A day off does not mean I have it to myself. One of the volunteers arrives to take me to her house for lunch and meet the family. This pretty much means I meet the family, the next door neighbour, the upstairs neighbour, the downstairs neighbour, the neighbour across the road ~ you get the picture ~ I am once again on display ! I have to consume something in every household as it would be impolite to decline ~ this is not helping my waistline! We end up on the roof where we take the mandatory photos with everyone I've met ~ I like the vantage point & get a few other shots in as well.
In the early evening after the visit we depart to go to the Durga Puja celebrations. Durga Puja, the greatest religious festival of the Hindus, is the worship of 'Shakti' ~divine force - embodied in goddess Durga. It symbolises the battle between good and evil where the evil forces eventually surrender to the good ones. While this is an overwhelmingly Muslim country, the state-run and private television and radio channels air special programmes and newspapers bring out special supplements for the occasion. It is a 5-day long noisy affair. According to the Daily Star newspaper over 27,000 so-called puja mandaps (goddess displays) are set up across the country. These are the castle like entrances made from cloth, held up by bamboo and surrounded by flashing lights we see in just about every town we travel through on our way to Jhenidah.
I am unsure what I am in for but soon discover that we ~ alongside thousands of others ~ will be pushing our way into each available puja mandap, where strange, kitch looking goddesses, gods & evil spirits made from mud and painted in bright colours are on display accompanied by super loud Hindi disco music and wild disco lighting.
Police are directing and controlling the people traffic, which is highly necessary. In some places men and women are separated. In one private home where we climb a narrow set of stairs filled with shoes (taken off inside homes, offices and the like) to view the goddess shrine, the owner kisses me on both cheeks. In another slightly less crowded puja mandap, three Hindi men invite me to sit down for a brief (inaudible) chat and then ask the mini orchestra to play for me.
But most places we visit I am pushed and shoved like everyone else by the massive crowd and after walking around for about 1.5 hrs and visiting some ten puja mandaps, I beg off and ask the gang to drop me back @ my hotel ~ not exactly fleeing to peace and quiet as the outside festival noise there too is deafening, but at least I am safely out of the crowd. The next day I read in the newspaper that in India 10 people are trampled to death visiting a puja mandap...