Triumph of good over tear-gas: an extraordinary story of Hong Kong Bengali Association’s Durga Puja

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‘Wherever you go, a bit of Calcutta will go with you. I know, because it’s happened to me. And every Puja, I am overcome by the magic of Bengal. It’s a feeling that’ll never go away.’

Vir Sanghvi ‘If you want a city with a soul: come to Kolkata’

True that!

The Kolkata virus never quite goes away, and the infection hits the hardest during Durga Puja, the festival-royal for Bengalis. The Bengali pulse starts racing, the Bengali ear starts hearing the beat of the Puja Dhaak, the Bengali nose picks up the scent of the burning Dhunuchi and the Bengali stomach starts yearning for the simple Khichudi-Labra bhog.

In the words of the current President of HKBA, Mr. Alok Roy – “The Puja is associated with a lot of nostalgic memories – the sounds of Dhak, the smell of Dhuno and Dhup, the Dhunuchi dance, the Pushpanjali, the Ulludhwanies – one can go on and on. All Bengalis have grown up with these sights and sounds, which are now an inseparable part of us.”

It is when you are away from Bengal or Bangladesh that the virus hits the hardest – contributing to the creation of ‘Bengali Associations’ in almost every big city in the world.

In that respect, the Hong Kong Bengali Association is not that different. It was formed in Dec 1998, thanks to the vision, personal initiative and determination of its founding members. Other than organizing the Puja, the association also provides a socio-cultural platform to the community that aids in fostering closer ties between its members, showcases the wealth of cultural talent within the community and also promotes artistes from India.

But the Durga Puja remains at the heart of HKBA.

According to Mr. Roy “Since its inception in 1999, the number of people participating in this mega event has increased manifold. Durga Puja is now an occasion that is awaited not only by Bengalis but by other communities in Hong who eagerly look forward to participating in this event. More than being a religious festival, concerning the rituals, the Puja is now a community affair for the Bengalis”.

The 2019 Durga Puja should have been no different – but it turned out to be quite an adventure for HKBA. 

In March 2019, the so-called Anti-Extradition Law Amendment Bill Movement started, and Hong Kong has not been the same since. Ongoing series or demonstrations and an ever-intensifying spiral of protests have led to what the Chinese Government calls ‘the worst crisis in Hong Kong’ since the handover in 1997.

The territory of Hong Kong is spread across multiple islands – Kowloon & New Territories in Mainland China, the island of Hong Kong itself and the neighbouring islands on Tsing Yi, Lantau, Ap le Chou and Lama. All connected by bridges and underground lines. Long story short – block any of these routes and you effectively cut-off the entire island. A nightmare for festive crowds trying to get to the main grand Puja venue at the Indian Recreation Club in Causeway Bay.

And, on top of that – was the actual risk of bodily harm. What started off with protest marches, soon turned into arson, damage of public property and fights with metal clubs. Tear gas rounds and water cannons had started appearing in the central thoroughfares of Admiralty, Wanchai, Causeway Bay, Mong Kok and Tshim Tsha Tsui. The last thing that a family requires during a week of Durga Puja.

Well – almost! 

Not much can dampen the spirits of a devotee attending Durga Puja and protests or no protests, the feet automatically lead you to the Puja pandal. The HKBA Durga Pujo 2019 was a resounding success with record attendance from Bengalis and Non-Bengalis alike from 4th Oct (Shashti) to 8th Oct (Dashami).

More than 30 families in far-flung Tung Chung (Lantau island), chartered a luxury bus to attend the Puja celebrations. Calendars got aligned across 30 families and bus routes got researched to avoid the worst of the protests. While it meant that the late night Pujo Addas got cut short, it ensured hours of bonhomie and security.

“We were definitely worried that we would be caught up in the whirlwind of chaos. But with the blessings of Ma Durga we were unstoppable and lucky enough not to face any restraint during our celebration,” says a resident of Tung Chung who wasn’t discouraged by the rioting.

Absolutely nothing deterred the enthusiasts from thronging to the Puja Pandal.

Says Mukta Gautam (a first-time attendee at HKBA) – “The days of Saptam,i Ashtami and Navami were marred by protests and shutdown of the public transport, but nothing could deter us from going to the pandal, we had our sneakers in our bags, in case we needed to walk back home,” she chuckles.

Some of the attendees were not so lucky and ended up roughing it out through the troubled streets of Hong Kong. Families got back home as late as 2 AM but were back again to attend the Pushpanjali next morning.

One family found an alternative to walking home. “We could not get the public bus home because it was cancelled due to the protest activities happening nearby. We managed to get a cab at a much higher price one evening, but the next two days we stayed in a hotel near the Durga Puja venue,” explains Papiya Banerjee.

Despite troubled times, HKBA put its best foot forward to create the ambience of distant Bengal in this nook of Hong Kong. A look at the reactions from some of the devotees reveals how the spirit of Puja triumphed over the spirit of antagonism and violence.

Ambili Ramachandran says: Traditional with a contemporary touch, devotional yet relaxed, and above all warm and colourful sums up my husband’s and my experience at the Durga Puja this year. This was our first year at the Puja celebrations in Hong Kong and it was a superbly organised event.”

“Dotted with just the right sensible, yet warm and comforting touches it was an event that we non-Bengalis were warmly welcomed to. The dhak and the dhol not to mention the delicious bhog made it possible for us to live the Kolkata pandal magic right here in HK! We hope to be back to visit Durga Ma at the pandal next year , this time more appropriately attired – me in a korial sari and a big bindi on my forehead and my husband in a dhoti – kurta!”

Anita mentions “It was an awesome experience for me. A very well organised Pujo. Beautiful place, adorable pandal. Kudos to organisers , despite recent protests and unrest in HK, organisers have put up terrific arrangements.  Highlight were Bhog and dhunuchi. I am looking forward for next year Pujo.”

An excited Mukta said: “The Durga Puja organized by the Bengali Association was awesome.. It was an authentic Pujo pandal and I could sit here for hours listening to the dhak and watching the dhunachi dance..mesmerising! And did I mention the Bhog?”

Avirup Datta

Avirup is a Consumer Insights and Strategist by profession and writes in his free time. His interests range from Bachchan to Beethoven, whisky to spirituality.

Smita is a multi-cultural freelance journalist, writer, and filmmaker based out of London, Hong Kong, and India. Global Indian Stories is her brain-child and she created the platform to help people share their stories, get published, and reach out to their diaspora across the globe.