The Glow of Festivities…

With Goddess Durga bidding us mortals farewell for another year, I started thinking of what Durga Pujo actually means for contemporary Bengalis, scattered across the globe.

Being the five-day long, elaborate, highly ritualized religious occasion that it is, Durga Pujo is, these days, primarily a communal affair. In cities with large Bengali population, neighbourhoods organize their own Pujo whereas in places with limited Bengali presence, people come together to form cultural associations which then take the onus of organizing the Pujo. Though there are still some ancestral families in Bengal which organize their private Pujo, their numbers are few and gradually declining.

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Durga Pujo in Camden Hall, London

In foreign lands on the other hand, festivities have to be planned, not according to the religious almanac dates, but on a weekend when people can afford to take a couple of days off from work. even then, a thousand details need to be thrashed out well ahead, starting from the idol, priests and dhaki ( those who play the traditional drum) needed to be flown in from India to arranging ingredients needed for the ritual worship and finally of the immersion of the idol.

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Durga Pujo in Singapore

So, why make the effort – especially in places like this, where even coming across a Bengali on a street is enough to make me cross it and introduce myself in my mother tongue. I guess, it has to do with the innate human desire to connect over common cultural practices, especially when faced with the prospect of being subsumed by a different majority culture. Bonding – even for four days – over shared tastes, fragrances, language, music and visual images is deeply satisfying and sustaining. For me, there is the added interest of facilitating my daughter’s awareness of Bengali rituals and customs.  so, though she did not feel compelled enough to wade through Ashtami crowds for the afternoon ‘bhog’ of ‘khichuri’, the same evening when, the tall tiered lamp was lit with a hundred and eight lights for Shandhi Pujo, her face too glowed in wonder and appreciation – and that was enough for me!

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Durga Pujo in the Nilgiris
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Durga Pujo

And so the celebrations begin

Part of the fun in following the lunar calendar is its variability. And so with the beginning of each Gregorian year – based on the solar calendar – on 1st January, Bengalis around the world first take a peek to check out when the Hindu month of Ashvin would come about – anytime from mid-September to mid-October.

Ashvin is special for Bengalis not just because it has always ushered in a much desired change in the Kolkata weather – from hot, humid days to cooler, crisper mornings but because it marks their biggest religious and social festival, Durga Pujo. Over five days, Goddess Durga is worshipped according to rules laid down in ancient Hindu scriptures though like all complex religious symbols, she means different things to different people.

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The dominant theme is of course, of the victory of good over evil. There are in fact two stories exemplifying this theme and associated with Goddess Durga. According to the story of origin, the Goddess was created by pooling up the resources of powerful Hindu gods in order to defeat the buffalo-demon king Mahishasura whose growing powers were on the verge of driving out the celestial  beings from their abode in heavens. Later the Hindu god Shri Rama would worship Goddess Durga and invoke her blessings in his campaign against demon King Ravana. Both stories end with the defeat of demons and victory of gods.

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My personal favourite however is the story which represents the Goddess Durga as a beloved daughter. Married to Lord Shiva who lives in the remote peaks of Himalayas, Uma – an avatar of Durga – spends the whole year looking after her husband and children. In the month of Ashvin though, Uma with four children makes the long trip down to her natal place where her family – and everyone else in Bengal – celebrates their divine daughter’s and grandchildren’s stay with five days of merrymaking and feasting. Indeed in the ‘Agomani’ songs which herald the arrival of Durga Pujo around a week ahead, it is this story that is narrated – and which echoes in the heart of every daughter who is always a goddess, a source of love and strength for her family – no matter how far away.

Of Bengali Barks and Badminton Racquets

“Auntie does she understand Bengali?”

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The question was about my four year old German Shepherd and was put to me one evening by my daughter’s friend as she thoughtfully stood outside our garden gate. I supposed the girl was being funny till I looked at her genuinely incredulous face and realized that my mild admonishments to Ginger – my dog – in my mother tongue must have seemed pretty weird to her.

So what does it mean for a dog to grow up in a multi-lingual family? Mostly we speak in English with friends while at times we switch our national language, Hindi.  With family members, it is our mother tongue, Bengali, which seems natural and comfortable. Does the plurality of our linguistic identities confuse our dog? Could this be the reason that most of the time Ginger remains regally indifferent to what we tell her to do and more importantly, not to do – like spare my tender marigold saplings as she rushes about chasing a cat in our garden?

Dogs generally learn to associate the sound of the words – or commands, during training – with specific actions. For example, if she learns to come down on her haunches when I say ‘sit’, when one says ‘baitho’ or ‘bosho’ – equivalents in Hindi and Bengali respectively – it will mean nothing to her. Also the tone matters – if I want her to get down from my bed, the same two-three words voiced in stern staccato sounds is more likely to elicit a prompter response than when spoken leisurely and indulgently.

However, animal behavioural experts and researchers are learning new things about our canine companions every day – indeed there are reports that dogs can process language much like humans do. According to an August 2016 study whose results were published in the well-regarded journal Science, a group of Hungarian scientists led by Dr. Attila Andics of Eotvos Lorand University, in a first-ever experiment of its kind, found that dogs could not just recognize what humans say and how they say it but could also combine the two to come up with a correct interpretation of the very meaning of the words – exactly what we humans do when conversing amongst ourselves.

All this I told my daughter’s friend while she waited for my daughter to join her with the badminton racquets. I am not sure how far she followed my explanations but as the two girls walked away chatting excitedly, Ginger gave three short barks which almost sounded like “Hey, you leaving me behind?” Both girls turned back, looked at Ginger and said laughing, “We’ll be back soon”.

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From my corner in garden, I smiled at the scene before me and thought, “I guess it’s ok – as long as we all understand each other…”

In Silence, Thy Voice will be Heard…

Tumi Robe Nirobe…

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Today – on the 156th birth anniversary of Rabindranath Tagore – these words of the Nobel Laureate’s deeply moving song is a reminder of the continuing relevance of his poetry and other writings. He was the first Non-European to receive a Nobel Prize when in 1913, his collection of poems titled, Gitanjali was awarded the coveted prize for Literature in recognition for having “written the finest poems of an idealistic tendency”.

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And yet his global reputation has not always been even.

When W.B Years, Ezra Pound and others tried to make the world aware of Tagore’s works, they heavily depended on the popularity of contemporary schools of mysticism, Theosophical Society and other spiritualist groups. This led to the image of Tagore as a Mystic of the East, the Bard who was the keeper of timeless fountains of spirituality and through his poetry was now spreading its precious waters across the world. Indeed Rabindranath’s physical appearance—handsome, bearded, dressed in Oriental robes—may, to some extent, have encouraged his being seen as a carrier of exotic wisdom. The problem with this image was that instead of encouraging people to evaluate Tagore’s works in actual literary terms, made them seem merely spiritualist, and as time went on, he and his writings began to be seen as repetitive and distant.

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The truth on the other hand was that his short stories, novels, plays, essays and letters show a keen engagement with the real world. He had practical and clearly thought out views about nationalism, war and peace, cross-cultural education, freedom of the mind, the importance of rational criticism, the need for openness – and did not just concern himself with mystical and religious experiences as the West would have liked to believe.

Tagore’s essays particularly traverse a wide range of topics, beginning from literature, politics, culture, social change, religious beliefs to philosophical analysis and international relations. Co-inciding with the fiftieth anniversary of Indian independence, a selection of Tagore’s letters by Cambridge University Press was published which has helped readers and critics to rediscover Tagore’s ideas and reflections and made them extremely relevant to the modern world. Apart from being a literary genius, Tagore was a talented painter as well whose pictures, with their mixture of representation and abstraction, have started to receive the acclaim that they have long deserved.

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While the rest of the world has now only started rediscovering the beauty and power of his writings, Rabindranath Tagore has always remained a towering figure in the Bengali literary tradition which goes back to more than a thousand years. Not surprisingly in 1971, the newly independent country of Bangladesh chose one of Tagore’s songs—the “Amar Sonar Bangla” which means “my golden Bengal”—as its national anthem. Tagore had already composed the music and lyrics of Jana Gana Mana or “Thou Art the Ruler of All Minds” which had been chosen as India’s national anthem way back in 1947. This makes Tagore the only poet in the world to have been the composer of the national anthems in two countries – surely as significant a measure of his lasting relevance and greatness among the authors of history as any.

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– Excerpt from 20 GREATEST AUTHORS OF THE WORLD Kalyani Mookherji, Prabhat Prakashan, 2016. ISBN: 9788184303599, 8184303599

First blog post

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“In this Universe, teeming with life –

Amidst this plenitude,

have I found a place –

My very own space

…and it fills me with wonder !”

These words indicate my humble attempts to translate one of the most epiphanic songs written by Rabindranath Tagore, winner of 1913 Nobel Prize for Literature. In the original, the Bengali song  begins as “Aakaash Bhora, Shoorjo Taara…” and as it gradually rises to a sonorous crescendo, it never ceases to inspire me with the realization that Life – with all its vicissitudes and anxieties – is a Gift to cherish and nurture. And every time I hear the song, it moves me to silently bow my head in grace and thanks to the Creator.

There is, in fact, a more direct reason for choosing the words of this classic Rabindrasangeet to launch my blog – words, books, poetry, music and being a Bengali are all facets of my identity that I am passionate about. At the same time I am keenly aware that there are so many writers out there whose blogs on these topics are perhaps more popular than mine can hope to be.

And yet – here am I…This blog is my effort to claim in this digital universe a place of my own…my very own space…!!!