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.