Autumnal cold and gloom notwithstanding, Bengalis in Toronto used to throng at the famous Kalibari to bathe in the spirit of Durgotsav
By Shruti Bhattacharjee
The autumnal October is here with its bitter cold, the ground is dusted with snow and trees are bare, looking like skeletons, much like the landscape of the `Waste Land’ by T S Eliot.
Every retail store is adorned by Halloween costumes …yet for me – a Bengali in Toronto, it is a time when my mind sings only to the tune of “Jago Durga, Jago Dashopraharanadharni“…
The impending cold months and a mellow autumn sun notwithstanding, my spirits, instead of getting frozen, are highly charged up for the next five days.
As I zip up my boots under my saree and button up my over coat, my memory takes me back home to those heady days.
My senses are flooded with the sound of dhakis, the smell of shiuli and `dhuno’ and the microphones blasting pujor gaan (songs of puja).
I quickly drive down to Toronto Kalibari… I’m a volunteer in the pujo. Though I am nostalgic, I know it’s time to make new memories.
With this reverie, I throw myself in the whirlwind of mirth and splendour, that is Durga Pujo.
As I approach the building which in no way looks like a mandir (temple) in India and looks more like an office, I can see the front yard teeming with buoyant Bengalis, thus building my anticipation.
The Durga `pratima’ (idol), made by local artisan, is modest yet glorious . Though we don’t have dhakis, yet the mandir echoes with the beats of the dhak, thanks to a boom box and the blessed internet!
The cold is stinging, yet everyone is dressed in the traditional way, for, Durga Ma has kept our spirits and energy high and our heart warm.
The air may be bleak and gloomy outside but inside the mandir, it’s throbbing with myriad colours and incandescent with the sparkle of the jewellery and smiles .
The Toronto Kalibari Puja is distinctly unique. Unlike many Durga Pujas in the West which are squeezed in the weekends, the one at Toronto strictly follows the actual`tithi’ and `shomoy nirghonto’( Auspicious time and hour of the day) of the Puja as per the panjika(calendar).
So, for us, the volunteers, it is an early morning start as every little thing from `bhog’ (holy food) to ‘puja prastuti’ (preparation) is done by us .
It is a mammoth task indeed. But setting aside my laziness ( I notoriously hate cooking!), I pleasantly discover myself doling out hundreds of `luchis’ and spending the entire time cooped up in the kitchen preparing the bhog.
It’s Durga puja alone that casts a magic over us, and we all are fuelled by the pujo fervour!
The atmosphere feels like `barir pujo’ (puja of the home) as the committee elders advise and sometimes even boss us around.
As for the kids, the next five days will only be a fleeting sight as one of the volunteers takes the responsibility of herding them in one room of the mandir and feeding them from time to time!
The fact that all aspects of the puja is religiously carried out by the volunteers, makes us a close group.
Throughout the year, we come to this mandir every Saturday for a spiritual and social boost. It definitely plays a role in making our children familiar with our roots and culture. It becomes more apparent when the kids perform during the puja days.
As we prepare to oversee the nitty-gritty of the pujo, Mahastami sees the team stay overnight in the mandir. The ‘Shondhi pujo’ and the 108 `diyas’ light up our hearts and make us forget our presence in a foreign land.
The community lunch is carried out in the basement along with the bhog prasad cooked by the volunteers. You can also get a dose of retail therapy (!) as sarees and traditional jewellery shops adorn the lower deck.
The crowds are ever increasing and clock thousands; cooking and serving becomes a Herculean task but is carried out deftly by the amateur cooks who belong to different professions.
During my childhood, Durga puja was a time to dress up, go out with friends, gorge on succulent food. I was never that involved in the rituals apart from the ‘anjali‘.
However, in Toronto, I participate in the rituals both big and small, for, I have understood the deeper and profound philosophy behind these rituals.
Durga puja, I am convinced, is the culmination of myriad rituals observed in Hinduism. The rituals of the puja on each of the five days are different . Should they be taken literally, or do they have a profound, mystical philosophy?
Mantras (sacred hymns) are concealed words, all encapsulating deeper meanings both in ritualistic sense as well as in the practicalities of daily day life.
Therefore, the `Aakh boli ‘ (ceremonial sacrifice of sugarcane instead of goat) on the morning of Mahastami actually recognises the blood as the sacred life force in man and beast.
Through the return of the sacred life of the victim— the balance of life is nourished, and, therefore, man and nature live on.
According to me, through the animal sacrifice, the consecrated life of an offering is liberated as a sacred potency that establishes a bond between the sacrificer and the sacred power.
The goat mentioned in the context of sacrifices is actually representative of our inner faculties, qualities, emotions and external and internal organs and its sacrifice at the altar of God refers to suppressing the animal side of our life-energy and transmuting it to the divine.
I was told that animal sacrifice was generally regarded as an inferior sacrifice for less-evolved souls, in whom the guna or qualities of rajas (or ambition) and tamas (or inertia) dominate.
For those gifted with inner vision, more satwik (or righteous) in nature, the animal was symbolic of certain states of mind to be offered to the Deity.
My usual distaste for the word “boli” (sacrifice) has tempered down as long as there is no animal involved .Similarly I learnt that colour of the images of gods and goddesses are in keeping with their description in the Chandi (the Story of Chandi or another manifestation of Goddess Durga).
It is interesting to note that Goddess Saraswati, symbolic of the one and only quality of `Vidya’ ( pure knowledge) which is unadulterated, is ‘shwet’ or white complexioned.
In opposition, Goddess Durga, an embodiment of the three qualities of satwa (goodness), rajas (passion) and tamas (destructive) has a bright yellow complexion.
The ‘kola bou’ is symbolic of our agragarian roots and that according to some , Lord Ganesha, Lord Kartik, Goddess Saraswati and Goddess Laxmi are not Goddess Durga’s children but her attributes..
Today I have a better understanding of our rituals and traditions thanks to Toronto Kali Bari puja.
Come Dasami and the protima is not immersed in water as the same idol will be used again next year.
However, that doesn’t mean we mourn any less. Tears flow amidst shouts of “Ashche bochir abar hobe” as the pratima is covered and stored away carefully for the next year.
It’s been merely four years I have left Canada and settled in Kolkata. I am at the heart of the carnival and revel in the splendor that is Durga Puja; yet the “ghoroa puja” of Toronto Kalibari remains close to my heart.
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Shruti is a teacher of English literature in Kolkata. A bibliophile, she specially loves to read about history and ancient art and architecture, a passion that has been passed on to her from her father.