Kristen Rajak at the HA Block Durga puja pandal. Picture by Sudeshna Banerjee
Writing this article seated in our HA Block apartment, listening to the drum beats of the Kali idol immersion processions, I am reminded of where I was around this time last year, and all the other years before — across the seven seas, in America, the land of my birth.
Six years ago, I was 19 and working at the teller of a bank in Jacksonville, Florida, and one of my customers, Sanju, asked me on a date. About three months in, my teller manager predicted that we would get married. I thought she was crazy. Three years later, he proposed and we got married!
We moved here after my husband decided to open a restaurant in Salt Lake. Our Indian wedding is scheduled for November 2013. My American family needs time to save and plan for such a big trip. And I wanted to get familiar with my new home before we started planning anything. Plus, I want to make sure I can tell my family and friends what to expect on their visit.
I’ve been staying in Salt Lake since I got here three months ago, but travelling back and forth from Ichhapur where my in-laws live. I love going there because of my mom-in-law’s cooking! It’s calm and quiet too. On the other hand, I enjoy living in Salt Lake because it’s got the city feel without being overly crowded. I currently live with my brother-in-law, sister-in-law and their five-year-old daughter Reit, whom I simply adore. My heart melts when I hear her call out “Krissy Auntie”. Salt Lake may be only a few miles in radius, but to an American in India, it’s a whole new world and I’m proud to have gotten this far!
I am the only person in my family to marry outside of my race. And the first person to move out of the country! In my short three months here, I have experienced so many more firsts than I’d imagined — my first train ride, my first solo autorickshaw trip to the mall, and of course Durga Puja, Laxmi Puja and Diwali.
I was really excited to find out that I’d moved just in time for the festival season. The bamboo structures that started coming up, I was told, would become pandals, housing the goddess Durga in honour of her fight for good versus evil. At the time, I really had no clue what that meant.
Over the course of the week, I saw these structures go from hollow bamboo lattices to incredible cathedral-like buildings. I went to our block’s pandal on the day before Puja started and saw that it was created from no more than styrofoam and cloth painted to look like stone and concrete. I watched in awe as the men painted the goddess by hand with such intricacy.
|Kristen lights sparklers with husband Sanju
on Diwali night
When I found out these masterpieces were destined for the river I almost choked! But it was explained to me that she was being sent to be with her husband after fighting for the reign of good, and then I found it to be almost romantic.
My family took me to see several other local pandals. Some featured themes like in the movie Avatar — a dome-shaped structure made of woven palm fronds and strips of bamboo from top to bottom. I reminded myself that this was all hand-crafted.
On one night, I was given a sari by my sister-in-law. I was to wear it that night for the midnight prayer, but I was hesitant. My first and only experience of wearing a sari was for a party with a bunch of expat strangers at Swissotel. I was having a great time dancing when a woman asked me to come with her so she could make some adjustments for me. She ended up rewrapping the whole thing, telling me that it had sagged so low that half my petticoat was showing. But I had not noticed because the whole experience was so foreign! Towards the end of the party, the bathroom attendant offered to fix me up again. That’s when I decided to nix the dancing.
But this time, it was for Puja and I was with my family. So what could go wrong, right? We went to the midnight prayer and I managed not to trip and fall on my face. That doesn’t mean I didn’t trip.
Then we decided to go see one of the bigger pandals in Salt Lake. We hopped in the autorickshaw to begin our adventure. I was excited but nervous. I already get enough stares being a white girl. But a white girl in a sari? Now that’s a sight to behold.
We reach our destination and the line is about an hour long. But this was good for me because all I had to do was shuffle a few feet at a time. About 45 minutes later, we reach the entrance which is up a few steps. I walk up the first step, no problem, totally conscious about not stepping on the fabric of my dress. Second step, all good. I lift my foot to get to the third step and I hear a slight tear and I stumble forward.
A nail had caught the fabric. I grabbed that part, bundled it tight in my hand and lifted it up to around half calf. I held my head high and just kept moving. My mother would have been proud.
My sister-in-law soon had to help me as I had totally ruined the pleats up front. Some girls walked by laughing but I shrugged it off, reminding myself I’d never see them again.
After that night I swore I would never wear another sari if I didn’t absolutely have to... at least, until my Indian wedding.
The next night I went with my husband to get some street food, specifically pani puri, when I heard the drums and saw the lights on a slow-moving truck with the hands of many people in the air in front. It was a parade on the way to take the goddess to the river to finally be with her husband in the Himalayas.
I told my husband I needed to get my camera before they passed our apartment. I ran to our place, grabbed the camera, and ran downstairs just in time for the front of the parade to reach our place. I filmed the people dancing and they ranged in all ages from little girls no older than seven holding hands and stepping in sync to the drums, to old men dancing with their hands in the air. There were at least ten drummers dispersed in clusters on either side banging away. The energy was incredible.
A lump formed in my throat thinking about how deeply involved these people were in this ritual, how they were coming together to celebrate the goddess’s triumph over evil and how she fought so hard to finally be with her husband. Nothing I’ve ever experienced can match that night. Everyone tells me that the local celebrations pale in comparison to the most populated areas of the city but I think I got to experience something equally awesome for a Puja first-timer.
My next holiday was Laxmi Puja. Neighbours and friends joined us and we had a pundit come to the house. We made one of the bedrooms the puja room where we would partake in the rituals. Upon sitting in the room, I had sindoor placed upon my forehead with a prayer. We built a fire in a small metal square basin filled with sand, using leaves, wood and dry coconut husk. As he was reading in Sanskrit, we threw rice upon the fire and repeated the chant’s response. Although I have no idea what I was saying, I tried my hardest.
Later my husband made light fun of me, but I also earned a pat on the back for trying. Towards the end, the pandit tied a red and yellow cloth bracelet around my left wrist and said it signifies protection. I’m still wearing it over a week later.
My final festival experience was Diwali. I learned that this holiday is also referred to the Festival of Lights. There is one holiday in America I can compare this to — Independence Day. Although they have different meanings, both use fireworks to light up the night.
We placed candles in the windows. My mother-in-law decorated the stairs with flower petals and sindoor and coloured powders. All the decorations were so beautiful. We went to her puja room where she dedicated fruits, marigolds, and vegetables to her idols.
Then it was on to the fun part — fireworks! Outside, the night was full of the smell of gunpowder and burning candle wax. Everyone’s homes were lit inside and out. A great number of people were outside with firecrackers and sparklers. Our evening ended with a delicious meal. The booming lasted through the early hours of the night.
Holidays in America and Bengal’s festivals are so different that there’s no comparison. What is common is that we all celebrate what we believe in with the people who are most important in our lives. And even though I considered myself an outsider, or an observer in the beginning of the season, I’ve ended it with a feeling of belonging.
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