Dhaka Diary: Memories of Durga Puja

by Fakrul Alam

The very first time I heard Shah Abdul Karim’s heart-stirring song, “Age Ki Shundor Din Kataitam” I was transported to my childhood years in Dhaka‘s Ramkrishna Mission Road and the Durga Puja days we used to revel in then. Karim remembers lyrically “how happily” he and other village youths would spend their childhood days, “Hindus and Muslims, /Singing Baul and Ghetu songs all together!” He goes on to narrate how he and his friends would listen to Ghazi, Baul and Ghetu songs during the monsoons as they raced their boats or watch jatras being staged in Hindu households and how politics and/or religion would never come in the way. He concludes wistfully: “I keep thinking: we’ll never be happy like then./Though I once believed happiness was forever/Day by day things get worse and worse/Which path will distraught Karim now follow?”

Karim’s song always strikes a responsive note in my heart because I too recall

how joyously my friends— whether Muslim or Hindu— and my family members would spend the Puja days every year in our Ramkrishna Misson Road para or neighborhood. Although my memories of those days have dimmed considerably by now one thing I still remember clearly is this: after the two Eids, Durga Puja was the most important festival to light up our young lives then. Alas, those days are gone, not only for me, but for most people growing up in a para in Dhaka: the pernicious mixture of parochial politics and religious fundamentalism that led to Partition, 1971, all subsequent riots and clashes and the endemic violence we live through have ensured that the kind of atmosphere we once used to breathe have been disappearing from the whole region (and not only our country) steadily.

One explanation for the spontaneity with which we would participate in the Ramkrishna Mission Puja festivities is demography. Our para consisted mostly of Muslims but also of not a few Hindus; our nearest neighbors, for instance, were two Hindu families. True, the events leading to Partition had created a divide of sorts between people speaking the same language but belonging to different religions and yet on most occasions we interacted freely with each other. Every day we would hear the ululations linked to prayers in our Hindu neighbor’s house just as they would listen to the azan drift into their homes five times a day from our neighborhood mosques ( sans loudspeakers!) summoning the faithful to join the congregation. On puja days they would send us prasads and we too would share sweets our mothers would cook for our religious festivals with them. Pakistan was very much a state built around one religion, but do I deceive myself or were ordinary people much more secular and much less bigoted then?

Another reason for the ease with which we moved in and out of Ramkrishna Mission stemmed no doubt from the attitudes of the people who directed Ramkrishna Mission. Much like the Catholic American missionaries who ran the school and college where I would get my basic education, the saffron-clad men of this mission were always tolerant of para children irrespective of their religion. We were allowed to play football in the Mission field, bathe in its pond for hours, pick the bokul flowers from its trees or while they were strewn in the shades, chat for hours on its lawn, or read in its Reading Room. Occasionally one of the missionaries who would spend most of their time meditating or leading prayers for Hindus would even drop in for a chat with my parents, both devout Muslims but very pleased to have our “others” in our midst. Sure, there were limits even then, for we would not go inside Hindu prayer rooms and our Hindu friends would never disturb us during our prayer times, but open-mindedness and forbearance ensured that most of the spaces we lived in our community were shared ones.

In any case, Durga Puja in Ramkrishna Mission was the most memorable experience of another religion I have ever had. The moment we would hear the tak dum tak dum of the drums pervade the spaces of our neighborhood in the mostly warm but occasionally hot and humid end-autumnal days full of fleecy clouds in nearly –always blue skies our hearts would flutter. Those thrumming, magical beats announced unmistakably that the time for another fun-filled Saradiya Puja week had come! The dhakkis or drummers, I do believe, were our Pied Pipers, for we would sprint like the spellbound children of Hamlin then to the open field in front of the Mission Prayer hall the moment we heard them. We would find them there pounding away on their drums, swaying and smiling and showing off their skills on those ponderous-seeming but colorfully decorated and deep-echoing dhols !

The whole of Ramkrishna Mission became a spectacle of sights, smells and sounds for the next few days. No matter where or when we went to the Mission during the festival season we would experience a riot of colors, a medley of sounds, and a range of flavors that made the Durga Puja days unforgettable. Durga Puja in Ramkrishna Mission was truly in the carnivalesque mode, for there was an unmistakable mela or fair-like quality to it. Hindu men and women would come dressed in their fineries, the married women glowing because of their vermilion smeared-foreheads and multi-colored saris, the men looking happy and yet self-conscious in their bright but heavily-starched new dhotis and the children beaming and giggling because of anything and everything. We too would dress up for the occasion because whether Hindu or Muslim this was an occasion to meet people, mingle, chat, display and (for the boys) ogle. The sound of the drums would merge with the tinkle of mandiras, the chiming of bells, the unique note coming from conch shells, the ululation of women, the chanting of the mysterious but solemn-sounding Sanskrit prayers and the incessant chatter of not quite focused devotees. Indeed, there was a constant buzz in the Mission compound everyday from mid morning till late in the evening. In the Mission field hawkers would sell hot and spiced-up pickles and chutneys, delectable sweet and/or sour savories and flavored and syrupy drinks. At times the missionaries and volunteers would serve watery but delicious labra khichuri to anyone who cared to line up and eat from the plantain leaves. The smell of the different food items sold throughout the day would blend with the smoke and scent of the ceremonial dhups or incense lighted for the occasion. The press of the crowd, the feeling of excitement exuded by the people who sat to watch events or wander from place to place and the assorted Bangla dialects heard all around us created a matchless mix. But of course Puja was mainly a holy occasion for the Hindus of the city. While we Muslim children did not understand a lot of what went on and were often mystified by the seemingly endless cycle of rituals, there was much to keep us absorbed in at least a few of the religious events. At the centre of the Puja, undoubtedly, were the idols built for the occasion. They are traditionally unveiled on the sixth day and placed on a pandal , a temporary structure erected for the veneration of the goddess Durga. Even if we did not know the import of all that we saw who could not but be overwhelmed by the centerpiece, the resplendent goddess, ten weapons in her ten hands, a benign smile on her face, glowing in light golden colors, draped in a flaming red sari, standing on her lion mount, taming the demon Mahisasur? Also awe-inspiring were the attendant deities (how “filmy” are the idols made now!). We were captivated by the welcoming melodies of agamoni and intrigued by the chandipat or reading from the Hindu scriptures. Day and night we were enthralled by the rituals of a njali as the deity was offered flowers and prayers. For most of us one of the more fascinating moments of Durga Puja came on the ninth day, when a little girl was made the kumari , symbol of pristine beauty. But the climactic event was the immersion of the deity in the Mission pond on the tenth day. From the morning of this day we would witness intense activity. First, devotees would begin preparations to move the deity, then the pandal would be carried to the pond to the sound of ululations and finally the Durga would be immersed in the pond water to chants affirming her victory and predicting her triumphant return the next year.

The Durga Puja days mesmerized all of us in the para in many other ways. For instance, the dhaakis seemed to punctuate the days and nights of the Puja week with aarati or ritual dances, gyrating and drumming with abandon and delighting us children. In the evenings kirtans or devotional songs absorbed older people who were content to muse to musical tunes even in the middle of a crowd. But what fascinated most people young or old was the jatra that was staged in any one of these evenings. Like the morality plays that I would read about later in my English Studies when studying the history of the theater of Elizabethan England, this folk genre had angels and demons, characters like Vice and Conscience, music and dance, pathos and farce. In short, it was made out of a recipe guaranteed to please. Its plot, typically taken from an episode of a Hindu epic, was of the kind that would keep children as well as adults spellbound.

All in all, Durga Puja was a truly enthralling and synaesthetic experience; no wonder our senses were satiated by the end of the Puja week! The most important thing, I now realize, was that for nearly a week our para came alive and we had become part of a carnival that had gone on for days. And in the process our neighborhood had managed to come somewhat closer, for this was one religious occasion where differences were overcome to a great extent.

In 1967 my family moved from Ramkrishna Mission Road to another part of Dhaka and I have never been to another Durga Puja held there since then. But by 1965, a change had already come over our para . The India-Pakistan war that erupted in the middle of the year widened the rift created by partition, a rift that seemed to have been bridged to a great extent in a neighborhood like the one we lived in. A few of our Hindu neighbors left for India after the war. The rest, I know from subsequent visits, have migrated to India over the decades. The Ramkrishna Mission Puja, I hear, is still a huge event, but I doubt very much if the whole neighborhood comes alive during puja week like it used to when I was there.

Will coming generations in our part of the world ever rediscover the joy that comes from knowing that despite different beliefs, people can participate spontaneously in each other’s festivals and even delight in them fully? In 1985, after six years spent in Canada, I remember walking past a Durga puja pandal in Khulna with a nephew. I asked him, “Have you ever gone inside and enjoyed the puja festivities?” “No” he said, “there is a smell that comes from the dhup that they use that I can’t stand. Besides, we aren’t supposed to!” It was a moment that first made me realize that the dream of a secular, tolerant, humane Bangladesh had received a jolt in the years that I had been away. Subsequent events have been even more upsetting for those of us who believe in the values encapsulated in that part of our original {1972) constitution that was later “amended”. It is thus that Shah Abdul Karim’s song has so much resonance for me that every time I hear it I keep thinking of the Durga Puja celebrations in Ramkrishna Mission that I had been part of once upon a time: “How happily once we village youths/Would spend our days, Hindus and Muslims/…./“I keep thinking: we’ll never be happy like then./Though I once believed happiness was forever/Day by day things get worse and worse”.

Nov. 19, 2007
Fakrul Alam is on leave from the University of Dhaka and now teaches English at East West University, Bangladesh.