I was a new girl in this city 5 years ago. I came with my suitcase of dreams, aspirations of independence and a determination to find my destiny. As hard as it was living away from my loved ones this enchanting city kept me on my toes, challenging, inspiring and absolutely captivating me. Paris holds many mysteries for the explorer at heart and for an eclectic cultural enthusiast like me, has become more than a home, an integral part of my soul. Yet, there are times when I miss very much my home city, Calcutta, in Bengal, the cultural capital of India, more so than ever in autumn, when the Bengalis celebrate ‘Durga Puja’.
Durga Puja is the biggest festival of Eastern India and is celebrated by Bengalis with great pomp and grandeur over a 5-day period. It originates from the mythological story of Goddess Durga slaying the evil demon ‘Mahishasura’ and symbolises the victory of good over evil. Today it also represents feminine power which can be nurturing and yet fierce. Though it is celebrated all over India, Calcutta is the nerve center of this festival where the whole city turns into a glittering carnival. Thousands of idols of the goddess and her entourage are painstakingly made by hand with clay by artists months ahead. The city decked with lights glows like a new bride. The ‘pandals’ or structures where the idols are housed are an artistic marvel. Food trucks line up the street, the sound of “dhak” (traditional drums) fills the air and people dressed in their new clothes go pandal hopping all night. On the last day of the Puja, the deity is immersed in a river or lake. It is also a time when families get together over conversations and traditional delicacies. Every year I would pack my bags homebound for Durga Puja usually held in the month of September or October. However, this autumn I could not go and I sulked for days leading up to the festival.
One day while browsing the net, I chanced upon a blog about an association for Bengalis in Paris called ‘Sammilani’, created in 1971. I found that they have been celebrating Durga Puja since 1986 and in 2014 too it was being held in the ‘Maison de l’Inde’ in the Cité Universitaire! I was thrilled to bits and visited the venue for the festival. The celebrations were being held in a small auditorium beautifully decorated and the idol though small was exquisite. All the rituals were observed with authenticity and reverence. It was surprising to see so many Bengalis there dressed in their finery. A lot of French locals were also there and many I found were regulars every year. The members of the club were like a family and had organised the event with lot of love and care. Traditional food and sweets were distributed to all visitors and each evening an amazing cultural program of Indian music, dance and instruments was held. Local French performers were also featured. There was a great turnout and getting a good seat was difficult. The biggest surprise for me was finding my grandfather, famous Bengali litterateur Narayan Gangopadhay’s name in the brochure. On ‘Mahashtami’, the most important day of the festival, the association was going to put on a play written by my grandfather, and speaking to the organisers, I found that they perform one of his plays each year. It was a proud and emotional moment for me to see his work still cherished thousands of miles away from home in a land whose literature and culture he loved so dearly. He always wanted to visit Paris but passed away before he could. So, it was special for me to see that his work, if not he, had travelled here and brought joy to so many.
This Durga Puja I met some wonderful people, was reminded of my roots and felt renewed pride in my culture which has a unique synergy with the cultural spirit of France. This city never fails to surprise me. Paris can be anything you want it to be and there is always something for everyone here.