The beautiful thing about being caught up in the phenomenon that is the Durga Pujo with Bengalis in London is the instant feeling of being in the eye of a social storm. The general camaraderie, hullaballoo-ing,“Kemon achcho-ing?” and the general ‘hey-fellow-bong-well-met’ vibes creates for a very homely, cosy spirit of a close knitted society. The obvious pleasure expressed at finding one another after a year (who are we kidding? These are Bongs and born social – they probably even had mangsho bhat together the previous weekend) and the catching up and making of friends is what makes these occasions lovely to be a part of. Ma Durga is always there, graciously resplendent with Her family. During Anjali one is swept up in a spurt of devotion and evokes deep emotions from what I can only imagine to be a deep place of inherent religious psyche combined with childhood memories of matriarchal figures who always frowned at you when your eyes were open during a Puja (Although, why their eyes were open is what I would now like to investigate.)
In spite of being out of their natural Kolkata environment, Bengalis in London seem to be determined to do homage to their Ma in the right way, almost insistently so. The strains of the dhaak on the speakers would almost seem ridiculous to a native Kolkata Bengali, but to one that lives here, it is a vital thread of familiarity which holds the ritual together, a connection that reminds the first generation ex-pats of their youth and memories of the riotous nine days spent pandal hopping and unbound celebrating and also perhaps a means or hope to create memories that echo their own for their children. What was truly wonderful to see was the way the children (a lot of them now in their late 20s) have not only accepted their legacy but owned it. They take part in the organisation of the events and the actual puja rituals as well.
Even I, (a self admittedly social savant) was swept up in a few Bangla conversations which even after a shy smile and a hesitant “I am not Bengali” – instead of ceasing with a Oh-You-Mortal-Of-Lesser-Culture look just morphed into English and continued with equal zest. I was soon caught up in the general Pujo activities (one doesn’t negotiate this – once in Bengali pandal, do as fellow pandalists) available to me: eating bhog with gusto, chanting the Anjali prayer obediently after Panditji and commenting on clothes (Sarees mainly, I mean who cares what the men wear anyway :D) worn over the week. The sarees, I have to admit were a little disappointing but given the logistics issues, some shone through. And even if the sarees didn’t match up to mataland’s standard, none can dispute the elegance and presence of an Indian woman attired in the traditional five yards.
One cannot comment on Pujo without a mention of the cultural performance From interesting Kathak and Sufi-inspired dances to beautiful little girls resplendent in proper Bharatnatyam finery performing with the same seriousness, talent and practice of their counterparts in the heart of Tamil Nadu, to an eclectic ragtag gang of folksy/jazz musicians and singers which transported you into the river valleys of India and the hills of Wales in a single harmonious chord. I say ragtag, but they were all professional well known musicians and for £5 per ticket, it was money well spent.