Bangla-O-Biswa means literally “Bengal in the World.” Formed in 1981 as a Bengali cultural organization comprised mainly of Hindus from West Bengal, India this group hosts three Pujas (festivals) to various forms of the goddess every year: Durga Puja in September/October, Kali Puja in October, and Saraswati Puja in February. They also host a Bengali New Year celebration in April and a summer picnic in June. This organization has no regular meeting place. Instead, they hold their festivals in public spaces which they rent. There are approximately ten executive committee members who are elected on an annual basis. Bangla-O-Biswa relies on the donations of members and devotees in order to host these festivals. For the first fourteen years, this group held most of its festivals at a Methodist Church in Watertown. Soon they required more space for the festival, so they began renting the cafeteria and auditorium of Maynard Public High School, about 30 miles west of Boston. Over this period of time, Bangla-O-Biswa had grown from its founding five members and their families to around 1,000 members. Most of the group members are first generation Bengalis who moved to New England from West Bengal during the large wave of Indian immigration in the late 1960s. Their sons and daughters make up the majority of the younger group members, along with a few recent Bengali immigrants in their mid- to late-twenties.
The most highly attended of Bangla-O-Biswa’s events is Durga Puja, as this is also the largest annual festival celebrated in West Bengal. According to a number of people at the Puja, this event celebrates the time when the goddess Durga was created by all of the other gods, endowed with their special powers to destroy the buffalo demon named Mahisa who was wreaking havoc on the world. Made in Calcutta, the paper mache murti (image of the deity) of Durga used in this festival depicts her riding a lion and wielding a spear that is piercing the heart of Mahisa. Durga Puja is also a celebration of Durga’s annual return to her parents’ home with her children. Thus, Durga is not the only deity represented in this festival; her children, Ganesha, Kartik, Saraswati, and Lakshmi, surround her. This year, Durga Puja was held on the weekend of September 30 – October 1. Durga Pujas in West Bengal last for nine days, in the United States, Bengalis must shorten the celebration to two days to accommodate the typical workweek. Preparations for the festival began on Friday evening with around twenty members showing up to prepare food and to set up the pandal, or the platform in the cafeteria where the murtis (images of the deities) would be placed. In both East and West Bengal, multiple pandals are set up in different parts of the cities in which Durga Puja is celebrated. In Maynard there was only one set. Large paper mache murtis encased in wooden boxes were brought in a UHaul truck from the priest’s home to the high school and unloaded by group members. In India, it is a central tenant of the Puja that murtis, which are traditionally made of clay, are submersed in water and dissolved at the close of the festival. This submersion ceremony emphasizes the fact that the deity and image are not one and the same. The deity inhabits the image only for the duration of the Puja from when it is invoked into the image by the priest, to the Puja’s close when the deity is asked to vacate the image. However, clay murtis are expensive to have made, and it is even more expensive to have them shipped from Calcutta to Boston year after year. Thus, the murtis used by Bangla-O-Biswa are paper mache and are saved from year to year in these boxes in one of the member’s homes. As these murtis are now a few years old, one man re-glued some of the glitter and plastic jewels that had fallen off during their year in storage. After covering a set of three bleachers with blue plastic tablecloths, the five murtis were arranged on top. The pandal was ready. On Saturday morning, some Bangla-O-Biswa members came early to help prepare food for the Puja. A group of ten women cut gallons of fruits and arranged sweets they had made at home on platters, while around fifteen men and women (including two of the Maynard High School lunch ladies) prepared materials for the hot vegetarian food in the kitchen. A portion of each of the dishes was set on silver platters on the ground before Durga as an offering to the goddess. A CD of Sanskrit songs telling the story of Durga slaying Mahisa played in the background. At around noon the rest of the devotees started showing up. Since this is the central festival of the year for Bengalis, devotees save their nicest traditional Indian attire to wear on this occasion. Men and women who do not wear saris and dhotis for the rest of the year showed up wearing them to Durga Puja. The attendees who had not seen one another since the last Durga Puja caught up with another year of events in one another’s lives: marriages, births, first years in college, first jobs, etc. As devotees arrived and some came to the pandal (platform where the murtis stood) to do pranam, or to prostrate before Durga, the West Bengali Brahman Vaishnava priest, Tapan Bhattacharya, conducted a puja wherein he invoked the presence of the deities. It was not until an hour later that devotees became actively involved in this ceremony. At this point, the priest invited everyone to gather around the pandal for anjuli, the central focus of the ceremony. Devotees each took a flower between their hands and repeated Sanskrit mantras after the priest. While many of the devotees do not understand Sanskrit, the sound of the mantras is said to be efficacious in and of itself. According to devotees, the general idea of these mantras is a praising of the goddess, and a request for her blessing. Many used the image of Durga slaying Mahisa as a metaphor for how the good in each of us is to conquer the evil with the help of the powerful Durga. The anjuli portion of the puja lasted around half an hour and once it was finished, the devotees offered their flowers to the goddess by placing them on platters to be set before her. Because the group of devotees was so large, anjuli was repeated another two times to accommodate everyone. Once it was over, the food became prasad, or blessed food, and it could be consumed. The line to eat this food was long and there was a sense of impatience, as it is customary for devotees to fast for the entire day of the Puja until consuming this prasad. Along with the wide array of traditional Bengali food served, french fries and spaghetti with tomato sauce were also provided for the children. Durga Puja is an entire weekend affair. Although the anjuli and community sharing of a meal which ended at around 3:00 pm comprised the central part of this festival, people generally stayed at the high school all day Saturday and Sunday. After lunch, there were musical and dance performances by members and their children in the auditorium. Some played sitar, sang traditional Bengali folk songs, recited poetry, and some displayed their talent for classical Indian styles of dance such as bharatnatyam. After the performances, the movie “Hero,” a Bengali classic staring Uttam Kumar, played on the large auditorium screen. Meanwhile, there was a drawing competition for children in the cafeteria. Some people played basketball in the gymnasium, some took naps in their cars, while others played card games. In the evening a Calcutta-born singer, Somdatta Pal, gave a very well-received performance, after which, a late dinner was served. I was told that many people stayed at the high school until 1:00 am. On Sunday, the process of puja, prasad, and cultural activities was repeated. This time, instead of starting at noon, the priest began the puja at 3:00 p.m. because so many people had stayed late the previous evening. The cultural performance was a comedy play by Bengali-speaking actors from Connecticut. In the evening, the priest performed the final ritual in which he asked the goddess to leave the murtis. A bittersweet celebration by devotees, all gathered around the pandal, ensued. Some danced while a large drum was played as others clapped to the beat. Eventually the married women in the crowd received the sindoor (red powder that Indian women place in the parts of their hair to signify the fact that they are married) that had been offered to Durga, and smeared it playfully all over one another’s faces. The great goddess Durga along with her children Ganesha, Kartik, Saraswati, and Lakshmi, had departed from the murtis which were then packed up in boxes to be stored until next year. Parents and children, tired from the weekend’s festivities, also packed up and headed home to prepare themselves for the week of work and school ahead of them. Some of the devotees would see one another the following month for the celebration of Kali Puja, also held in the Maynard High School cafeteria. Others would not meet again until next year. All would call or email their family members back in Bengal to ask them about this year’s festivities. Were there any new pandals this year? Were the murtis larger and more colorful than last year? Were the streets of Calcutta decorated any more elaborately this year? How was the dance festival? Aware that they had missed the “real” festivities back home, devotees attending Bangla-O-Biswa’s Durga Puja in Maynard, Massachusetts were thankful for some semblance of this celebration here. They looked forward to doing it again next year.