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Forlorn in foreign shores

As the dhaks start beating in my neck of the woods, in some far away land, an ode to the white flowers and the goddess is slightly in contrast to what we know as the quintessential Durga Puja. Nevertheless, vanguards of the tradition, driven by an uncontrollable urge to fill up the void with utmost warmth and amiability, fare quite well in their own kind of celebrations. But this year, Covid has certainly ruined several plans. Kaushikibrata Banerjee writes how the virus has played a spoilsport

Forlorn in foreign shores
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An azure sky, swaying tufts of kaash and the sweet fragrance of shiuli are an unmistakable harbinger of Durga Puja for the Bengalis. Be it in Kolkata or foreign shores, the festival is some sort of a delirium of about a week. For those living abroad, as the autumnal sun breaks free and falling leaves make way for a new season, Durga Puja sets in.

Kolkata - A city of the mind, a portable place that everyone who loves it likes to carry with them to wherever under the sun they may be — from New Jersey to Norwich.

But is Durga Puja, the festival that defines the place, portable too? Debatable. Maybe. However, this year, the question is slightly different. With the Coronavirus pandemic playing havoc in people's lives, many Pujas abroad have gone virtual, along with a host of Covid protocols in place.

The Abu Dhabi Bangiya Parishad will perform 'ghot pujo' (worshipping an urn symbolising the goddess) this year with no elaborate rituals and gatherings taking place. The UAE government has ruled out Durga Puja celebrations as was the case with Eid, keeping in mind the spike in the number of Covid cases. Bangiya Parishad hosts the only Durga Puja in the entire Abu Dhabi.

Joydip Chakraborty, an engineer by profession, says: "It is a very sad thing to happen but we need to behave responsibly so that lives are not impacted. Even last year, three banquet halls were booked and the Durgotsav took place with a lot of fanfare. Our Puja usually begins with 'Ananda Mela', a tradition where a host of women offer home-cooked food. On average, around 200-250 members and guests attend lunch with the figure doubling in the evening. People from Oman, Dubai, Sharjah and Qatar also throng the pandal. Full-fledged Puja with all the rituals takes place, so do the cultural programmes that have been a major draw till last year."

Dubai will host a Puja as the organisers have managed to get hold of a small idol. But there will be Covid norms in place, says Ipsita H Chakraborty.

Dorin Banerjee, a homemaker, adds: "Every year, we have a lot of fun here. It's sad that strict restrictions are in place and the usual frenzy is missing. We had planned to travel to India but due to the pandemic even that is not possible."

Shravanti Bhowmik Sen, who works as a commercial manager in an MNC in Kuwait, says her plans to come to India during Durga Puja had to be cancelled because of the unprecedented pandemic. It has been 10 long years since she has not attended Puja in Kolkata as her daughter had her exams in school during this time of the year in Kuwait. "This year, I had planned to visit Kolkata because she has now moved to the United States for her UG degree," Sen said.

In Massachusetts, the Puja will be held in a temple and only members can attend it, says Indranil Ganguly. Cultural programmes will be live-streamed.

All Durga Puja rituals in New Jersey will be held virtually this year. "We have to register online with the temples and the club Pujas. No walk-ins will be allowed. A maximum of four persons will be permitted to register per family. Everyone is allowed to pay a visit during their allotted time slots for entry to the temple. Guidelines by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) related to COVID-19 will be strictly followed. All visitors need to wear masks and practice social distancing. Sealed food packages will be distributed and no flowers or food will be accepted. All cultural programmes will be telecast online. This year, we are going to pray virtually and reminisce our old memories of Durga Puja," adds author Moumon Mitra, who has been living in the US for the past 16 years.

HR professional Susmita Samanta Chattopadhyay from Seattle, says no Puja is taking place this year. Last year, there was an attendance of around 1,600.

Durga Puja is being held in Brisbane and Queensland, Australia, with proper Covid protocols in place, allowing around 30 people inside the hall at a time.

New South Wales has a different story to tell. There will be 'ghot pujo' with only a few association members attending it. Rumi Mukherjee, a school teacher in Sydney, says residents can join virtually for 'pushpanjali'.

There will be no Durga Puja for the Singapore Bengali Association keeping in mind the Covid restrictions.

Kumartuli idol maker Kaushik Ghosh says he has received only around 12-14 orders from abroad this year, a sharp decline from 30-35 in the previous years. "Whatever orders we got before March, have been delivered. I have shipped around three idols to the US, one in Canada, two in Germany, two in England, one each in Switzerland and Sweden, and three in Australia. No idols could be sent to Singapore because they did not get any permission for the Puja. There is around a 50 per cent dip in the foreign orders this time due to the pandemic."

Pradyumna Chatterjee, a radiation oncologist and a film actor who has worked in 17 projects in Russia, says: "In view of the present situation of the second wave of the pandemic, as per the Durga Puja committee's decision in Moscow, and president Swami Jyotirupananda of the Ramakrishna Mission here, we will not be conducting a public Puja this year. For 30 years, this has been a major Indian event in Moscow with the participation of many Russians, children of local Indians and supported by the Embassy of India in Moscow and the Jawaharlal Nehru Cultural Centre.

"Public gatherings of more than 25 are forbidden now so as decided, we will do the Puja in a small place with minimum activities along with the involvement of a few helpers apart from the pujari (priest) and the tantradharak (a Brahmin who reads out from scriptures to the priest to recite it).

No cultural activities, bhog distribution, 'pushpanjali' or other gatherings will be allowed."

Chatterjee has been in Moscow for 26 years and is associated with the Durga Puja as a priest since 2017.

Nitin Aurangabadkar, an MNC professional, has been in Moscow for 30 years and has been associated as general secretary with the Durga Puja for 19 years.

"This is our 31st year of the Puja and we usually book a students' club here every year. But we haven't got the club because of Covid this time. The venue has not been finalised yet but the footfall will be restricted, with only members of the committee being allowed. We have around 15-20 members and we all have decided to organise the Puja but if there are new protocols issued, then we might change our decision. We are more concerned about the restrictions and not so much about the cases. That's why we are not allowing visitors this year. This is the only Puja that takes place in Moscow and we usually have around 1,500-2,000 visitors throughout the four days with the number increasing whenever it coincides with a weekend. We follow the Belur Math almanac here."

Durga Puja in the United Kingdom has been marred by the same problem faced by the entire world. The firefighting is dotted with uncertainties and U-turns by the Boris Johnson government. The government has allowed opening up of religious places with a maximum of 30 people at a time within the norms of social distancing. Initially, around 65 Durga Pujas used to be organised in the UK and the numbers are increasing every year. Majority of the organisers are keeping their fingers crossed and working on multiple plans to cope up with the current uncertainties. Some are even thinking of squeezing the five-day festivity to one single-day event while others are hiring cricket grounds to abide by the social distancing norms. Such is the precariousness that even Christmas may be shelved this year in the UK.

In France, organisers seemed to have braved Covid and in Île-de-France, the place where the biggest Durga Puja of the country is held, have decided to host the festival from October 21, following the Indian almanac.

In Germany's Cologne, which usually witnesses 6,000-8,000 visitors every year in Durga Puja, strict government guidelines will force restricted participation this year, says journalist Supriyo Bandyopadhyay. "The 45-year-old Puja witnesses huge footfall because of its proximity to Belgium, France, Switzerland and The Netherlands and is organised next to a highway. Hence, Bengalis usually pour in from these countries to attend the Puja in Cologne. The Indian almanac is followed. The idol is changed every four years, then dismantled and donated to a museum. Roughly, fresh idols that travel from Kumartuli every four years cost us 7,000-8,000 Euros," he adds.

So, miles away from home, they feel the tug of the soil in the blood and understandably, Durga Puja gets a new meaning. Geographically though, the community may be divided and spread far and wide but it unites in spirit and prayers to seek blessings of the divine, wherever they are. The Pujas, thus, may not be replicated de rigueur without the city but from north Kolkata's underbelly that smells of mud and sweat of the artisans to the richly-laden, lavish banquets of the foreign shores, Goddess Durga has an everlasting presence, irrespective of any mishappening.

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