Taiwan has been back in the global media headlines thanks to the intensifying geopolitical wranglings and rumblings involving China and the US-led West. However, a significant part of the overseas Bengali population in the island’s capital of Taipei seems to be unfazed by the cross-strait tension. Or the series of earthquakes that rocked the island recently. For they are engrossed in the preparations to host Goddess Durga and her family in a landmark year that saw the biggest festival of Bengal being inscribed in the special UNESCO Intangible Heritage List.
The idol at the Durgotsav in Taipei, 2021Courtesy Bengalis in Taiwan (BiT) – Bangadarshan Durgotsav
In keeping with the occasion, the community has chosen a special priestess to preside over the rites and the rituals: ace applied mathematician Dr Symphony Chakraborty, whose reputation as a scholar is rivalled only by the renown of the institutions she has studied in.
“Various young scholars and university students from Bengal acted as priests in our Bengalis in Taiwan (BiT) – Bangadarshan Durgotsav for the past few years, and I used to assist them in making arrangements for the Puja. But, this time, we didn’t find anyone to take over the important responsibility of being the priest for various reasons, including the pandemic. So, after being motivated by a few of our BiT - Bangadarshan members, I have taken up the formidable challenge,” Chakraborty said.
The mechanical engineering doctorate from the French institut d'éminence, Université Pierre-et-Marie-Curie (UPMC), currently part of the prestigious Sorbonne University in Paris, who is also a former postdoctoral fellow of the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Madras, has swiftly but quite intensely switched over to a non-STEM subject these days, juggling her Puja work with her hectic schedule as a postdoctoral fellow at the Institute of Applied Mechanics at National Taiwan University (NTU) in Taiwan’s bustling capital. For her, “it’s complicated to deliver such an elaborate and intensive affair like Durga Puja in one day, but it’s not rocket science”.
Symphony Chakraborty grew up in Siliguri and used to help her father during household Pujas
“I grew up in Siliguri and used to help my father during our household pujas quite regularly. That’s how I became inclined towards these rituals, and, more importantly, spirituality, as I have found solace in it over the years,” Chakraborty said.
But has the switch from science to spirituality or from deciphering the dynamics of the God Particle to the Goddess been easy? “I believe where science ends is exactly where spirituality starts. As an open-minded science scholar, I am against all religious restrictions and want to practice my religion the way I want. But I am quite a religious practitioner of my belief and spirituality. That’s beyond the science books and the theories and the various scientific postulations.”
Though her parents still reside in Siliguri, Chakraborty has been living outside the country for more than a decade. She has neither heard of Prof Nandini Bhowmik, who has been solemnising marriages for more than a decade as Bengal’s first Hindu priest, nor watched the award-winning Bengali film, Brahma Janen Gopon Kommoti (2020), that delicately depicted how patriarchal mindset and regressive practices shackle a woman. “I do puja for myself and feel happy about that. I don’t look at others or poke my nose into others’ lives. But if I find time and the option to watch it in Taipei, I will definitely watch the film,” said Chakraborty.
Playing a role that is true to her name, Chakraborty has orchestrated each essential element of the rituals at the BiT – Bangadarshan Puja, which started in 2009. Her sense of responsibility and passion have impressed those organising the Puja with her. “We are really upbeat and happy about the Puja, thanks to Symphony. She has been a saviour for us this year,” Taipei-based engineer and a key member of BiT -Bangadarshan, Pinaki Sarkar, remarked.
(The author is an independent journalist & MOE Huayu Scholar in Kaohsiung, Taiwan)