As a part of our Nina and Nana Navratri special, we now take you to Bengal, which usually enters a state of frenzy, as it sparkles and reverberates with Durga Puja celebrations. Bengalis outside Bengal too, wont miss out on this special festival. Nina and Nana interview Shoumi Sen about her book Celebrate Durga Puja With Me to find out all about this exciting festival, and how it is celebrated all over the world.
Nina: Shoumi, I am so excited to have a chance to talk to you about Durga Puja and your book. I love the character, Riya. She’s cheerful and adorable. Your book is so colorful with such lively fun verses. So tell me, what’s your fondest childhood memory of Durga Puja?
Shoumi: Thank you! It is so nice to meet you. The character of Riya is based on my daughter because I wanted kids to experience our colorful Indian festivals from a child’s perspective. So, it’s as if you are right there with Riya, inside a Pujo pandal, as she walks you through Durga Puja celebrations.
My fondest memories are from Pujo celebrations in Mumbai when I was a child. We would dress up in our best attire, get together with friends and head out to the puja pandals. We would be filled with awe at the majestic ‘protimas’, try to squeeze to the front of the massive crowds to offer ‘anjali’, enjoy delicious bhog and have a wonderful time!
Nana: I apologize for my granddaughter's exuberance. It can be terribly annoying, but it is a pleasure to meet you. So you mention in your book that the goddess had a 108 names. Wow, that's a lot. Could you tell me a few?
Shoumi: Nina’s excitement is so endearing, I love it! Yes, Ma Durga has a 108 names… many of which have inspired baby girl names. You may be familiar with some of them - Aparna, Aadya, Bhavya, Sundari, Satya and many more.
Nina: Your book makes Durga Puja sound like so much fun! But the pandal fun starts only on shashti, the 6th day. So can you tell us what you think Ria does between Mahalaya and Shashti? I would just explode with excitement.
Shoumi: Just like you, Nina, I find that Riya cannot contain her excitement for Durga Puja. She spends time with her family shopping for clothes and gifts. She brushes up on what the upcoming days will be like by reading 'Celebrate Durga Puja With Me!' She usually takes part in various cultural programs so her days are spent on drama and music rehearsals. All in all, it's a pretty exciting time!
Nina: This year Mahalaya lasted for over a month and boring Nana insisted we celebrate through quiet contemplation.
Nana: Frankly, I think it’s a good thing. 5 days of hyperactivity from Nina is about what I can survive. As a globe trotter, pandal hopping from one country to the next, can you tell us about your Durga Puja experiences in various cities around the world?
Shoumi: The Pujo celebrations that I’ve been to outside India are usually held over the nearest weekend to Pujo with the 5 days compressed into two. The Bengali associations worldwide do a fantastic job of recreating the magic of the festival and it’s quite nostalgic as I watch the next generation partake in the festivities. I have a story about one such celebration. This was a few years ago when we were on a holiday in Australia and happened to be in Brisbane during Durga Puja. I was visiting a childhood friend of mine who I had grown up celebrating Pujo with; as we attended the local Pujo and watched the celebrations unfold over the weekend, we reminisced about the good ol’ days and I was looking for a way to share those memories with my daughter. It was in fact during those Pujo celebrations in Brisbane that the idea of the book was born.
Nina: That’s a lot of places. What’s the most memorable and tasty item you have ever eaten at a Puja stall?
Shoumi: I think the memories of eating bhog take over every time I think of food during Pujo. For me, no food item from a Pujo stall can compare with the delicious Khichuri bhog.
Nana: You mention various Puja traditions and rituals in the book. Which one is your personal favorite? Are any of the rituals particularly unique to Durga Puja?
Shoumi: The ‘dhunuchi naach’ (dhunuchi = incense burner, naach=dance) is pretty unique and its thrilling to watch the dancers delicately balance the “dhunuchi” while dancing to the rhythm of the ‘dhaak’ (the traditional drum).
Nina: This year corona virus has put a damper on all community celebrations. So how will you be celebrating?
Shoumi: Things are changing daily and I am not sure what to expect; there have been talks of Bengali associations live-streaming Pujo celebrations – so maybe we will do some virtual “pandal hopping” this year. I suppose we will be reading ‘Celebrate Durga Puja With Me!’ a lot with my daughter and reliving our memories of Pujo over the last few years.
Nana: It has been great chatting with you. Also thanks for tolerating Nina. Hope you have a wonderful and enjoyable Puja season.
This post is a part of the #NinaAndNana series I co-host with Lavanya Srinivasan. Her posts can be found here.