Puja in a Pandemic

By Shyama Parui

Every day we are reminded of the new challenges brought on by the new decade. Collectively, our species has succumbed to some of them and surmounted others. The staunchest critics of “work from home" had to bow to the greater need for survival. Whether you are a fashionista or minimalist, you probably went to great lengths to acquire the humblest of paper products a.k.a., toilet paper. And in this scenario, despite grim reports of positive Corona virus cases and deaths, we are trying to survive and be one up on the disease that paralyzed us in spring. It is fall now so, “Hey COVID 19, if you are listening, we will show you that even if we cannot ignore you, we refuse to let you ruin our festive season."

For a writer, the pandemic has generated multiple opportunities to observe, reflect and to write home about. The bane of Corona: unexpected time on our hands, the struggle to fit into the new normal and an incredibly unique academic experience for students. In all honesty, underneath my calm demeanor lies the frustration that our minds are involuntarily diverted to COVID 19 and much to my surprise, I still have thoughts to pen down. That realization makes me roll my eyes, but the mellow excitement of the Bengali festive season redeems the otherwise desolate situation.

As I have mentioned before in my column, I am a Bengali who grew up in Mumbai and eventually made North Carolina my home. My roots to West Bengal ensure my ingrained belief in the power or Shakti of Goddess Durga, who is Maa to us. The arrival of Durga Puja is the highlight of the Bengali calendar. The celebration permeates every aspect of a hard-core Bengali's existence. My childhood in the melting pot called Mumbai also taught me to embrace the diversity of India. We rejoiced during Navratri with equal enthusiasm recognizing that both festivals run in parallel and celebrate the divine powers of Goddess Parvati in her multiple forms. However, during my student life there was a formidable force that usually dampened my spirits and that of other kids during this time of year. That force was called “exams" scheduled when the sounds of garba and dandiya raas were the loudest and the gaiety of Durga Puja was at its peak.

Shopping and pandal hopping for Durga Darshan were restrained to prevent any interference with cramming. Changing the school or University calendar was beyond my control and complaining at home was usually met with unsympathetic reactions from my parents who believed that studies came first. In essence, the inopportune tests stole some of the merriment, but it could never rob us of our will to celebrate. Consequently, I let bygones be bygones and erased those disappointments to replace them with our Americanized yet lively version of Durga Puja in Charlotte. Paper plates, school auditoriums, DIY backdrops took the place of banana leaves, pandals and professional decorations, respectively. Over the years, what we lacked in scale was compensated by the loving, close knit family environment of our community.

At this moment, it is mid-October and as I stare at the warm glow of the sun my focus changes to the modified celebrations. Excitement is currently tempered with a dose of anxiety as we make tentative plans to meet with select families within our COVID bubble. And I say tentative, because our belief that things will occur just as we imagine them has been shattered. My faith has been shaken too but not destroyed. Even though our bubble is a tad leaky, our mood signals cautious optimism. Digital streaming of a simplified puja promises that our traditions will continue and online shopping for the occasion reflects consumer confidence that was missing in previous months. Muslin kurtas, traditional silverware, bronze platters, and mithai boxes represent just a few of the array of choices that are available at the tip of your fingers, if the overloaded internet connection at home holds up. Innovative entrepreneurs are offering masks that match sarees. I am curious to see the life saving face covering in Baluchuri, Jamdani and Banarasi styles that complement the gleam of the Bengali woman's resplendent ensemble.

The current environment also provides shubh mahurat for the merger of ancient traditions with modern technology. This unlikely partnership has produced a new phenomenon termed, “phygital". Yes, you read that right. This may not be an elegant or lyrical term, but I am told that in the context of a puja, the concept aims at virtually uniting friends and families who are distanced and balancing it with physical in-person interactions that meet North Carolina's Phase 3 requirements. So, what happens when you get a bunch of IT professionals around a table? You got it, mostly good things.

The culmination of these efforts remains to be seen and I wish I could peer into a crystal ball that assures me that the autumn of 2020 will be auspicious. Perhaps, a united plea to our protective Mother Goddess will lead to divine intervention and ultimately result in the victory of humans over COVID.

Wishing all my readers a very happy Dassera and Diwali.


Shyama Parui is a long time North Carolina resident and an ardent writer. You can reach her at: shyamashree_parui@hotmail.com