You can take a Bengali out of Kolkata, but you can’t take Kolkata out of a Bengali. Two Bengali families in the US decided to create a semblance of home, away from home this year by celebrating Durga Puja, with the theme being ‘Kolkata’.
The Banerjees from Bethesda and the Sarkars from Pittsburgh are connected by two sisters, and they celebrated the festival together last year. “We experienced loneliness, isolation and depression since the pandemic struck, and were disheartened when our local Durga Pujas were cancelled in 2020. This led to us isolating for several months, to safely celebrate the Pujas together,” said Raka Sarkar.
With the success of last year’s Puja, there was increased excitement at the prospect of a sequel. As everyone was now vaccinated, extended family members and friends also expressed an interest in participating and a dedicated WhatsApp Group — Agomoni 2021 — was abuzz with planning. “We had 35 close friends join us from across the US. Even their kids and grandkids jumped into the celebrations,” added Raka.
The families assembled together after months of meticulous planning.
Her father, Saumen Sarkar, a scientist and associate professor at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, designed the pandal. He modelled it on Raj Bhavan’s iconic gate, complete with a lion perched atop, a figure he emotionally associated with Ma Durga while growing up in Howrah. The backdrop was complemented by an illustration of Kolkata’s skyline including Dakshineswar Temple, Belur Math, Shahid Minar and Howrah Bridge. His sister-in-law, Arunima Ghosh, a physician, provided an ekchala pratima made of dokra that she had procured at the Hastashilpa Mela 2018 in Kolkata.
Since their busy schedules didn’t permit holding the celebrations on the actual Durga Puja dates, the families rented a minivan on October 1 and assembled at the Banerjee home in Bethesda, Maryland. They then spent the day decorating the mandap and cooking.
At 6am next day, everyone awoke to the nostalgic tune of Mahishasuramardini. The Saptami and Ashtami pujas were clubbed into the same morning, along with pushpanjali. The lunch feast was the traditional fare of homemade Khichuri, Labra, Chatni, Papor, Bondey and Doi. The family gathered again in the evening for Navami puja, where they sang songs and feasted on Basanti Pulao, Fish Chop, Mutton Curry, Chatni and Mishti Doi.
The celebrations were held at the Banerjee home in Maryland, US.
“The following day saw the Dashami puja, Debi Boron and Sindur Khela. The idol was submerged in the koi pond in their backyard, and after Visarjan, everyone indulged in Dhunuchi Naach and a late lunch. Almost all the food was cooked by family and friends on our back porch on a gas stove,” said Raka.
The puja was done following simple rituals, prioritising Bengali tradition as much as possible. “We wanted to make sure that everything was accessible to the kids by including them in making flower garlands, as well as distributing prasad. We really hope that the next generation will be able to understand and enjoy Durga Puja as we have,” signed off Raka.