The Durga Puja

We are in the midst of Durga Puja, the most celebrated holiday in this region of India.  Durga is the "mother goddess" who went into battle to slay the demons who threatened the very existence of the Gods.  She comes to earth for three days each year to visit her parents and to be with us.  After three days she is taken in a long and tearful procession to the Ganges.  She is immersed in the water and returns to the Heavens again.  She is loved and worshiped here in Kolkata, as is her fiercest manifestation, Kali.  Kali Puja will come soon.

But here in Kolkata, "the Pujas" are also secular, in that the entire city, and environs, celebrates, across religions.  Huge pandals are built, temporary temples to the Gods, built of bamboo laced together and covered with thin cloth… Lights shine through the thin cloth so the pandals are illuminated and glow against the dark night. 

This is the major time of gift giving, primarily clothes, so for days before, people begin wearing their new outfits. Thanks to Gibi, we did our Puja shopping early, which I teased her about then, but was very grateful for later.  We knew the girls would be getting clothing from others.  Gibi bought each girl a brass plate, which we have used for our big meals over Puja.  The girls truly love these plates, probably the first things they have ever "owned".  And of course for girls, such possessions evoke the dreams of having households of their own. 

For Durga Puja, offices are closed; the government is closed — which is why I was unprepared for another round of having to defend myself.  So, for me the first day of Durga Puja was spent preparing documents, letters, thinking through strategies, but having a slightly clearer picture of how the battle is looming.  The following morning I found the only courier service open in Kolkata and sent out the documents to people who will probably not read them until next week.  It doesn’t matter.  I have the courier receipts proving that I sent them. Then I took a long nap.

But back to Puja, our Puja — the evening before the beginning of Puja we dressed up all the girls in their new clothes and walked through the neighborhood visiting pandals.  People smile at us, lift their hands to their foreheads in the greeting, "Namaskar" and I do so in return.  Even in Puja time there are strict social rules about who says hello and who does not, based on caste and class, often reflected in dress style.  Women do not greet or respond back to men they do not know. But as a foreigner, as an older white lady, and as a generally friendly person, I am free to say hello to everyone.  This works well, as it also frees the others to follow the rules, while we still present a friendly face to the community.

That evening we were four adults and nine children — ten really, but Ganga was tucked into a sling I wore.  Gibi led the group; a visitor took the middle, and Bijoy brought up the back.  I roamed back and forth — ever the anxious mother.

Off the regular path, down a short street, we saw a lit up pandal. A priest was burning leaves in front of Durga.  This was a family pandal, set up only every six years.  We said our hellos and started to leave.  But then a young woman called out from inside the house.  She recognized Ganga and me.  She is a teacher at the Indian Institute for Cerebral Palsy, where we take the choto baccha, and where they will start school in May.  Then we were all offered sweets. The girls were thrilled to meet a teacher from the choto bacchas’ school.  She will visit our Home one day. This is our community.

Gibi deftly guided us then to her favorite pandal, which for Puja is in the midst of a small amusement park set up for the celebrations.  This was all unexpected for me.  We paid tribute to Durga, and then looked around.  Our girls stared at the rides but did not ask.  They watched intently as I pretended to ask Gibi what we should do, as if it were a real question! Then we headed for the rides.  I

We saw first a tame looking roller coaster, without ups and downs, just round and round on flat tracks.  As this was really the night before Puja began, lines were minimal, and soon we were all seated in the line of cars.  After I was seated, an attendant signaled to me that Ganga couldn’t go on the ride.  "Baccha na!" he said.  I yelled back, "She isn’t a baby.  She is five years old!"  I’m not sure he even understood, but he wasn’t arguing with me, and the ride began.  Well, the ride started, and quickly I realized it didn’t feel as tame as it looked.  Each time we turned a curve I was sure the car would go off the tracks and we would tumble to the ground.  I kept thinking I was so sorry I’d put us on this ride, so sorry for Ganga — who, like the others, was grinning away, delighted with every turn.  I really am an anxious mother.

We went on two other rides, one a merry go round, and another nondescript ride we took because I accidentally bought the wrong tickets and they wouldn’t take them back.  It was all good; the rides were all good.  The girls were all good.  We hit the junk food, which was also good, and we headed home.

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October 2007
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