10 days of meaning

For those of you who are unaware, we Bengalis celebrate a festival called the Durga Puja signifying the glorious victory of the goddess Durga over the demon Mahishashura and then her homecoming to her parents for the annual visit from her own family. To understand what this festival means to us, think of what Christmas means in the West, what the Ganesh Chaturthi or Diwali means in western India, what Pongal means in the South. Yes, it is THE festival, and yes we celebrate it with the highest expression of art, devotion and joy during the 10 days that it lasts. For all fellow Bengalis who wish it big time, maybe this video will alleviate some of the nostalgia:

Why exactly is the Puja special for me? Well, I miss the company of my family, and all the activities we used to do together during the Pujas. Going out, walking and visiting all the pandals, the bhelpuri chat and phuchkas, haggling over the amount of material the vendor put into each morsel. And then of course the ritual of ice creams and moghlai parothas, shooting balloons, throwing rings and hoops to get stuff, meeting all relatives and exchanging greetings, fasting, the anjalis, the tika-s, little children running about with small trumpets in their hands and frolicking about merrily, the dressing up for the occasion, the Ganga-naam likhan on the banana leaf, the sweets and kola-kuli... oh, a lot of stuff which I associate with a complete Puja --- 10 days (well, unofficially about 5 days) of a general sense of happiness.

However, living away from home all these days has built a certain detachment in me. The last proper Puja that I spent with my family back home was maybe about 4 years ago. Wherever we Bengalis congregate, we find the means and ways of recreating and celebrating our own diverse culture right there: by recreating the magic in whatever for within the local community. So there used to be a Puja at Surat, too, and there was a Puja in Austin as well. Strange to see how someone who dresses in her jeans and tops at home during the Pujas will strive to wear that saree when she's here; stranger still is the fact that we adjust the Pujas to our weekends and get over with the ceremony within that time. Oh well, rules must evolve to suit needs, not the other way around.

I wonder, though --- what exactly do I celebrate? Before whom do I bow? The goddess Durga... okay. But why do I worship her? "Worship"... really? Why? Wasn't she probably a female who lived ages ago and fought a few battles? When I bow my head before her, calling her 'Mother', what exactly do I expect of her... to come down and pat my head? Why is she my mother, in the first place? What powers does she wield, and why do I think she will come and take up my cause specifically? Is this a way of crushing my ego so that I acknowledge that I bow my head before "somebody" at least? Or is this another way to accept a social norm that god-men should exist? Isn't the fasting norms and untouchability and fake purity during the so-called divine days yet another way of oppressing and creating social boundaries? If she indeed was the almighty, why does she let the innocent die... why do 168 bystanders in Pakistan have to die? And why do we need to keep praying to her to remind her of her duties? Duty, I say, yes --- because with great power comes great responsibility, remember?

But again I reflect... what about the frenzy that surrounds us at that time? What about the solemnity of the occasion, the fervor and devotion with which the purohit performs the rites? Oh yes I have felt the joy, the bliss, of meditating on the truth on the Dasami evening. I have known the symbolic value of the ink being passed to the next elder member present when we write the Durganaam on the banana leaf: that we're all a big family. I know that the fasting is more about self control than about offering to prove your loyalty to the goddess by not having food since the morning. I wonder, therefore, why everything has to be garbed in a religious tradition and ritual before being passed down. The legal opportunity for the girl of the house to return to her parents and exchange the joys and sorrows of life, the time for the entire family to bond, for blossoming romanticisms and cigarette-smokes represent the expression of something innately within us. Perhaps the ten days of happiness and religion actually signify 10 days of discovering the meaning of our little selves.


  1. Hmmm.. Looks like Durga pooja is celebrated so gleefully in your place. But its not that important here down south. All they do is clean the house and perform small poojas.

  2. Very interesting. And re why we bind ourselves in rituals and religion? Coz after all is said and done, we need a constant in our life; something to lean on, something to remind us of home, childhood and sweetness when we tend to rush and maybe forget things; and something that makes us just go on. For some that something is religion, for some its tradition, and for some it is a mix of both. After all we all need a super hero to take care of those monsters under the bed. :)


    P.S Happy Pujo :)

  3. the way bengalis celebrate durga puja has alwayz been the subject of my fascination..the hues and the expressions of celebrating and most importantly, bondage, be it with the goddess or one's family are some of the most precious moments one experiences in life..color, tradition, warmth..its simply ecstatic..its bad we punjabis don't glorify religion like others do..xcept a fleeting diwali in our way..jus one day to celebrate..how i wish i could be part of such a festival where there's no abrupt end and something new to look forward to with each passing day..i do plan to visit the pandals this year...excellent post-Ms NMA

  4. subha bijoya!!..:). i hope you still injaaai this festival with your friends!

  5. Nice video! ;)
    I'm not at all religious, I very rarely go to temples to pray. However, I do bow down for our mighty goddess, not to pray - but to acknowledge and honor the power that bonds millions of us together. There is too much evil around us these days - and we always talk about it, read about it in papers, see it on the news. But rarely do we come out and thank all the people who at least try to make a difference in their own small ways. Pujos for me is all about them, it is about the common people with their common lives who drown all their worries for those few days. Durga pujo to me is about the happiness that surrounds us all, that we tend to miss for petty reasons.
    Eire, typical bangali-r moto beshi philospophical hoye gelam mone hocche ;) SHUBHO BIJOYAr bhalobasha roilo.

  6. Tarun, yes like I said, the importance of the customs vary by place.

    Sky, that is very well said, actually. Maybe it is the backbone around which the rest of the society is built. And yes, happy Pujo! :)

    Miss NMA, there is a very simple solution --- marry a Bengali! :P
    Well jokes apart, I haven't seen too many Punjabi people from close, but I am sure you have your own festivals and stuff that you celebrate with enough grandeur. But you're more than welcome to latch on to some Bengali friends and share the joy --- that only increases the fun.

    Pallavi, thank you, and same to you.

    Mala, typical Bangali-r mato kothagulo podeo khub bhalo laglo. Your definition or reason for celebrating the Pujo is something very new, I admit. But good to know them nonetheless. Shubho Bijoya! :)

  7. Male corollary of the change in dressing-for-the-occassion: Its only during Ashtami/Nabami that I wear typical Bengali dress: Paijama Panjabi. It feels like home when you are away. Further, when you see so many ppl wearing the same ethnic dress as you are, the sense of estrangement is replaced by endearment.

  8. Yes, you may call it the period of introspection. It is the infrastructure of religion that becomes a base for the latter. But we do accept a super-power ruling over us and we bow our heads to Her, accept Her as The Almighty and pray so that all suffering, misery, injustice with people might be alleviated and good sense may dawn on us -- that man might not indulge in harming his own brethren. At the least this much we can do, or is in our easy reach. We are not the ones to judge and criticize the ways of the Mother. We only serve and resign ourselves to Her omnipotence.

  9. Kalyan, yes, that is very well put indeed --- the feeling of endearment triggered by all those wearing the same ethnic dress as yours.

    Maa, I agree with all you say, except that I am not convinced that I should resign myself to someone who I am not even sure exists.

  10. In my opinion, everything doesn't have to be garbed in religious tradition and ritual before passing down (unless one wants to give it the cloak of religious humanism). I believe parents and elders can infuse good values and morals also otherwise and other times, not necessary just during these festivals. We can also learn from children (as some of my recent posts might elucidate).

    There are humanistic duties which are more important than religious duties.

    A beautiful post Sudipta.

  11. On another note, ref. Kalyan's comment and your response here, would it mean that if I wear my jeans and t-shirt (not that i do not wear salwar-khameez or sari), I wouldn't feel one with the crowd during the Durga Puja, say, in Kolkata?

    I think I would since, for me, its not a matter of how I am clothed, and not necessary whether others have accepted me as one of them, but a matter of how "I" feel from within.

    Keep smiling. :)

  12. You are out of Bengal(I presume that) and it must not be certain how long after this you will live there.

    And the opposite is with me. I am not a bengali but very soon I shall be there for nearly whole life, so I pray that I start enjoying Durga Pujas :)

    Reagrding existence of God, I dont think one can ever draw a conclusion. Most of the time we do things because they are done and there is no harm in keep on doing them. May be calling 'Durga Maa' is a part of your identity, it does not need any justification.

  13. Apologies for the late comment.

    As for ascribing worldly meanings to religious festivals, I don't do it simply because we keep cooking up our own modern day meanings into them which could not have originally been the case.

    The original Navarathri has a far different and deeper spiritual meaning than what we see today.

  14. Why do you think the 168 that died were innocent? How do you know that a majority of them had not committed something in their lives to deserve sudden death? How do you know that the death of an oppressive husband won't bring about a breath of freedom to a suffering wife and child?

    Who said you have to bow? Who says you have to worship her? Why can't she be your peer, your friend? Why does she have to have the power to solve everyone's problems, specific or no? Why can't she be you? Don't you see her in the mad person at the Howrah station scavenging for vestiges of food in the dustbins? If she is he, how can she prevent the 168 from dying? Why can't you help her?

  15. Indicaspecies, thank you! Yes we can learn a lot from a lot of people. And about my response to Kalyan's comment --- it is a classic case of "All alkalis are bases but all bases are not alkalis" situation. I would feel at home to see people in saris and dhotis, but thats just me. Maybe you don't need those props to feel that way. You put it very well --- what is important is how "I" feel within :)

    Anurag, yep... I'm a Bengali: 100%. And you sure will like the Durga Pujas. About the god issue: your viewpoint is new for me. But well, we're all entitled to our own views. :)

    Hari, apologies accepted wholeartedly. Even I've been swamped with a lot of work lately and haven't had time to look at any blogs. I suppose your reasoning is correct: things evolve with time and we just sometimes seem to be fighting over the chaff instead of the kernel.

    Arunava, talk of statistics, dear. How likely is it that 168 people of Pakistan each of who deserved death had congregate exactly near the bomb at that same time? Umm... I'd say as much as the likelihood of the Eiffel tower being uprooted and being placed in front of your house next morning. Well, maybe you should square that probability. The death of the oppressive husband... thats different: thats just one person. And then too, it is subjective.

    About the bowing part: have you ever heard a parent tell his/her child that the idol in front is your friend and you needn't bow at all? And, if it is I who needs to do most of it, how come I claim the existence of some god?


  16. If you are doing most of it, then you are God. Do you claim your own existence?

  17. Arunava, oh I'm pretty sure of my own existence. Aren't you?


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