Come and live here — like these poor people do — and you’ll know. Read some of my other posts on the blog: you can get a glimpse. Thanks for writing. Every comment is valuable to me.

  3. This does sound frustrating. However, one group of soulless organizers cannot take the soul away from the festival itself! Many of us whose families have been in the U.S. for generations have finally learned that the only way to deal with the mechanical soulless culture of consumption is to take things firmly into our own hands and create our own experience in our own communities–to claim our own lives back.

    You say Durga Pula is celebrated “all over India,” which means in many separate festivals; perhaps you will consider organizing a smaller, more local Durga Puja festival in your own neighborhood that is inclusive, diverse, free, and full of soul. The Goddess deserves as much, yes? If you do so and I’m in the area, I’d love to come! –Annie

    1. “Take things firmly into our own hands”…exactly, Annie. That’s what a handful of us have been trying to do in this otherwise very difficult circumstance for us — politically, socially, economically. First-generation immigrants, particularly of the sensitive and progressive variety (and yet not affluent), are in an extremely precarious situation. We have organized numerous social and cultural festivals, and in my case, I’ve actually organized a number of religious festivals in a different way when we lived in upstate New York (and our small society got split down the middle because the rich and affluent and vested-interest were angry we the “havenots” were taking things into our own hands. Believe me, it all happened!) Here in NYC, it’s logistically very difficult, if not impossible. Time, money and other resources are not on our side. It’s not about organizing another festival; rather, it’s really a question of how to reform it for our souls and our children. Needs an ongoing conversation. I invite you to visit my other blog posts as well to get a little more comprehensive picture. Thanks so much.

  4. You said: “Here in U.S., the funny thing is, there is extreme oppression especially for poor and working-class immigrants, and yet, people outside of this country think this is heaven.” I could not agree more!!

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