For Pranab Da, Pujo Has Always Been About Homecoming  

Pranab Da on homecoming during Durga Puja, the secular streak in Bengal and the dilemma of being a President.

6 min read
Pranab Mukherjee at his ancestral home in West Bengal during 2016’s Durga Puja

Bamboo poles at the corners of the streets, half-done hoardings, band of dhakis perfecting their coordination and an array of luring discount offers on display at the otherwise pocket-pinching brand showrooms – all trumpet the approach of the biggest festival in Bengal.

From “Asche Bochhor Abar Hobe” to “Only 10 more days to go for Pujo”, the countdown to the festival begins a year early. The wait for Pujo was not very different for the former President of India and a rooted Bengali, Mr Pranab Mukherjee.

I was a village boy and the idols used to be constructed at the temple inside our house premises, so from the very beginning of Pujo, there was a lot of curiosity and interest. We used to wait for Pujo....and as it advanced, we used to calculate the remaining number of 15 days left....10 days left...
Pranab Mukherjee

At 10 Rajaji Marg, his residence, Pranab Mukherjee at 81 is still adapting to a life away from Raisina Hills. In an exclusive interview with The Quint, our Pranab Da delved into a candid nostalgia of homecoming during Durga Puja, of the secular streak in Bengal and the dilemma of being a President.


Homecoming for Pranab Da

Mr Mukherjee, lovingly called ‘Poltu Da’ by his loved ones, never failed to perform Puja at his ancestral home in West Bengal’s Birbhum district, except for those occasions when he was caught up with his overseas commitments. The Puja that is over 100 years old welcomes the “village boy” with warmth and affection. After his elder brothers retired to age, Pranab da and his son have taken over the responsibility of the family tradition.

On the way to his ancestral village this year, Pranab Mukherjee tweeted:

I make it a point to go back every year during Pujo except for a few years when official duty compelled me to stay away from the village. I have represented India at the United Nations General Assembly session several times and if in those years, Pujo started in the third or fourth week of September, it would be very difficult to manage.

While the doors of the former President’s house at Mirati always remains open for guests and visitors, he prefers to still be that simple country lad of the bygone days, who had to ‘wade through water to commute to school’.

'We're the Traditionalists'

The Mukherjees still believe in performing Pujo the traditional way, with everyone in the family, from an 8-year-old to an 80-year-old, taking part in the preparations to welcome Ma Durga.

We are the traditionalists. But there was one point, long before my birth, when my father had stopped goat sacrifice. Apart from that, all other rituals are same and since there are so many of them, everyone in the family has to participate.

When asked if he ever enjoyed pandal-hopping as a kid, to which he vehemently nodded, saying there was no scope for it in his village. The lack of lustrous Puja pandals in his village made the festival even more intimate and warm for him.

Sighing at the commercialisation and competitiveness of this festival in big metros, he said:

In Bengal, the Durga Puja is not just a religious festival but it has transformed itself into a very powerful social event. Not only embellished pandals, but there are lot of other cultural activities that take place centering Pujo in Bengal.
Pranab Mukherjee at his home village in West Bengal.
Pranab Mukherjee at his home village in West Bengal.
(Photo: PTI)

Durga Puja: A Story of Reunions

Durga puja is the only time of the year when the check-ins at the Kolkata airport exceeds the check-outs, the only time when our Facebook newsfeeds are beaming with happy faces, and the streets of Bengal are lit up in revelry. Durga Puja is indeed not just a festival, it is a beckoning for reunions. Pranab Da, too, waits in anticipation to meet his friends and family.

Though nowadays it has become difficult, given everyone’s professional commitments, everyone in the family, from older generations to the new, try to come back home during these five days of Pujo.

Pranab Mukherjee at his ancestral home.
Pranab Mukherjee at his ancestral home.
(Photo Courtesy: Twitter/ Chinmoy Dhauria)

Throughout the conversation, he reminisced the memories of attending a Durga Puja pandal in New York while on tour for a UNGA session. He believes that even though Bengalis have migrated to different parts of the world, their roots still lie in the culture they imbibe from their motherland.

Bengalis, wherever they are, try to organise a gathering during Pujo. Maybe they do not follow the traditional almanac but they adjust according to the local conditions. They organise during weekends or their holidays but they do it. Once when I was in New York for the UNGA, I was invited by some Bengalis to see their Puja. I went there. It was being held in a garage of their locality and there was good congregation.

So, it doesn’t matter if a Bengali is ‘Swadeshi’ or ‘Probashi’, Durga Puja for them remains an extravaganza of togetherness.


'Bengal, as Assimilation of Cultures'

Bengal has always been home to syncretism but in the wake of the recent socio-political stir in the State, the ease with which homogeneous cultures existed in the State has come under radar. Mukherjee, however, sees a ray of hope and holds strong in his conviction that his motherland is a bed of secularism.

In Bengal there was never much religious conflict. There might have been some clashes at the onset of Islam in the 13th or 14th century but a complete process of assimilations took place in Bengali societies after that. As a result, even Durga Puja has become more or less a community festival. Though in villages it might take place in the residence of an individual, everyone participates in it.

Predicaments of Presidency

After demitting the office of President on 25 July, Pranab Mukherjee sits at his current residence, trying to adapt to the life outside Rashtrapati Bhavan. From being an over-active politician to an apolitical President, Mukherjee had to strain through a multitude of dilemma.

‘I will take some time to adjust at this age,’ Pranab Mukherjee at his current residence in New Delhi.
‘I will take some time to adjust at this age,’ Pranab Mukherjee at his current residence in New Delhi.
(Photo: Twitter/Pranab Mukherjee)
As a Congress minister, I stepped out of North block and went to Rashtrapati Bhavan at Raisina Hills, a few metres away. Till I filed a nomination for the President, I was sitting 100-200 metres away. From an extra active political life, I came to play the role of an apolitical which I am bound to do lest there be constitutional chaos. Similarly, after coming out of that 5 years later, I will take some time to adjust at this age. I am just meeting people and trying to understand things.

Not just age and health, the ever-changing world of technology too is posing a hurdle for Mukherjee. He questions the relevance of his own experiences in the wake of such a massive technological boom.

Technology is always disruptive and human ingenuity is required to know how to adjust to this disruption.

'India Is My Canvas'

The 13th President of India had earlier served as the Minister of Defence, Finance, External Affairs and as the Deputy Chair of the Planning Committee. He stepped into the Indian Parliament in 1969 and has been a figure of excellence and inspiration for all Indians. For Mukherjee, the nation has always been his “canvas”.

India has always been my canvas.

But, on every Durga Puja, no matter which part of the world he is in, his heart yearns to go back to his motherland. After all, what is Durga Puja but a narrative of homecoming.

Video Editor: Mohd Ibrahim
Cameraperson: Danish Qazi

(This story was first published on 27 September 2017 and has been reposted from The Quint’s archives to mark Pranab Mukherjee’s birthday)

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