My parents and I are finally happy to find Indian food in London after almost two weeks of eating cold sandwiches all day, every day. We thank our family friends in Southall – London’s mini Punjab – for inviting us over, and before we know it, the discussion inevitably turns towards the recent happenings in the country. We soon find ourselves comparing our life experiences with people who spent theirs in Southall.
Just then, someone points out that we are from Chittaranjan Park – New Delhi’s mini Calcutta. Suddenly, we can see everyone smile broadly at the thought of pujo in CR Park and the joy it brings in the lives of all the people residing there. “They are all so high on life during those few days, I have never seen people act so enthusiastically as a collective,” we hear our host say and nod in agreement.
That is when I realise that I won’t be home for pujo this year.
As a stereotypical CR Park girl, I can’t help but feel homesick at the thought of everything that I am about to miss – the loud music playing in front of my house till 3 am, the scent of shiuli flowers in the air, the cool October breeze calming me down after a hectic night of pandal hopping, the sight of women clad in lal par sada sarees dancing at the Kali Bari with dhunuchi held in their hands, and my childhood best friend pulling my leg in front of our relatives and family friends.
I know for certain that I am one out of the many CR Park residents who are overjoyed at the thought of pujo even if they know they wouldn’t be able to attend it. After all, the pandemic turned our year-long wait into a three-year long one.
During my childhood years, I would get butterflies in my stomach almost a month before pujo was to start the moment I’d see bamboo pole structures being erected in the parks where pujo stalls were to be set up. The internal framework of those stalls would take weeks to get properly structured and draped with colourful tent fabrics. Once the pandals were ready, we all simply had to wait for the day when we would finally be able to see the idol of goddess Durga. As a child, I would get filled with immense hope and zeal upon seeing her fierce yet serene facial expression as she stood with her trident piercing into the flesh of a demon. That feeling was enough for me to feel protected and secure until she came back again the year after that.
Every pujo, I would create innumerable memories with my family and close friends. At the age of five, pujo, for me, would be all about sitting at the extreme end of the Columbus ride and screaming my lungs out every time my side of the ride dropped downward at great speed. Over the years that followed, pujo would mean wearing newly bought traditional clothes to the Kali Bari and having khichdi and beguni with my parents there. However, by the time I was thirteen, I had understood that more than the pandals and the clothes, it was my community and the way I bonded with its members during those four days that made pujo so memorable.
Of course, pujo wasn’t always the way it currently is in CR Park – extravagant, popular and commercialised. While interviewing a few people from my locality last year, I got familiarised with a lot of facts about the religious ceremonies that I had previously been unaware of. Many of them explained that pujo used to be a private affair for all residents until the mid-80s. Additionally, the ones who grew up in CR Park during the ’70s and ’80s fondly recalled their childhood memories about the festive season with numerous anecdotes and stories about the same. Some said that the pujo grounds weren’t carpeted back then, which led them to rush home after dinner to fetch newspapers that they could rest on and watch movies all night. Others, who had witnessed all of the CR Park pujos so far, simply felt disappointed about it losing its purpose with time and becoming mainly about fairs and stalls instead of the religious sentiments of the Bengali community.
Perhaps, as a person who did not witness any of the private pujos that the old residents continue to talk about, it will be impossible for me to draw a comparison between the celebratory practices in the past and in the present. But, since pujo has always been the one thing that I wait eagerly for throughout the year, I can definitely say that I feel hollow at the thought of being a continent away from my community as they revel in all the festivities. After all, pujo isn’t just the soul of Chittaranjan Park, it is also something that we, the residents, carry in our hearts wherever we go.
Upasana Dandona is an incoming masters student at SOAS, University of London. She recently graduated cum laude from Ashoka University with a BA in English (hons).
Featured image: Reuters