There is a festive mood before and after Durga puja not only in West Bengal but all over the world. It is said if five Bengalis are together in a place, if nothing else, at least a Durga puja is surely to happen.
This reminds me of Durga puja in London in the seventies. Being home- sick and fresh from India, I used to look forward to Durga puja celebration as it provided me a chance to interact with other Bengalis. As far as I remember, there used to be only one puja or at the most two though now-a-days, I hear, there are quite a few Durga pujas in London.
A hall used to be hired for the celebration, which had to be vacated by 8 p.m. Indians, mostly Bengalis, used to come from all over England and Wales at least for a day if not for all the three days.
My husband was very enthusiastic about Durga puja and mostly we used to spend all the three days in London. During weekends, friendsfrom London used to come over to our house in Canterbury and spend time with us. But during puja, we used to stay with some or the other friend in London.
My husband would make 'nadus' ( small balls made with desicated coconut, condensed milk and sugar) and take them in a sack to distribute among his friends. Some were offered to the goddess as 'nadu' was an essential part of the puja. All the rituals were maintained as far as possible. The home-sick Bongs were more Bengali than their counterparts in Calcutta. Most of them could not visit India very often as there was only one earning member in the family. Wives usually did not work. They also had to maintain a large family back home though there were some rich parents' sons too. Some were even sponsored by their father-in-law as it was a pride to have a ' bilet pherot jamai'/ a son- in -law educated in the U.K. So Durga puja was an outlet for these Begalis, who were mostly doctors , barristers or office goers.
A Bengali Brahmin gentleman, residing in London, doubled up as a priest for Durga puja and performed it with great devotion and solemnity though a few objected to it as he had married a German lady. But as there was no other option, he was allowed to do the puja. My husband helped him in arranging for the puja though he was not allowed to perform it as he was not a Brahmin.
The mornings started with 'anjali'/ offering of flowers to the goddess. Apart from marigold and roses, local flowers like daffodils, and gladialas also made their way. The devotees were also were provided with 'prasad' and 'bhog' as most of them stayed there the whole day.
There was an atmosphere of revelry , loud ringtones of laughter and merry making all around. You could hear
words like 'Oh! Meeting you after so many days. Where have you been all these years?' or ' You ,too, have come to England? When did you come? How are your parents? ' or 'Oh got married! Introduce us to your wife' etc. These Bengalis,who were, otherwise, stifled in the cold weather of England wearing suits, boots and neck ties and trying hard to learn British etiquettes, could let loose their hair in the company of the people of their own country. It is not that we did not have British friends or did not like their company but these few days were different from other days.
Quite a few men liked to wear 'dhoti and punjabi' during puja. Women usually wore saris in the seventies even otherwise. My husband used to buy one or two costly Benarasi sarees for me from Indian shops in London for the occasion of Durga puja. It was a bit hard for K to stay in the hall all day. Quite often, I had to go to an ante- room with K and I used to grumble as my costly saree got crushed holding K. After all, which lady would like to spoil her dress ! My husband would say sarees would come and go but many women would be envious of the treasure that I had on my lap. His father simply dotted on K.
At night, we used to go out for dinner. Sometimes alone and sometimes with friends. On some nights, after coming over from the hall, we used to assemble in some common friend's house and have great 'adda session' along with food.
The few days of the puja passed off very quickly. Before we could wink, 'dashami', the last day of the puja came. Married women put ' sindoor'/ 'vermillion powder on the forehead of goddess Durga. She, being considered as a daughter who had come to her parents' house, was told to come again the next year with her family. There was a sadness all around as she was leaving.
However, there was a difference between India and London as the idol was not allowed to be immersed in the river Thames on 'dashami'. Moreover, it was also very costly to bring a new idol every year. Hence, the idol was kept in some one's house, who had some space to spare. The same idol was to be worshipped for a few years till a new one came. But, I guess, things are different now.
Puja over, we headed straight to a North Indian sweet shop, whose owner was a doctor but had left his profession to open the shop. I had some amazing 'pistachio sandesh' from that shop. We met a few of our friends and exchanged ' bijoya' greetings, a ' must' after Durga puja.
We then headed to Canterbury, where we stayed. My husband geared himself up for his regular grind in the hospital as a surgeon and me to face the loneliness. My only saving grace was our eighty year old British neighbour Mrs Taylor, who was eagerly waiting for us to hear all our stories. And our wait began for the next year's Durga puja.................