Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Memories of the first Durga Puja in Canada

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Writing about Durga Puja reminds me of my childhood days

Writing about Durga Puja reminds me of my childhood days. I remember waiting to hear Mahalaya in Akash Vani in the early morning on the beginning of Devi Paksha. Venerable Virendrakrishna Bhadra used to recite — ‘Ya Devi Sarvabhuteshu/ Shaktirupena Sansthita/ Namastesyai Namo Namah.’ It is about the seventies of the last century.

We had a three-band radio in our house. Television was not very available then. Mezhda was a devoted listener of Aakashvani’s Dev Dulal Bandopadhyay’s Khabar and Radio Ceylon. When he came home during puja holidays, he used to listen to the old Hindi songs of Radio Ceylon especially Begum Akhtar, Samsad Begum, Suraiya, Lata Mangeskar, Mohammad Rafi in the morning. Perhaps that’s where I developed a weakness for old-time music that still appeals to me.

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On the day of Mahalaya, my mother used to call everyone in the morning and night to listen to Chandipath in the eloquent voice of Birendrakrishna Bhadra. Birendrakrishna Bhadra’s arrival music could have been announced aha and a few days later Shashti! I used to eagerly wait for the puja to start and enjoy the joy of the puja by wearing new clothes. At that time I used to get new clothes twice a year – once on Pahela Baisakh; Another Durga Puja. So these two Parvans were of special interest to me. At that age, the importance of worship was temporary leave from studies, eating new clothes, various kinds of nadu, modak, sandesh etc.

Gradually I entered from childhood to youth. And with that, I left my mother’s embrace and started flying. I once flew across seven seas and thirteen rivers and came to the North American city of Toronto. There is no Ashwin, no durbadals wet with autumn dew, no dewdrops like pearls hanging from the tip of Durba dal on an autumn morning. There is no Dolanchanpa, Belly, the unbridled beauty of Shapla flowers and the mind-blowing longing, maddening scent of Shiuli flowers. Kashban doesn’t even have that breathtaking view. Nei Mandape Mandape murchhana all popular songs and tunes of Bangla and Hindi language on mike all day long.

However, the month of October means that Durga Puja has arrived. And like ten Bengali Hindus, the gusty wind of Puja festival started blowing in my mind. It seems that Dhaka’s music began to play! But in this country, you can’t build a puja mandap under the open sky and play loud music or dhaka with a microphone. So it is not possible to go to worship after listening to music. And so we had to know the news of the puja from Bengali newspapers or known people. Especially at that time i.e. in 2001 there was only one Bengali newspaper to my knowledge. It was also available in some Bengali shops in the Danforth-Victoria Park area, which is now known as Banglapara, about 35 kilometers away from my place of residence.

In due course of time the Puja came and I came to know that there are three Durga Pujas in Toronto. Among them, two pujas are conducted by the Bengalis of West Bengal, another puja is organized by the Bengalis of Bangladesh and I also came to know that one of the two pujas in West Bengal is held at Pravasi Club i.e. Tagore Centre. Another Toronto ink home. And our pooja of Bangladesh used to be held at Kantaswamy temple which is about 40 km away from my residence. And since I was still a new immigrant, public transport was the only hope. On the other hand Pravasi Club is within walking distance and Kali Bari is within 10/12 minutes drive. But I have to rely on public transport – in that case I had to change buses three times in two cities to get to Kali’s house. So I thought I’d rather go to the club. As thought so act.

On the evening of Saptami, I took our two-year-old daughter Trisha and went to Pravasi Club for a walk. That was the first time I saw Bengali culture abroad. Goddess Durga is the sole creator of universal appeal over Bengali culture. Inside the main floor of the club house, on the left side of the stage, the idol of Goddess Durga was placed crosswise, with Kartik and Lakshmi on one side, Siddhidata Ganesh and Vidyadevi Saraswati on the other side. At the feet of Mother Durga is Mahishasura, the symbol of all evil, with a trident, and on the stage to the right, a cultural program was going on.

The whole time I was in the function room I was looking around hoping to see someone I knew. But I didn’t see anyone like that. Meanwhile, it was almost nine o’clock at night and seeing people coming and going in the basement, we went too. I went and saw people taking Prasad. Seeing that, we also stood in line. But by that time the prasad is almost over. Anyway, in the end we got a little bit of luck. Even though the peace of mind was insignificant, I got the reward. But many did not get that.

Anyway after taking Prasad, I saw a long line in front of a food shop. On the other hand, seeing a cassette and cloth shop, we went there and bought two cassettes. One of which is of Indranil and another probably of Manna De or Hemanta. 10 dollars each. Nobody listens to cassettes these days – times have changed. And technology has changed with it. So no one listens to cassettes or CDs anymore. But I still have those cassettes and the cassette player carefully all these years later.

Meanwhile, my wife Gauri has gone to the venue with her daughter Trisha. And I was going towards the place where worship donations are taken, thinking that I would give some donations. But before that, when he made eye contact with a gentleman, he asked at first sight whether I am new or not? I said yes. He asked from which country. I said ‘I am from Chittagong, Bangladesh.’ Although many of my family and relatives are settled in Kolkata. KO 64/65 and Kew in 91 – After celebrating looting, murder, rape and destruction of monasteries and temples in independent Bangladesh. My brother who was an active freedom fighter in 71 and in government service left the country overnight with his family in 91.

Anyway, the person I said was from Bangladesh, I saw his facial expression started to change and this time he threw the real weapon! He said, “Well, your Bangladeshis come and eat, but they don’t give any money.” Actually, how to give – everyone works in that factory. I felt very insulted hearing this. It felt like taking out the food from the stomach and throwing it in the gentleman’s face. Anyway, with great difficulty I asked, ‘Where is your home?’ He said, ‘In Kolkata.’ No, that’s what I wanted to know.”He said, ‘Oh well, my father-grandfather came from Faridpur in Bangladesh.’I got a ground after hearing this. I said, ‘How can you condemn Bangladeshis as a Bangladeshi yourself?’

Then I said, ‘Dada, according to my family genealogy, my ancestors came from Nadia Shantipur in present-day West Bengal in the early 12th century.’ I also said, ‘Who told you that all Bangladeshis work in factories?’ I didn’t have to work in a factory even for a day. And what’s wrong with working in a factory to survive?’ The man then stood with his head down. Without further ado, I left for home with my wife and daughter and kept thinking about what kind of idea Bangladeshis have!
I knew later that many of them had such ideas about Bangladeshis! But I never forgot that man’s face and I haven’t seen him for a long time.

Anyway, the next day on Mahashtami, the news came that there was a change of government in Bangladesh on October 1 through the eighth national parliament election. The BNP-Jamaat alliance came to power and started rioting. Although we were very upset, the three of us went out the next afternoon with the desire to see the puja organized by my fellow countrymen. By subway I probably came to Warden station and again took a TTC bus and got off at Kantaswamy temple. At that time, the present building was not built in that temple. At that time, all the Bengalis of Bangladesh used to organize a puja in that temple. When we reached, we saw that the discussion was going on on the stage. Cultural program will start soon.

Suddenly I saw an elderly gentleman with a card board box in his hand asking people for help in every row. Some were graciously giving a dollar or two, while others were secretly tipping Abdal. I was curious to know about it. Getting up from the seat and walking around, at one point we met Alok Chowdhury, our very dear Alokda.

It must be said that before coming to Canada I did not know Alokada but his wife Gopa Boudi. She and my wife’s step brother’s wife from London, England are both childhood friends. On that basis, after we came here, we visited Alokdar’s house, took invitations and made us his own at the first meeting. In fact, both of them are so friendly and hospitable that they have all the qualities to make someone theirs at the first meeting. After that we didn’t have a car for about a year. If Alokda was staying somewhere, he would arrange for someone he knew or he himself would drive 35/40 km and drop us home if he had time. And if not, Niden would drop him off at the nearest subway station.

Meanwhile, seeing Alokda, the mind became very excited. He was probably the president of the committee and Kishoreda (Kishor Chowdhury) general secretary. So at one point of talking with Alokda, I said, we don’t know anyone here. Let us know if we are of any use. He seemed quite pleased and took me with him to the kitchen. Khan then told Swadeshda (Swadesh Saha) and Ajayda (Ajay Chakraborty), ‘His name is Asim, the new arrival. You can utilize him with any help. Meanwhile, he has come to know that Gauri was associated with Udichi, Khelaghar, Student Union while living in Chittagong. So he contacted the cultural committee. Since then, attending the rehearsals and events of almost all programs by bus, train was a daily casual affair for us.

In the meantime, the offering of prasad has started, the whole temple is buzzing with the smell and the tongue is watering when will I eat it, although yesterday’s incident was stirring in my mind again and again, no one came again and said that they are taking the prasad and have paid the subscription! But no such unpleasant situation had to be faced. However, the next day I paid 100 dollars from the money I earned in Bangladesh. Anyway, I was still thinking about who is the gentleman who ignores people’s tittering and criticism and asks for help from people! At last it was known that the gentleman’s name was Dr. Mahadev Chakraborty. Bengali was taught at the University of Toronto with his cooperation and support and this great initiative is for the continuation of the program.

By now it was almost eleven o’clock in the night, we finished our meal and left with Trisha in our arms and reached home around half past two in the night.

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