20 October 2007

How much would 60 kg of hilsa fish weigh on the moon?

I showed up at Moscow’s Durga Puja just in time for the children’s (classes 5-8) quiz show, featuring three rounds of trivia questions posed to four teams, each named after a variety of tree.

The first round took up international or universal areas of knowledge, though with a delicate Bengali flavor (see above). Sure, the Nobel Prize is an international award, but the question, “Who was the first Asian to win a Nobel Prize in 1913?” might be a little slanted toward the audience on hand. The quizmaster, clearly a football fan, was shocked that pre-teens had no idea who Maradona was and delivered an impromptu five-minute lecture on his importance in sports history. This harangue-homily was a welcome respite from his scolding of parents who couldn’t stop themselves from prompting their children with the answers. Perhaps that is also a universal. Many in the crowd gasped when not one of the students could answer the final question of the round: "What day is International Labor Day, or Workers' Day?"

The second round moved to South Asia-specific knowledge, focusing on religious mythology, national(ist) history, film and cricket. The youngsters seemed to do best on the history questions and worst on the religious questions: “Q: Who first celebrated Durga Puja as an autumnal festival? A’s: (1) Tagore (looking for a repeat); (2) Brahman; (3) ‘some Bengali.’” I sympathized.

Finally, the questions moved on to “our second motherland” in round three, with queries on Yuri Gagarin, the clown Nikulin (again the quizmaster had to give a lecture) and Dostoevsky. Performance in this round was fair to middling, with not one team able to identify the author of Brothers Karamazov and only one team being able to identify when Moscow celebrates its birthday.

While the scores were being tallied, a duet—a guy from Maldives and another from Vietnam—came on to sing some song in French. In grand Russian tradition, someone managed to yell out a few "bravos" at the end of the performance.

I can't remember who won. Birch, possibly.

After two hours of spectacle, there was sandhi puja and all the familiar sounds and smells thereof. (Though I did the math and realized I hadn’t attended a Durga Puja in over a decade.) The crowd was a mix of Bengalis, young Russian Hindus from the Ramakrishna mission and older Russian wives. For no clear reason, it warmed my heart to hear bangla-Russian exclamations, like: “Boudi, Boudi, vse gotovy?” [Auntie, auntie*, is everything ready?] Toward the conclusion of the puja, there was the familiar cry, “DO NOT THROW THE FLOWERS!” Does this slogan circulate everywhere in the world where Bengalis celebrate in rented or borrowed rooms?

Afterwards, I met the man who organized the first Moscow Durga Puja in 1990, who recalled how he took it to be a major sign of the perestroika era that such a festival could be held in public. Now, eighteen celebrations later, the holiday season inspires familiar warmth across Moscow, according to the annual journal Aaratrika that comes out every year in September/October. How does the editor (Debasmita Moulik Nair) describe this feeling?

Do you know the feeling when a stranger holds the tight metro door for you, when your unknown neighbour’s Labrador licks your hand in the lift, you see a babushka sharing her small portion of kolbasa with a stray dog and a gaishnik excuses your narusheniye with an ohh-you-foreigners-smile?
I’m not sure that I was filled with all that, but I was fascinated by the intersections of Bengali, Russian and international culture. Then again, I'm always game for a good quiz show.

*Technically, not exactly "auntie," but more or less.


Malathi said...

Is there a Mr. Ganguli still at the Indian embassy? He was a fixture when I was a student in the former USSR in the late 80s, early 90s. I cannot imagine a Durga Puja in Moscow without him.

BusterPh.D.Candidate said...

Malathi, I can't say that I know, but perhaps some other reader can chime in?

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