This past weekend was my multi-culti desi-connecting back-to-the-roots extravaganza. Never having gone to garba fests in India, I tagged along with some enthusiasts here and went the whole hog – joining the Gujju community in their own version of country line dancing – replete with a live band and a hall packed with sweaty, earnest and might I say, some very aggressive, dancers. But we put on our desi gear and our enthu smiles and went to expand our cultural horizons. Only thing missing was Falguni Pathak.
Never having been a regular temple-going devotee here or in India (lack of spiritual cravings, lack of mode of transportation - take your pick), I tapped into my outer Hindu shell and inner Bong pride to sniff out where Durga Puja was being celebrated. The trail led me to a high school auditorium somewhere in the suburbs of Maryland. After having seen pujo in Philadelphia, Boston and Chicago with my cousins there, it was my first time to check out how opulent/crowded it was in the DC area. The one I went to was very simple and well organized by the Ramakrishna Mission. The Goddess Durga was not a huge marquee idol but just a large painting with pictures of Vivekananda, Sri Ramakrishna and Saradava Devi at her feet. There were 2 priests – including an American – who convened the gathering, much like a church. There were some bhajans and rabindrasangeet songs devoted to Maa in between the chants and prayers.
But we know the second-most important reason why everyone celebrates festivals: it is a great time to dress up. You come to pray and you must wear freshly minted new clothes. It’s nice to check out what others are wearing and do the customary ooh and aah or in some cases, what the heck? As for me, although I did want to use this ocassion to wear a sari, I ended up with the more practical salwaar kurta, which thankfully, generated some positive reaction. Then after the prayers or anjali, when the food was blessed, it was time to eat bhog. Or for some fasting devotees, a time to attack. The line began to snake around the hall and before you knew it, you could feel the pushing and the pulling. One gentleman behind me was practically drooling on my shoulder with his kid in toe while expressing angst at the slow-moving line: “People are talking too much, that’s why the line is held up,” he told his wife. The wife muttered, “Why are you so anxious? The food is not running away.” How could I feel homesick under these conditions?
Of course, this was nothing compared to the frenzy and excitement of the festivals I grew up seeing in Kolkata and New Delhi. The endless adda sessions, the pandal-hopping, the mughlai parathas and the khichadi, the month-long rehearsals for the dance drama or music session, and of course, finally wearing those 10 outfits in those 5 days. It was our very own Christmas and Mardi Gras combo.