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Murphy’s Law and the Durga Puja Debacle
Murphy’s Law: Anything that can go wrong will go wrong.
It will surprise me greatly to find people who attended the event and yet do not remember the debacle that was the Durga Puja celebration of 1976 in a Maryland suburb of Washington, DC. I still remember it vividly, as I should. You see, I was the principal architect of the whole affair.
The story began innocently enough. In the spring of 1976, I became the Secretary of Sanskriti – an ethnic immigrant organization which describes itself thus on its website: a non-profit religious, literary, social, cultural, educational, charitable organization in the Washington Metro area including Virginia and Maryland. Foremost among its Mission and Objectives is to “promote Indian culture and organize Indian cultural, social and religious events.” Left unsaid is the fact that its activities are slanted toward the interests of the Bengali American immigrant community hailing from the Indian state of West Bengal.
At the time I became Sanskriti’s Secretary, a number of my close friends became office bearers of the organization as well. That fact pleased me greatly, as I expected close collaboration with them and a smooth sailing through the organization’s rather modest set of annual activities. But then, suddenly in the summer, my friends resigned in quick succession. I do not recall their reasons, but they were minor at best. To my relief, the President, Dhiren-da, stayed put. Unfortunately, he was a mathematician given more to debating finer points of logic and tripping people up with questions on arcane subjects; he was not much into legwork and physical labor. Small wonder the need for the latter devolved on me.
In this way, in late summer, I found myself virtually alone with the task of planning for the organization’s biggest annual event -- the fall Durga Puja. To complicate matters, back in those days, Sanskriti’s Durga Puja festivities were arranged jointly with its Baltimore counterpart, Pragati. (The puja location was supposed to alternate between suburban Baltimore and Washington, DC.) That meant a crowd of several hundred could be expected to attend the event.
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The first task before me was to select a venue for the celebration. To be honest, I had a spot very much in mind – one that I used to cross regularly while driving to and from the University of Maryland. So I made a beeline for the Adelphi Mill Recreation Center on Riggs Road.
It was a case of love at first sight.
I had always been curious about old mills in the US. The flour mills I knew when growing up in India were electric-powered and conveyor-belt driven contraptions for crushing wheat into flour. I was aware through literature (and Bengali proverbs) of millstones to press various seeds (mustard, sesame, etc.) into oil that were powered by blinkered oxen going round and round. And in Bengal’s villages, I had seen smaller grindstones, operated manually by and large by the womenfolk, to husk paddy and separate rice from the chaff. But I had never seen a working mill powered either by wind or by water flowing down a brook.
The Adelphi Mill satisfied my curiosity well indeed. What I saw was an attractive two-story brick building on a slope by a brook, with its basement abutting the creek that ran next to it. I learnt later (thanks to Wikipedia) that the mill is situated on the Northwest Branch of the Anacostia River and was originally built in 1796. The mill stopped operations in 1916. In 1950, the mill and its surrounding 34 acres were deeded to the Maryland–National Capital Park and Planning Commission (M-NCPPC). Per Wikipedia, “the mill was subsequently restored and reopened in 1954, as a community center with the old machinery and grinding wheels on display.” I was bowled over, and the decision about the Durga Puja venue was settled. Little did I realize then that love could be blind.
I had some concern though about accommodation and crowd control. The main floor had at its center the grinding wheels, which took up a large part of the floor space. I knew that the puja arrangement would take up more space – for placing the image of the deity and clearing an area in front of it for the priest to perform the religious rites. That would leave only a small area for the attendees to mill around. There was, however, a spacious room upstairs for our use. And the basement was large too, although it had at its center the big shaft that came down from the grinding wheels and connected presumably to the axle of the hydro-powered spinning wheel outside.
It was a bright fall morning when I surveyed the house and its surroundings and decided to rent it for Durga Puja. To allay my qualms about space, I reasoned that we, the Bengalis, are not a particularly religious people and do not tarry long in front of an idol to watch the religious rites performed by a priest. In my mind’s eye, I pictured the Durga Puja crowd largely outside on the grassy lawn, chatting among friends, or else strolling along trails through the surrounding woods. The picture was serene and sylvan, even idyllic.
Once the venue was selected, the rest of the arrangements quickly fell into place. The priest, Subrata, confirmed that he would come down from the Baltimore suburb of Glen Burnie to officiate at the puja. Dhiren-da agreed to be the assistant priest (aka tantradharak). The only important item that remained was food preparation. No Bengali Hindu event is ever complete without the proverbial “rice and goat-meat curry.” The ladies involved with Sanskriti helped me drum up volunteer cooks from among our patron members to prepare enough food for the assembled crowd. (Bengali events have been plagued forever by uncertainty about the crowd size and the resulting mis-estimation of the requirement for victuals.)
It is worth mentioning at this point that Durga Puja in America back then was a single-day affair. The immigrant community was not large enough to organize the authentic religious festival that back home ran for 5 days (more or less) and followed the lunar calendar. There was no guarantee that any of the three most important days would fall on a weekend.
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The auspicious day of Durga Puja began inauspiciously for me. The weather broke badly. It started to rain early in the morning, and the precipitation was steady and relentless all through the day.
One good thing was that the priest (Subrata) came on time. He had with him his newly wed wife, Bakul, who had arrived recently from India. Bakul, it turned out, was an expert on puja rituals. She smoothly took over the puja arrangements – from flowers, sandalwood paste, and incense sticks to plates of sliced fruits, raw vegetables, and cooked food (naibedya) that were to be offered to the deity before consumption by the masses.
Then the crowd began to arrive, and I held my breath. As I had feared, the main floor of Adelphi Mill started to fill up quickly. Strolling outdoors to enjoy the fall foliage was not an option. I waited anxiously for some folks to go to the room upstairs. No such luck! People were content to mill around in front of the goddess. Or move to other corners when that space was too crowded. I went upstairs to check and found only a handful of parents, dads mainly, trying to baby-sit their toddlers in that empty room. Should I have arranged for tea and coffee as an enticement? The inner nerd in my head ridiculed me and kept muttering "mgh": Did I not know that a minimum amount of energy had to be expended to ascend the stairs? How could I not anticipate that very few of those attending would be willing to do the necessary exertion?
Instead of moving upstairs, the crowd decided in the early afternoon to go downstairs to the basement. The lure in this case was dinner, which would be served there, and for which tables had been set up and utensils arranged. Everyone’s idea was to get a spot early in the line to be served fast. Once again, I looked for people to come upstairs with plates full of food. Nothing like that happened What I saw instead, much to my horror, was a long line of people stuck on the stairs – waiting to go down but essentially immobilized.
The crowd was growing restive, so I went downstairs to check. I had to squeeze myself with difficulty past the long line of people on the narrow stairwell. There I found the cause for the holy mess. It was at the same time appalling and entirely predictable. And I could hardly avoid responsibility for not anticipating it in my planning process.
There was only one way in and out of the basement, and that was the stairs. In trying to go down, I discovered that the stairs were so narrow it could only support people in a single file. A bi-directional traffic flow was well-nigh impossible. Unsurprisingly, the situation in the basement was not pretty. Volunteers had begun to serve food, but folks who had been served dinner could not walk up the narrow stairs. Seeing no space to go up while balancing plates full of food, they were forced to stay in the basement, and ate while standing next the line for those waiting to get served. That queue snaked around and then went up the stairs. The entire space downstairs was jampacked and suffocating. My original plan for the diners to get food and move up to the empty top floor lay in tatters.
To make matters worse, the food supply was slow to come in. Some on the supply chain got delayed by the rain and the resulting traffic snarl. To add insult to injury, a few key items were especially slow to reach us. A person in northern Virginia, in charge of cooking a quantity of rice, accidentally overboiled it and had to throw away the result. She was forced to begin anew to prepare rice al dente. And a large supply of goatmeat curry from Baltimore got caught up in the traffic and was badly delayed. Luckily, in the end, everyone was served. But tempers frayed in the middle of the celebration and the situation was chaotic indeed. I daresay I escaped manhandling and possibly a beating because few were aware of my central role in making the day’s arrangements.
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I was glad to have escaped in one piece. On the positive side, the religious or puja part of the festivity went well. Dhiren-da was in fine fettle, engaging in a spirited debate on whether the prepubescent girl chosen for Kumari Puja – a religious rite where the girl is worshipped as a representation of the young Goddess Durga – had to be of the highest (i.e., Brahminical) caste. I owe it to Dhiren-da’s later research to learn that the answer is in the negative.
A few weeks after the fiasco, I went to visit a friend in Baltimore. In his house were a few of his local friends, roughly my age, who started commenting on how awful the Durga Puja arrangements had been. I listened quietly to their very valid critique. Then one of those complaining wondered aloud who was responsible for creating such a mess.
I could not resist the chance of testing a hypothesis of mine. To wit: it is easier to tear up someone whom you do not know and may never see or face. But it is awkward to criticize harshly if you are sitting in front of the person. So I deadpanned that their critique was spot on and absolutely fair. And here I was, right in front of them, owning up to be the principal architect of the event. I added that I could offer some explanations, but they would sound like pitiful excuses and so I would rather not.
The effect on the young men was electric. They were flustered and tried to walk back some of their harsher comments. The immediate proof of my hypothesis gave me a measure of satisfaction. But my overall sense was one of disappointment and dissatisfaction at what I had done.
Over the years, I have returned to the episode from time to time and tried to make sense of what happened. For a long time, I viewed what happened as a case of Murphy’s Law in full glory: Everything that could go wrong indeed did. So should I ascribe the debacle to Murphy’s Law laying waste to my best-laid plans? While tempting, would that not be a cop-out? To lay the blame at Murphy’s feet would be no different from blaming Providence for the fiasco, mumbling phrases like Man proposes but God disposes and throwing up my hands. It would be truer to say that my inexperience till then in managing a large gathering was the root cause of the problem. Being left all alone to plan and indulge my fancy did not help. Was it a case of hubris preceding a comeuppance? Perhaps. Murphy of course came in to deliver the coup de grace.
(Posted August 1, 2021)