Durga Puja – these two words conjure up complex and happy memory-triggers in the hearts and minds of each and every Bengali! Be it the Hindu Bengali community from Bangladesh, or Bengalis from West Bengal which is now part of India, or children of ethnic Bengali families who now grow up here in Germany – we love it when we create a new memory based on similar sights and sounds of our puja celebrations year after year. Durga Puja is what we equate as the most important part of our culture of being a Bengali. The ten-day celebrations feels short-lived but at the same time never-ending, the love feels strong amongst us in Germany, and the bonding unbreakable – the region of Bengal after all shares the same history and ethnicity that dates back to hundreds of centuries!
My puja experience in Germany is quite different from what I felt while living in Bengal. While in Germany, I do not get the loudness and the heavily crowded togetherness in the streets and the market places that I found back home. However, I still realize that at the end of those ten days of celebrating puja here in Germany, my memory of the past creates most of the present happiness for me. While spending time together with the Bengali community in Germany, we ensure we create wonderful memories during these days based on the past celebrations that we always held so close to our hearts! We play certain songs and chants, and organize cultural programs to feel similarly warm and cozy in the not-so-warm autumn temperatures of Germany!
For most of us adults now living far away from our homeland, Durga Puja in our past years was predominantly spent in the region of Bengal (a region which is now in the eastern part of India and in the whole of Bangladesh). The aroma of shiwli phul (night jasmine), bel pata (leaves from the bengal quince tree), and dhunuchi (incense and coconut fiber mixed together and burned for its sweet smell), along with loud pujo shonkha gaan (special editions of songs released for the puja celebrations) floating from the neighborhood speakers in Bengal bring in beautiful feelings of togetherness and belonging. In Bengal, puja meant visiting dozens of pandals (makeshift highly decorated tents made for the celebrations) while spending time with family and friends in the crowded celebrations. These are the delightful memories from puja in Bengal that we bring with us to Germany.
However as they say – ‘you can take the girl out of Bengal, but you cannot take Bengal out of the girl’ – this adage hold true for me and many of us Bengali people living away from our homeland. In us remains the sounds of dhaak (drums rolls) played in a certain rhythm that evoke strong memories of puja celebrations; the sound of shonkho dhwoni (conch shell) and ulu dhwoni (women ululating) to welcome Ma Durga to the martya lok or mortal earth for ten days. In us remains the deeply ingrained mythological story of Ma Durga, narrated to us by our parents and grandparents, as a representation of us mortals welcoming our very own Goddess Durga to help us eradicate all evil from the face of Earth. Ma Durga motivates us humans with her power to move away from our inner darkness towards light with our own efforts towards humanity.
In us remains the memory of the excitement that builds up from the day of Mahalaya (an auspicious day of listening to early morning chants in Sanskrit – the ancient language of the Indian subcontinent). In us also remains the excitement that builds when we place Ma Durga’s idol with her husband Lord Shiva’s idol (to represent their home in Swargo lok or heaven) from where Ma Durga descends to visits us. In us remains our love and reverence for her children, whose idols are placed next to her: Ma Lakshmi - the goddess of wealth and abundance, Ma Saraswati - the goddess of knowledge and learning, Kartik - the god of beauty and exquisiteness, and Ganesha - the god of all auspicious beginnings and initiations. In us remains our love and excitement for Oshthomir onjoli (community prayer-offering with flowers by chanting Sanskrit texts on the eighth day of the celebrations). In us remains the memory of the community’s collective-sadness when Ma Durga has to leave for her heavenly abode on doshomi (the tenth day), and the ensuing boron and shidur khala when especially women bid her farewell for her long drifting journey back home to heaven, awaiting her visit again next year to earth. Everyone bids farewell in the end with dhunuchi naach (a dance form with incense in hand) and bhashan (a form of farewell to the goddess alongside lakes and rivers).
I now observe children of our Bengali families who are growing up in the land of Germany. As we adults hold on to our memories from Bengal and try re-creating the memories of Durga Puja here in Germany, I still see a difference in the way our next generation experiences Dugra Puja here. Though I agree that they do not get the musical loudness, the crowded togetherness, and the density of the rituals that we received and experienced while in the land of Bengal, they still have their own memories to create while growing up here in Germany, away from their land of ethnicity. Along with creating memories of celebrating Durga Puja here with their families, they also get a chance at participating in different international celebrations too of different ethnic communities being multicultural cities like Berlin. These children learn from an early age that all celebrations are beautiful in their own unique ways. During Durga Puja, the Bengali children growing up in Germany learn how to involve their friends from various religions, ethnicity, class-structure, or race into their own celebrations making everyone their own. At the same time they also learn to involve themselves in other celebrations, thereby learning the most beautiful aspect of human nature of sharing and caring with everyone, regardless of our differences.
As I contemplate my perspective of growing up in the Indian subcontinent and writing a comparative piece of my puja experience in Germany; similarly these beautiful children in a few more years might be writing another piece with a complete turnaround of perspective – where an ethnic Bengali child growing up in Germany goes back to his/her region of ethnicity in Bengal and writes a comparative observation positioned from their land of growing up in Germany. I can imagine them contemplating the difference they feel from how the adults in their life immersed them in the Bengali culture back in Germany and how unique the differences they find Durga Puja to be while visiting their ethnic land of Bengal. Memories are after all built on changes and losses – loss of time passing by, loss of loved ones due to distance or mortality, or loss of leaving one’s own land and moving to a new space that modifies identity for expats and migrants. However, what matters most is that with the passage of time various generations celebrate Durga Puja with the intent of upholding not only to the beautiful ritualistic and cultural memories of the sights and sounds, but also with the strong intent of holding on to fellow-feelings of equality and brotherhood/sisterhood, and sharing and caring, that the community celebration of Durga Puja really stands for.