It is end August, more than a month to go before the festivities set in back home but the Beijing Bongs are deep into their planning. As I sit to have a chat with them, there is the smug satisfaction that thanks to a growing membership (around 70 now) and fairly generous contribution of Yuan 5,500 per member, funds are not a problem for these devout Bengalis in communist China.
This time both the image and the purohit are being flown down from Bengal. Just a month later, Rituparna Ain, one of the important organizers is in Kolkata figuring out what mishti to order and from whom. Eventually, the one, out of the top five sweet-makers of Bengal, which enjoys the best reputation for packaging the sweets will probably get the order.
Durga Pujo in Beijing cannot, of course, be celebrated from October 4-8 because China celebrates its National Day, when the entire country shuts down to celebrate but on the first available weekend, says Rituparna Ain Pal in a conversation with Aditi Roy Ghatak.
Q: So the Beijing Durgotsav steps into its second year?
A: Yes, baby-stepping into its second year, though we are much better organized this time around. Last year (see photograph) was a major learning experience and we faced many hurdles. First, there were only a handful of us and this time we are a larger stronger outfit.
Q: What kind of problems?
A: Oh, it was a challenge to try and organize the biggest festival of Bengal and eastern Indian states in the Chinese capital. Of course, there was lack of experience, zero expertise, inadequate manpower, logistical problems… Most importantly, there was a problem with availability of authentic Bengali items in local markets. Also, putting together an elaborate and extravagant festival like Durga Pujo on a shoe-string budget and without any sponsorship was a herculean task. However, we did learn a lot from the maiden experience and left no stone unturned to make our second edition a better and a much bigger one.
Q: But on different dates?
A: Yes, as is customary in most such events outside the country. This year’s Durga Pujo dates clash with the week-long Chinese National Holidays and the previous and the subsequent weekends are working weekends. We chose October 19 and 20 for our shortened second Durgotsav celebrations.
Q: I understand that the women have taken over the event?
A: Yes, the women members are managing the show because we need committed time, as we realized, with the men chipping in whenever they can. The puja actually began with a couple of families in 2016 (Reshme and Anirban Sinha, Suvam Pal and Rituparna Ain). Then we gradually formed this group. Those who have invested a great deal of time are Reshmita Nath, Monami Chakraborty, Sushmita Barori, Susmita Roy De, Sonia Nair, Trinisha Basak Das, Yogita Saikia, Payel Chowdhury, Lokeshwari Dasgupta, Mousumi Sen, Joyeeta Chakraborty, Reshme Sinha, Anagha Nandi amongst others.
Q: What is the organizational structure like?
A: This is a completely egalitarian group and there is no hierarchy, post or even a designated core group. We wholeheartedly welcome each member to contribute in whatever little way they can. The idea is to bring everybody together and celebrate the grand culture and rich heritage of Bengal through its hallmark festivals. Actually, not just Bengalis make up Beijing Bongs. It is an association of people from Bengal and eastern Indian states like Assam, Sikkim, Bihar and Odisha. There are many members who are either lived in Bengal or are somehow connected to the state through ancestry or family relations.
Q: The response has been enthusiastic?
A: Oh yes. The astounding success and unprecedented media coverage of our inaugural year have given us the much-needed fillip to enhance the size, scale and the volume of the second edition. This time we have a host of sponsors and fund-raisers wholeheartedly pitching in.
Q: Has that been an easy task?
A: Well, I generally take care of the communication and before every event we send a message to each member to join our planning meetings. We do not have any membership fee but only seek subscriptions during an event. For students, we offer a discounted price per meal by the hosting restaurants.
Q: Tell us something about the idol.
A: One of our key members, Argheyaa B, Mitra, who played a major role in starting the first-ever Durga Pujo in China in Shanghai more than a decade ago, has been an excellent Samaritan, giving us his 5- feet ekchala (single-framed structure) idol of Goddess Durga and her family. He has also got it created by an eminent sculptor from Kumartuli, Mintu Paul, who made the tallest Durga idol in Deshapriya Park a couple of years ago and contributed artistically to this year’s gold Durga of Santosh Mitra Square. The goddess has started her long voyage to Beijing and we are gearing up for her much-awaited arrival.
Q: The purohit lined up as yet?
A: Thankfully yes. Last year we had a PhD priest from Kolkata, who is unavailable this year. So we have a former journalist-turned-entrepreneur and educationist from Rajganj in north Bengal, Biswajit Jha, for our outstation priest. He is a colourful and multi-facteted character. Born in a family of priests and scholars, Biswajit is currently writing the biography of West Bengal’s famous Ambulance Man, Karimul Haque. Besides, he runs a highly successful football academy in his hometown that he started after returning to his roots, quitting a successful career as a journalist in Delhi’s mainstream national media. Biswajit Jha’s visa is at hand and he is making last minute preparations before setting off for China.
Q: You talked about a hosting restaurant.
A: Yes, the puja will be held in a restaurant called In Kitchen. It will be like any private event and no permissions are needed for such events.
Q: The most important thing; what about the bhog?
A: Yes, of course, that was something we planned on a priority basis: khichuri, labda, beguni, chatni, luchi, chholar daal will be part of our menu for the lunch and the dinner.
Q: And the mishti?
A: How can Bengali event be complete without authentic mishti from home. We will do some more searching but as of now we are looking at Kolkata’s renowned Balaram Mullick & Radharaman Mullick to send a specially-packed consignment of some of their signature sweets to Beijing. Meanwhile, other essentials items for the Pujo will be carried by of our members now in Kolkata for the Chinese National Days holidays. For the Beijing Bongs, the countdown has begun and while the celebrations may be a trifle delayed, the welcome given to the mother Goddess will be no less overwhelming.