Fiercest of all Goddesses, consort of Shiva the Destroyer & Source of the Universe, Durga is the most revered deity in all of West Bengal. Bengalisâ€™ year-round worship of Dame Durga peaks in a week of celebration that could be described as a colorful Indian cross between Christmas, Carnival, and Fashion Week. The event, known as Durga Puja, kicks off a month of holidays honoring other various deities, and is celebrated throughout West Bengal, from the poorest tea garden labor-line to the grand parades in Calcutta. Preparations for and anticipation of Durga Puja have marked our entire two-month stay in Birpara, and the event itself (which began last Sunday) also marks our final week in town.
To the outsiderâ€™s eye, Durga Puja consists of the gathering of small neighborhood crowds around ornate bamboo-framed stages, called â€œpandals,â€ on which are placed gaudily painted and dressed-up sets of clay statues depicting Durga and her demon-destroying deeds (a weapon in each of her ten hands, she rides a lion, stabs a buffly built man-devil, battles a cobra, and gores a buffalo, all with a serene, beatific look on her face). There are firecrackers, food carts, lights, and loud music. There is the relaxed feeling of an entire village at ease, blowing off steam; whole families dressed up in their fanciest saris and embroidered Punjabi shirts as they roam between the pandals, admiring each and mingling with friends.
There is, undoubtedly, a strong element of religious devotion, especially immediately in front of each set of idols, where dozens of men and women, their shoes in a pile below the raised platforms, kneel and bow and chant, amid incense smoke and butter candles. But more pervasive, more tangible, is the sense of community that has blossomed throughout Birpara. Each neighborhood builds their own pandal by pooling their money and efforts, which are administered by local committees or clubs (â€œgents only,â€ sorry ladies). There is also a happy air of homecoming as so many distant family members return, including students from Calcutta and young soldiers from Kashmir.
This, to me, this coming together, is the most universal aspect of the week, something with which we can readily identify (and something that adds a pang of sadness for the yearâ€™s worth of family gatherings, holidays, and births that we are missing during our journey). It creates another layer of levity as we make our rounds, to witness reunions and watch circles of young and old chatting away, catching up.
Another facet of this week is the surprise with which all these returned Birparians react at seeing two Americans in their midst (we are still, as far as we know, the only Westerners present in this town of 30,000 and, despite our fresh Indian festival duds, we do not blend in). So, suddenly, our oddity and village fame flare up during our strolls, as our picture-taking and feeble attempts to speak the language draw crowds nearly as large as those in front of the pandals. The masses are not nearly as overwhelming as I imagined theyâ€™d be, or as Iâ€™m sure they are in Calcutta. For this, the Durga Puja is a pleasant reminder that, despite the trucks, the noise, the market bustle and stink, Birpara really is a small town.
Everyone stares, but only the men attempt conversation; curious, eager, friendly, sometimes even protective, offering to escort us home or retrieve us for the following dayâ€™s events. Last night, Ajay Guha, president of the biggest pandal club in Birpara, and proprietor of the India Sweets shop by the bus stand, offered to have some boys deliver a pot of his famous Bengali kichuri today, to nourish us, he said, for the Big Night.
Well, as I write, the boys are knocking at our doorâ€”all eight of them, smiling and excited through the veranda windowâ€”holding up a hot package of â€œhodge-podge,â€ as Bengalis call their national dish; so I must leave you. The partyâ€™s peak, the big night, awaits.