As a kid in Kolkata, my Durga Puja memories are really of trains leaving Howrah station. Kolkata became a Puja madhouse—blazing lights, loudspeakers blaring, “Mintu, your father is waiting at the information booth, millions of people stepping on each other’s toes. We usually headed for the hills or the beach to get away from the pandemonium.
Like many other things, it takes Puja in America, the five-day festival compressed into one weekend, to help me really appreciate the exhilarating chaos of Durga Puja in Kolkata.
Here, I walk into a school auditorium and see the men wearing their once-a-year dhotis, the women in starched tangail saris. The software engineer by day, priest for the weekend, starts his prayers after turning off the fire alarm.
For a minute I’m taken back to Kolkata. But only for a minute.
I look at the image of the Goddess killing Mahishasura. She’s tiny, as she has to be, shipped all the way from Kumartuli in India. I feel a twinge of disappointment as I realize that after the Pujas the doll-sized image will be packed away for use next year—Puja-in-a-Box.
In Kolkata she would dissolve into the Hoogly river. In California, Durga is botoxed into eternal life—her clay smile unchanging in her storage box until next year.
Does the Goddess miss looking different every year? One year she might be made of bottles, next year in pristine white daaker saaj? Does she even miss the tattered Ballygunge Sangha Marching Band playing its tuneless medley of the year’s hits?
Don’t worry, I tell her. It’s almost like home. With the click of a mouse, I can send Puja gift trays to relatives in India. I can see Durga Puja county-by-county online, sometimes two weekends in a row if there are rival Bengali associations.
But where is the dawning of the first day of the Pujas on Mahalaya? At daybreak, half asleep, we’d hear Birendra Krishna Bhadra on All India Radio, echoing across the neighborhood, welcoming Durga home. Every year I’d want to stay awake to listen to the whole program. Every year I’d drift back to sleep, content in the knowledge that the holidays were starting.
Now here I am driving down a web of freeways, a printout of directions nestled in my lap, as I look for the exit for this year’s Puja. I know I’ll find it. But in a school auditorium in Hayward, looking out onto the sunbaked parking lot, does Durga wonder how she missed her exit home? In her American exile, does she worry that we’ll never let her go home again?
Still she smiles at us. It’s last year’s painted smile. But it forgives us.