Durga Puja (Worship of Durga) is the ultimate festival of the Bengali people. Although you cannot deny the religious nature of Durga Puja, it is as much a cultural and a social festival as it is a religious one; which explains my interest in it. Being an Atheist, it is the cultural part which draws me. It is my favourite festival of all time and is something I look forward to, all year, every year.
Durga Puja is celebrated in Autumn, on a date decided by the Hindu calendar, either in late September or early October. It coincides with the North Indian concept of Navratri, but unlike Navratri, we don’t punish ourselves by restricting our diets or eating vegetarian food. Unlike Navratri, Durga Puja is a time to meet people, feast like there’s no tomorrow & gorge on your favourite food, mostly meat.
The Origins (For me)
My memory of the festival from when I was young is that I had no interest in leaving my house to go and see it. In fact, when I lived in Panchkula, one of the Puja committees even awarded me a prize (Set of Sherlock Holmes books, which I treasure to this day) for academic performance. I refused to attend and someone later brought it home for me.
The first time I remember attending a Durga Puja in earnest was when Ritwik Mandal took me to one in Nagpur. I remember he insisted that we have the puja lunch (bhog). They didn’t have cutlery; you were expected to eat rice with your hand. I was struggling and an elderly couple sitting next to us started making fun of me in Bengali, not knowing I could understand them. I took the higher ground and didn’t abuse them.
Slowly, as I attended more and more Pujas, my interest went up. I remember going to the Maddox Square puja once with my cousins when I was in Kolkata. We reached the venue well past midnight; still the atmosphere was electric. There were thousands of people there, chatting with family and friends. The smell of food being prepared wafted through the air. I hung out there for a few hours and headed home. I had not seen anything like it before.
Eventually, I became a regular patron of Durga Puja, when I moved to Gurgaon and my parents moved there, too. My father had no interest in it, so me and my mother explored the city in search for new Pandals. After marriage, I drew my wife into the mix, too. Slowly we developed our favourite Pandals, although we would go Pandal-hopping to all the major ones in Gurgaon as well as Delhi. When our daughter was born, we got her hooked, too and we developed a predictable schedule.
- Few weeks before the start of the Pujas, we would go to Slice of Bengal in CR Park to begin our shopping. My wife and daughter would both get Bengali sarees and other clothing.
- We would attend the pre-Pujo fest at the Chittaranjan Park Bangiya Samaj.
- On day 5, we would go to the Pandal at Kashmere Gate, see that it is not ready yet and return home disappointed. By next year we would forget this and do the same thing again.
- On day 6, we would cover some of the Gurgaon pandals.
- Day 7, we would go Pandal Hopping at CR Park in the morning (Including Navapalli, my daughter’s favourite), then go to Oh! Calcutta for lunch and then return home stuffed. In the evenings, we would go to some more pandals in Gurgaon, including my favourite at the DLF Phase 1 community center.
- More of the same on Day 8
- On the 9th day, we would go to all our favourite ones once again and then bid a tearful goodbye till next year.
I much prefer Delhi & Gurgaon Durga Pujas to Kolkata ones (which are complete carnage).
Durga Puja in 2020 was a subdued affair because of COVID, but there was something, at least. This year’s Durga Puja was a big disappointment. Normally there’s one Bengali group organising it in Bangkok, but this year, there’s nothing. There are no Bengali restaurants in Bangkok either (There are Bangladeshi, but its not the same). So we are sitting at home, watching it on TV.
Hope I am able to enjoy my favourite festival next year, again.