Durga Puja in California
Bay Area Durga Puja 2018 Update: Durga Puja will be celebrated on the following dates in the Bay Area. Do check with the websites for updates and for the entertainment roster for the evening:
- Oct 20-21 (BayBasi, Foster city)
October 13 -14, 2018 (Sanskriti, Newark)
- Oct 14-(Bay Area Prabasi, San Jose)
- Oct 14-18 (Paschimi, San Jose)
Durga Puja: A Time of Celebration
The season of falling leaves and a nip in the air is known to the western hemisphere as “Fall” with the eastern hemisphere sticking to the good old English word “Autumn” and gearing up what signals as some major festivities that come along with it. My birth state of West Bengal (India) gets into the thick of things as preparations start for the eagerly awaited and yearned festival of Durga Puja (or Pujo as we Bengalis say) celebrating the Goddess Durga returning to her parents abode, aka Earth from her celestial residence. The five days, which mark the return of the Goddess with her entourage (aka her children) is celebrated with great fan fare, pomp and show which rivals a billion glitzy carnivals combined. People don their very best and throng “pandals” (i.e. makeshift structures hosting the idols of the Goddess and her children), offer their prayers, eat and make merry. Millions of people take to the streets of Kolkata (the capital of West Bengal and my birth city) during this time (think of Times Square, NYC frenzy times a thousand) and go pandal hopping. The pandals themselves are intricate works of art and often compete for creativity in local competitions. On the 5th day, the idol is immersed in the waters of the Ganges, as her devotees look forward to one more year till she returns.
As pithy as this introduction to one of the biggest Hindu festivals in the world sounds, truth be told, there is nothing religious about it. Durga Puja, specially for those who grew up in Kolkata, is essentially a social festival participated by all, irrespective of religious, caste or creed. Its a fun social gathering, an escape from the daily grind and a time to make merry. Perhaps because of this, my ties to this ritual have still not gone south unlike my rabid dislike for organized religion and traditions. Being a part of my childhood with no religious sanctions imposed or rules to follow, the kid in me feels the compelling need to visit the nearest venue in North America and get a glimpse of the idol while going through the motions of things that would transport me to my childhood. Kolkata has long ceased to be home, but these five days somehow always remain tinged with pensiveness and I guess will always be wherever I live or whichever place I choose to call home.
Bay Area Durga Puja: What to expect
Every Durga Puja unfailingly tosses several choices of venues where Bengalis congregate in the Bay area to celebrate this festival. San Francisco is not one of those venues (unfortunately) and so one has to go to either the east or the south bay where the south asian diaspora live. Bay area Durga Pujas tend to be massive in scale and equally impersonal, and one feel easily detached and isolated in a sea of people jostling to get a bite of the “prasad” or snatches of flower petals for the “anjali” (i.e. prayers offered to the Goddess). Ever since we discovered BayBasi’s Sharodotsav event at Foster city, we have had repeat visits to this smaller venue which did not seem to be overwhelmed by a huge crowd. As is customary with other Durga Pujas in the Bay Area, here too the celebrations take place on school grounds and the idol is placed in an auditorium. You can check their website for information on Anjalee times and they also have small portions of bhog neatly lined out on a table outside the auditorium. They do have stalls selling food (Bengali catering from south Bay as well as non-bengali food options) to quench your hunger.
Durga Puja in the Bay Area: Other venues
We used to attend the Prabasi Durga Puja celebrations in the past in the East Bay (Chabot College, Hayward) but it soon ballooned into a very crowded affair with sweltering crowds lined up for Anjali. More importantly, the quality of the bhog (Khichuri, Labra, chaatni) went down considerably (it was catered out to a Non-Bengali restaurant; no regional snobbery here but bhoger khichuri is something very Bengali that one cannot master without prior experience) and we did not feel like dishing out $10 for that mediocre food after standing for hours in line (it was that bad). I kind of also felt over the years that they are more into catering to their long time members and without a membership, your experience would not be that pleasant. For 2018, it seems that the Puja event will be even bigger with the venue being shifted to San Jose. Since we live in San Francisco, we have not ventured out too far, i.e. driven to the South Bay to explore more Puja venues but I have linked all Bay Area Durga Puja venues at the beginning of this post, so please do have a look.
Parting thoughts on Bay Area Durga Puja Celebrations
At the end of the day, the realization that these makeshift Pujos will never be able to substitute for the real thing, is very much there and tugs gently at the heartstrings, but this like many other things is a byproduct of the choices that I made, for a life in a different land. So for better or for worse, these Pujos in a tiny school room, with a small idol and improvised traditions will do fine. For as long as I wear my mother’s sari (in the most grotesque way) show up at the nearest Puja venue and try to remember snatches of the mantras while trying my best to aim the flowers at the Goddess feet (how else will I get her to fulfill my demands otherwise?), I will always carry a Durga Puja in the heart. And that is what is important to me, that is all that matters.
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