Immigrant Bengalis

An Immigrant Childhood: Growing up with GSCA
Aparna (Molly) Debroy

When I think about my childhood growing up in New Jersey, some of my fondest and most poignant memories are of celebrating SaraswatiPuja and Durga Puja with family and friends. In 1975 a few young enthusiastic Bengalis -- including my father Asit Ray, Dwipen Ghosh, the late Ramen Chakravarty and the late Satya N. Ray – founded the Garden State Puja Committee (GSPC).  This marked my introduction to our organization. Over the years, pujas became events that we all looked forward to, children and adults alike. 

For our parents, organizing and participating in pujas gave a sense of belonging and community, something they missed greatly since leaving India for the U.S. These events gave them opportunities to bring a treasured part of Bengali culture to their newly adopted homes and share their experiences with others facing the same struggles and having similar feelings of fear and hope of an unknown future in a new land. Together with their newly found friends, they offered earnest prayers to the Goddess, prepared, cooked and ate delicious Bengali food, and dressed up in their finest ethnic clothes and jewelry.  Although the kids were mostly busy playing tag in the school hallways, I do recall watching the kakus (uncles) hard at work in the kitchen with their huge, shiny pots on the stove, and cutting vegetables for much savored khichuri and beguni. It just seemed like an incredible amount of work. They were truly motivated to make each puja day a success. The mashis (aunts) were equally committed at the puja area with the tedious work of prasad preparation and assisting the priest.

Thanks to pujas, I was lucky to have met many of my childhood Bengali friends, some of whom I am still in touch with. For us youngsters, attending puja was a chance to play with other kids and participate in something special.  Though we did not fully understand the significance at the time, we all sensed that partaking in Puja celebrations was very important to our parents, and therefore it became important to us as well. I can still clearly picture the school gymnasium where the early Saraswati Pujas were held. The smell of marigold flowers and the image of trays filled to the brim with colorful, freshly cut fruits are still fresh in my mind, as are the sounds of the ghanta (bell) rung by the priest and the mashis’ powerful ululation attracting everyone’s attention. I also remember my mother  explaining to me the importance of fasting before anjali  and praying to Ma Saraswati  for help with my studies, what to do with the charanamrita scooped into my hand, and telling me to bow my head for the eagerly awaited finale of Santir Jal showered on us by the priest. While offering Anjali, we tried our best to repeat the difficult Sanskrit mantras which we did not quite understand, but somehow the words still resonated with us. Pujas were and still are a feast for the senses, which intrigued us as children and kept us interested. 

Along with the religious aspects of pujas came the cultural programs. At first we would spend most of our time playing in the hallways while our parents would watch programs late into the evening.  We would periodically watch certain segments while taking breaks from our overzealous games of tag and hide-n-go-seek. As we grew older, we took more interest in the programs and started to participate in them regularly. Our organization flourished and as a result the cultural programs grew to be more elaborate and were organized on a larger scale, which brought recognition from many circles. At the 1978 Saraswati Puja, I participated in a children's dance drama directed by the late Kuntala Kakima (Bagchi), which was featured in an article in the Jersey City newspaper. Our organization was recognized for such performances at a time when the presence of Indians in the U.S. was not very noticeable. Needless to say, my young friends and I were quite excited to see our own picture in the local paper!  Over the years, I continued to participate in dance programs at each Saraswati Puja, mostly looking forward to the fun times with my friends at the rehearsals leading up to the day of the show. I was taught dance recitals by different choreographers, such as Suparna Guha, from styles of Rabindra Sangeet  to classical and folk. From then on, the anticipation of Puja was embedded in me.

In 1981, GSPC embarked on organizing its first Durga Puja. By that time, I had started taking Bharata Natyam lessons at the Academy of Indian Dance under the tutelage of Reeta Baidyaroy. Dance became a true commitment rather than just an occasional stage performance of a few minutes during cultural programs. I learned about the different dance styles of each region of India, and the mythology of our rich culture and religion. My younger sister, Urmi, started at the dance school soon after. As we matured, a respect grew in us for the ancient art forms of Indian classical dance. We were fortunate to be instructed by Gurujis from Kolkata through the school, which allowed us to showcase complex dance dramas at Durga Pujas.

In my college years, there seemed to be a surge in the number of of youth members in the organization. With the inspiration and guidance from Prasun Kaku (Chakravarty) and Narayan Kaku (Roy), I was asked to help stage "Ramayana" at two different times and also "Pujarini", with a great cast of kids. There were countless hours at rehearsals (to which the dedicated parents were gracious enough to transport their children) involving memorizing lines, audio manipulation, dance, and costume. The kids all shared a common thread of showing pride in their performances which ultimately brought success. These "kids" including Rana, Guddi, Urmi, Soumi, Neil, Shumona, Aditi, Sourav, Anupam, Kingshuk , Rituparna , Partha and Pallav are now well established adults in our community.  As the years went on, my sister, Urmi and I continued to choreograph dance recitals intermittently at Saraswati andDurga Pujas. It became harder for us to manage large scale productions because both of us were pursuing our higher education and career ambitions. We made it a point to stay involved in any way we could, and dabbled in judging art competitions, collecting donations/dues, and helping with prasad/food distribution. These experiences made me appreciate how hard the dedicated organizers worked to make these events come together

In 1992, our puja moved to Plainfield, following a decision by the senior members to part ways from GSPC and form a new organization, the Garden State Cultural Association (GSCA). The younger folks were not affected by the transition very much, since most of the management by kakus and mashis of the puja remained the same. However, I do recall many late night meetings involving my father, Sandip Mama, Narayan Kaku and others discussing many serious matters during the partition. The future of the organization was in jeopardy, and it was a stressful time for all of them. After all, they had poured their hearts and souls into planning and managing all the pujas from the ground up -- and had shared a true bond with the organization. This was a “make or break” situation for GSCA. Thanks to a great deal of hard work and determination, GSCA grew to be a highly successful organization.  The following year, 1993, brought an important milestone to GSCA when brand-new, custom-made idols were brought from India in time for the Durga Puja.  This brought much pride and happiness to all those who had worked so hard to creating and establishing GSCA.  Several kakus and mashis, including Sadhan Kaku (Guha) worked tirelessly to build a beautiful pandal to serve as a backdrop for the beautiful idols.

During the past decade, GSCA has progressed by leaps and bounds, thanks in large parts to the efforts of newer members taking on leadership roles. With the help of founding members, they have taken the initiative and made the commitment to take GSCA into a new era, facilitated by technology and detailed planning.  New successful initiatives that have been implemented in more recent years are: a dynamic and modern website, pre-registration during Durga Puja, the GSCA newsletter, Spandan, crowd management techniques, and many others.  Nevertheless, senior members still remain very active as leaders.  Without the unwavering dedication of its senior members, GSCA would not have made the remarkable progress it has achieved over the past decade.

Growing up with GSCA was like growing up in an extended family. Since my parents never had the chance to return to India during pujas, my frame of reference is puja here in New Jersey.  I could not imagine celebrating it anywhere else but with the people I know. Although it is sometimes a challenge with today's busy schedule to attend pujas, my family and I try never to miss a single one. Embracing generational friends, catching up with the newer ones, and watching fresh waves of children continue the tradition is very special to me. Last Durga Puja, my 5 yr. old son, Gourav, started participating in the art competition. It gave me a sense of things coming full circle and a glimpse of the satisfaction our parents must feel to have established an organization from the ground up, that keeps alive old traditions, helping to instill them in our children.  Seeing my sons and other children participate makes me feel proud to be a part of it all from the beginning, and confident that our traditions will continue for generations to come. Being a part of GSCA has had a great influence on shaping me as a Bengali, an Indian-American and an individual.  I have gained strong community spirit and a sense of belonging and pride in who I am. This pride and spirit continues to inspire me to instill these same values and traditions in my own children. 

(Posted January 28, 2014)

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