The devastating effects of Covid-19 over the past two years took their toll on celebrations abroad but in 2022, Indian expatriates are immersed in festivities
BY SAMUDRA ROYCHOWDHURY
In the US and Canada, December marks the onset of long Christmas holidays culminating in New Year celebrations but people of Indian origin start to feel the festivity in the air from September itself, just like Indians in their homeland.
In Canada, Indian festivities like Navaratri, Durga Puja and so on were either cancelled or celebrated in a muted way within very small groups during the Covid years. Some festival organisers even went into virtual mode to enable the experience and some level of satisfaction to people.
But the festivities are back with a bang this year. Ganesh Chaturthi or Vinayaka Chaturthi, as it is called in southern India, heralds the first inkling of a series of fall festivals in many NRI homes. Almost at the same time Onam is celebrated, not only in Kerala, but also in Canada. Then come Navaratri, Durga Puja, Dussehra, culminating in Diwali.
PANDAL HOPPING IN WASHINGTON
While talking about Durga Puja, Jayanta Ghosh, a Bengali living in a suburb of Washington, DC, gets overwhelmed with festive fervour. He speaks about how he would go back to his childhood during the days of Durga Puja, the biggest and grandest festival of Bengal. Thankfully, he is not missing much of that festivity in another corner of the planet.
“There are five Durga Pujas organised within a 50-mile radius of the metro DC area. One is organised by the Bangladeshi community,” says Ghosh.
“We buy new clothes, go to a local Kali temple in Washington to offer pushpanjali (floral offering made with cupped palms) to the goddess. Apart from that temple, four other clubs in the metro DC area also organise Durga Puja celebrations. Bengalis in this area try to simulate the joy of pandal hopping in Kolkata by visiting different clubs here. These clubs arrange cultural programmes and bring popular artistes from Kolkata and occasionally from Mumbai too,” adds Ghosh.
He laments that for the past two years the festive mood was extremely subdued. In 2020, the same Kali temple in Washington made the puja virtual. Last year, devotees had to seek appointments before visiting the temple. This time everyone is hoping the old charm will be back.
One of the clubs in Washington is bringing over the famous Bengali band, Chandrabindu, from Kolkata during the Durga Puja period to perform on a cultural night. But a sudden hike in fees due to the high inflation may have some adverse impact. “One of the clubs increased the family membership from $250 last year to $350 this year,” Ghosh points out.
Indian culture is a kaleidoscope of religions, languages, rituals, and cuisines with festivities taking place throughout the year. Pongal is the long harvest festival that coincides with the beginning of the month of Thai in the Tamil calendar, typically around January 14 or 15 each year. “We wait for Pongal the whole year,” says Nagarajan Shaktikumar, a resident of Whitby, a suburb of Toronto, Canada. “Even though here it is not as big as in Tamil Nadu, where I come from, we always make sure to go to the temple and meet people on Pongal, and offer puja during the four days of this festival. In the past two years, none of those things happened due to Covid but we celebrated at home,” he adds.
The word Pongal is derived from the Tamil pongu which means to “boil over”. “During Pongal we make traditional dishes—one is sweet where rice is boiled with jaggery and another is savoury where rice is boiled with dal or lentil,” Shaktikumar says, nostalgically.
Generally, India’s festive season is thought to end with Diwali but this is not always the case for many nostalgic NRIs. “After Diwali, we start the new year with Lohri,” says a jubilant Vikas Dutta, a resident of a Toronto suburb. Dutta is originally from Punjab, but grew up in Delhi.
“We also celebrate Maha Shivratri and Janmashtami here in Canada but Navaratri and Diwali are definitely big for us,” Dutta continues. There are places in the Greater Toronto area where traditional Ramleela functions are arranged, complete with the burning of a 10-headed Ravana effigy followed by fireworks.
“We used to go to the Hindu Sabha Mandir in Brampton (a suburb in the west of Toronto) during Navaratri and Dussehra. The last two years we did not go to any large gathering. But this year we are hoping for renewed festival enthusiasm,” he says.
LIGHTS OF HOPE
Diwali, which can be regarded as a pan-Indian festival, is indeed a very big event among Indian communities in North America. People eagerly await the festival of lights which has different legends associated with it among different communities of India. The popularity of Diwali has led to it having a global footprint. Last year, the US President greeted Americans on Diwali.
Diwali for NRIs is an occasion to strengthen their bond and affection for their motherland. They visit one another’s houses to participate in the festivities and it does not matter whether the other person is from another province of India, speaks another language or belongs to a different caste or religion. The followers of Murugan in Tamil Nadu, Ganesha in Maharashtra and Kali in Bengal live together, celebrate each other’s festivals together not only in India but also thousands of miles away from home in a foreign country.
This is the strength of thousands of years of Indian culture represented by the rich tradition of festivals that bring Indian communities living abroad closer to one another, and to their cultural roots.
Brothel Soil for Idol
Idols for celebrating Durga Puja are imported from India. Not many know that for making the Ma Durga idol, clay from the doorsteps of the houses of prostitutes is mandatory. In Bengal, this clay is called ‘punya maati’ or sacred clay. Sex workers hand over the soil as a gift and a blessing. It is believed the logic behind this custom is that those who visit brothels leave their purity and piety at the doorstep of the prostitute’s house. All their virtues are then imbued in the soil there. This practice accords respect as well as social acceptance to sex workers. But it is unfortunate that today this has been reduced to only a ritual. Efforts need to be made to improve the lot of sex workers too.
The writer is an IT professional, passionate about Indian history, and the founder of www. indicvoices.com