Durga Puja: Goddess' Homecoming, American Style

Hindu goddess Durga

In Hindu mythology, Goddess Durga symbolizes power and the triumph of good over evil. The five-day annual Durga Puja celebration is the biggest holiday for Bengali Indians in Calcutta. AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption AFP/Getty Images

On Thursday, millions of Bengali Indians and Bangladeshis celebrate Durga Puja, the festival of the Hindu mother goddess who banishes evil from the earth. These days, commentator Sandip Roy observes Durga Puja in the San Francisco Bay Area, where the celebration is more restrained than he remembers.

As a child in Calcutta, as soon as we got a new calendar, I'd rush to see when Durga Puja, the five-day homecoming of the Goddess Durga, would fall.

Calcutta became a Puja madhouse — blazing lights, millions of people in stiff new clothes shoving and pushing — as the tattered New Ballygunge Sangha Marching Band played a tuneless medley of the year's hit songs. Entire streets were blocked off with Pandals — temporary temples of cloth and bamboo, each gaudier than the next.

At daybreak on the first day of the Pujas, we'd hear the invocation to the Goddess on All India Radio echoing across the sleepy neighborhood and welcoming her home. We heard the same songs and the same voices for decades.

Here in the U.S., the five-day festival is squished into a weekend. I walk into a school auditorium and see the men wearing their once-a-year dhotis and the women in starched cotton saris. The priest, a software engineer by day, is reciting Sanskrit prayers.

I look at the image of the ten-armed goddess astride a lion, killing the evil buffalo demon. For a minute I'm taken back to Calcutta — but only for a minute. This Durga is tiny, as she has to be, shipped all the way from India.

In Calcutta, at the end of Durga Puja, we let the earthen image of the goddess dissolve into the Hoogly River. Huge processions snaked through the streets to the river. The drumbeats made the old houses tremble. I feel a twinge of disappointment as I realize this doll-sized image will be packed away for use next year like Puja in a Box. The California Durga is botoxed into eternal life — her clay smile unchanging until next year.

I wonder if the Goddess misses looking different every year. Does she long for the starbursts of fireworks lighting up the night sky and the little clay lamps flickering at every doorway? The throngs of children still wide-eyed at midnight?

"Don't worry," I tell her. It's almost like home here. With the click of a mouse, I can send giant trays of sweets and fruits to friends and family in India for Durga Puja. Or I can mail them Hallmark cards for Diwali with images of little lamps and lotuses.

The tiny goddess smiles at us from the school auditorium stage. It is last year's painted smile. But it forgives us.

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