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Tillie's Tales - Homecoming
Homecoming means coming home to what is in your heart - Author Unknown
As we sped towards Shawnee in Amit's car for KCBA's Durga Puja celebrations, we saw school children marching enthusiastically to the beat of drums in a Homecoming parade through the streets of Lawrence. There were diversions and traffic was stalled for a while at various intersections, unusual for Lawrence, where one could drive for miles without any hold up. In the United States, Homecoming is an annual tradition of welcoming back alumni of a school or college. It is normally celebrated between late September and the beginning of October. In distant India and specifically in the state of West Bengal, at around the same time is celebrated the homecoming of the Goddess Durga. According to popular belief, the Goddess leaves her marital home in the Himalayas and comes to her earthly abode, her parental home with her four children - Lakshmi, Saraswati, Ganesh and Kartik - for four days.
When I had left the shores of India to drop Divya to Lawrence for her higher studies, I could hardly have imagined that that year I would be part of the Sarbajanin Durgatsov celebrations in distant America. In fact, till some hours before leaving home, I did not even know we would be introduced to Urmi and Udayan, two of the finest specimens of human beings, who would adopt us so readily and give us a place in their large hearts. I would often tell Divya, "I wish you were going to a place where I knew someone." All this stemmed from the nervousness of being alone in a foreign place. But God must have smiled as he had his own plans for us.
So there we were, sitting with Amit (a good Samaritan and good friend of Udayan and Urmi, entrusted with the responsibility of ferrying us to Overland Park) as he drove us to the Shawnee Civic Center. I have visited several pandals and participated in Durga Puja celebrations at Delhi and Calcutta and even one in Boston but never have I seen it come together from scratch. The whole experience was surreal. It was incredible to see Ma Durga's nouka (boat) take shape in front of our eyes - piece by piece of thermocol cut painstakingly by hand and then stuck together. A labour of love which had involved hour upon hour of uncomplaining hard work and dedication. The pratisthan of the Goddess and her four children was carried out enthusiastically by the able bodied young men, while the junior volunteers, feeling all important, kept them well fed and watered with pizzas and chilled Coca-Cola poured out from 2 litre bottles they could hardly handle, followed by endless cups of hot tea and biscuits. There was a flurry of activity in the community kitchen, where the ladies stirred enormous quantities of food to be served later in the evening, while the men busied themselves with bringing in the heavy equipment. There were pop up stalls where one could buy colourful, shiny bangles embellished with glass and stones or sit still and get mehendi designs inked on one's palms or even on one's back if one was more adventurous.
By the time the sun went down, it was transformed into a place out of a fairy tale. Lovely ladies rustled in their resplendent sarees, while the men, in no mood to be left behind, were attired in rich silk kurtas. Shawnee City Center became the stage where men, women and children played their parts with equal aplomb. The joie de vivre of the children was infectious as they rushed around, perfectly comfortable in their ethnic ensembles while they discharged their duties so seriously. Till one heard them speak, one could not imagine that these children had grown up so far from the land of their ethnic origin.
All Bengalis swear by good fish and good music and no Bengali worth his salt can do without either. KCBA too, doing justice to all Bengali traditions and living up to the expectations of the probashi Bengalis (probashi literally means a Bengali living outside Bengal) in the mid west, did not disappoint them. Thus, the special hilsa fish preparation and other gastronomical delights vied for equal attention with musical performances by Saptak and Somlata, artistes specially flown in from Calcutta, with the satisfied probashi crying for an encore for both - the fish and the melody. While the red jacket clad Saptak caused many a lad and lady to dance with gay abandon to his toe tapping melodies, the heart throb of Kolkata, Somlata, clad in her signature pair of low rise jeans made the audience rock to her signature rendition of the Tagore classic "Mayabono biharini horini".
Pushpanjali, puja and prasad completed the morning rituals after which most of the people went home to rest and return in the evening dressed in further finery. The agamoni songs invoking the Goddess, the chanting of the mantras in chaste Sanskrit, the pulsating beat of the dhak and twinkling lamps of the arati - every painstaking detail was in place to complete the whole experience. The ladies even danced the traditional dandiya raas, bringing in the flavour of the navratris as celebrated in western India at the same time.
But Bengalis are not only about fish and food and fun and frolic. No good Bengali will ever bear injustice of any kind. Thus, even amidst this two and a half day blur of merriment, laughter, sumptuous food and cultural performances, the probashi Bengali in the mid west made it a point to protest against the injustice of campus violence in Jadavpur University. JU alumni, even though in a distant land so far from their alma mater, expressed solidarity with the movement on Global Protest Day to help the campaign gather momentum.
It was a privilege to have been part of KCBA’s Durga Puja celebrations for the year 2014 and this happy memory will remain with me for all times to come. Thank you KCBA for that wonderful weekend. Thank you for including us in your warmth and love.
This account, however, would be incomplete without acknowledging the kindness of Urmi and Udayan's good friends, Ganesh and Loga and their loving children, who opened their home to us and hosted us for two nights, no questions asked!
It felt like homecoming for me too.
The Dandiya Raas
© 2015 Tillie's Tales