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Homesick Bengalis in Zurich revel in puja spirit

By Sirshendu Panth, IANS,

Zurich : From flying in a priest from Kolkata and arranging a lavish spread of traditional Bengali delicacies to organising cultural programmes dominated by Tagore songs and folk music, Durga Puja in Switzerland’s largest city was steeped in old world nostalgia.

For about 150 Bengali families from India living across Switzerland, the Sch�tzenhaus (Town House) in Thalwil – a part of greater Zurich – was the place to be in during the five-day festival.

Now in its sixth year, the puja this time was attended by people from other Indian communities as also some Swiss who travelled to the venue from all over the European nation.

In 2004, twelve homesick Bengali families – yearning to recreate their cultural roots away from home – started the puja with a budget of 20,000 Swiss francs (Rs.930,000). The budget doubled in 2009.

“This year, more than 200 families came on Mahasaptami (Friday) and Mahashtami (Saturday). The number was even more on Mahanavami (Sunday). But the weekend also helped us,” Debasree Banerjee, the puja’s founder-secretary and one of the chief organisers, told a visiting IANS correspondent.

Other than the one at Thalwil, two other Durga Pujas were organised in Switzerland – one by people of Bangladeshi origin in Zuirch and the other by the Ramakrishna Math and Mission at its Vedantic Centre in Geneva.

“But ours is the most popular. The puja is open to anyone willing to participate. It is expanding every year. We get half-Bengali-half-Swiss couples also,” said Mona Mitra, whose husband is a banker in this financial capital of Swtizerland.

Mona, an enthusiastic participant, is in her second year in Zurich. The small idol of Durga made of fibreglass was brought from Kolkata’s potters colony, Kumartuli, in 2004. “We don’t immerse it. We only do a token immersion,” Mona told IANS.

The priest, Joydeb Bhattacharya, was flown in from Kolkata. Ahead of the pujas, the organisers sent subscription coupons to those who had attended the puja a year ago.

“The minimum contribution was 100 Swiss francs per family. Some paid double or triple that amount. Besides, every day people gave pranami (monetary offerings to the goddess). Some donated sweets. And this year we also came out with a brochure for which we got advertisements worth 5,000 Swiss francs,” said Debasree, who has been staying in Zurich for over three decades.

Born and brought up in Lucknow, Debasree shifted to Switzerland after her marriage to an engineer. Her husband has now retired from a leading Swiss firm here.

The food offerings to goddess Durga were cooked by the women in their homes. They also brought fruits from their residences. Four Bengali cooks engaged by the organisers prepared sumptuous dishes like khichuri, pulao, luchi (poori bread), vegetables, chutney and sandesh.

“Like every year, we had community feasts twice daily. And on Dashami (the concluding day of the puja Monday when the idols are immersed) fish was to be the main dish,” Debasree said. “We had all the rituals, from anjali (offerings to the goddess) to sindurkhela (where married women smear each other with vermilion on Dashami),” said Mona.

Children and adults took part in cultural programmes every evening. The soulful songs of Tagore, modern Bengali songs and folk dances transported the community to their roots in India. “We will organise a bijoya sammilani (post- puja get-together) on a weekend soon. And there we will stage a drama,” said Debasree.

For both Mona and Debasree, the five days of the festival are the happiest days of the year. “I can’t explain my happiness. When we did not have the puja, I used to think why we don’t have it. Now that we have got it, it is like a dream fulfilled”, said Debasree.

Mona, bred in Kolkata, echoed Debasree. “As a girl in Kolkata, my participation was not as much as it is here. I go there every morning and evening. I guess one puts in an extra effort to participate in such occasions when one is living abroad,” she smiled.

However, the participation of the younger generation brought up in Switzerland or other parts of Europe is a trifle limited, as they never had much exposure to the cultural and religious festivities back home.

“My 15 year-old son Sougata has not really been exposed to all that. He is not as enthusiastic as us. But he gets quite excited when he makes new friends from among those in his age-group, who are present during the puja days. However, they interact in a mix of Bengali and English,” Mona said.

(Sirshendu Panth can be contacted at [email protected])