I got out of my apartment building yesterday and there they were. A bunch of dried, white grass flowers framed by concrete next to a stern sign that read : “Private. Do not trespass.”
Kashful. Or its distant cousin has bloomed in Jersey City. Fall has touched even the concrete.
Kashphool? Or Kashful? How do you approximate from Bengali? Wikipedia tells me it’s called Kans grass in English, a grass native to South Asia. (“Kans grass”! Sounds strange. Not much better than Saccharum spontaneum, apparently its scientific name.)
This Kashphool in Jersey City is different from the ones at home in India.
Not as white. Bigger and browner, an alien cousin of my Kashphool in an alien land next to an alien river but Kashphool to me all the same. Bobbing their heads with the wind nodding at the dogs on the lawn and the crab fishermen along the water and the important-looking folks returning in their business suits from work.
I took a walk. All the while the Hudson glittered a sparkling blue and the NYC ferries created a crisscross of bleached white foam that glowed in the sun on the blue water. The helicopters roared up and down the sky patrolling the river against the Manhattan skyline, majestic in their grandeur in the clear day.
It’s Sharatkaal. My equivalent of Fall. It’s here.
With that has come the Kashphool. The harbingers of Durga Puja, my biggest festival of the year. The goddess is about to visit earth from Mount Kailash soon.
Now that I’m thinking about it, this is not the only place I’ve seen these flowers bloom. If they can be called flowers at all.
Weren’t they waving exuberantly from the divider yesterday as the car stopped at a red light next to a Subway sandwich shop on Montgomery Street? Aren’t they growing next to the exit lanes in the small little patches of soil along the “> >>” signs beside the merge lanes? Weren’t they there on the grassy sides of the concrete on the edges of the U-Haul sheds bravely facing the traffic snaking out of the Lincoln tunnel? Perhaps there are more of these in Central Park or outside in the suburbs. I have to be on the lookout now.
Hardy flowers, these must be, growing despite the concrete and the sparse soil.
But are they as white, as delicate, as fresh, as luxuriant as the Kashphool back home in Calcutta?
I’m calling them Kashphool but this grass is probably going to go “WHAT!” at my thrusting of an alien name on them.
The light has suddenly turned silverish here. Summer is gone. The oppressive heat is no more. It’s Sharatkaal alright. But why isn’t the Kashphool as fresh?
And where is the goddess?
Not here. Not amongst these people of the city.
Not because they haven’t heard of Durga.
There’s just too many people here from Calcutta. They all know Durga. Or have heard of Durga. Or attend a Durga Pujo somewhere around in the tri-state area.
But they’re the super-successful city people. Their poise is perfect as they hold their wine glasses sitting on the wrought iron chairs during dinner on the boardwalk next to the perfectly sparkling river taking in the jagged edges of the sparkling skyline of the city.
Their food is accompanied by goals and plans and proven possibilities for the future. They are always on their cell phones or rushing along taking the shortcut through the financial centre avoiding the curved boardwalk along the river or simply staring into space on the isolated bits of the piers getting away from colleagues at lunch hour. Some young men talk to their girlfriends or wives on the phone, on the other coast, or perhaps in another country as I pass, who are, in their turn, jet setting across the globe.
Few look happy on a weekday (except for the tourists and the children). Some look too happy, as if they needed to convince someone of their happiness. The workday. It does that to people. Or they are out on their evening walks after a long day picking up after their dogs concentrating on tying their plastic bags right.
The spirit of the season hardly touches the busy. Perhaps they’ve glanced at the brighter flowers planted specifically to beautify the place.
But not the obscure Kashphool.
They are not loiterers, like me.
Those that are Bengalis do Durga Pujo alright. On weekends. Starting after work on Friday and ending Sunday. They do Durga Pujo purposefully, to teach their children Bengali culture, or to strengthen their community, or to network, or to cultivate identity, or to worship purposefully to enrich their lives.
This is a place where people marry on weekends. Perhaps even hold funerals on weekends.
Why not hold a festival bending auspiciousness a little in the service of the work week?
Many have fun, moving in and out of their Bengali identities like the wearing and the shedding of richly embroidered expensive sarees, moving seamlessly between their many avatars, Eastern and Western, spanning weekdays and weekends, like the goddess herself.
But few of them can be described as idle. Or lazy enough to indulge in idle speculation about this species of grass-like shrubs that Sharatkaal has touched.
The crab fishermen along the railings are loiterers, like me here.
But not quite like me since waiting is work for them.
If they knew Durga, perhaps they would feel the lightness of the change in season with me. But I am yet to find a crab fisherman from West Bengal here loitering around the railings all day with their chicken legs in their little metal cages which they swing deftly into the water and wait all day.
I hardly think Bengali crab fishermen get visas to the States to loiter next to the Hudson to stare at Kashphool while they tie the ends of their strings to the railings.
But knowing New York City, I might just chance upon one someday.
Or I might have a chat with the young man who usually takes his spot next to the railing on the edge of the river visible from my balcony next to the “Do not trespass” sign.
I don’t know what language he speaks but I can tell him about Kashphool and he can tell me about crabs. After all, Bengalis are supposed to love crab curry although I must confess I’ve never eaten any.
But now that I’m thinking of Kashphool so much, what am I going to tell him?
In my head I have a sea of white Kashphool growing next to a rural bank of a rural river with children sprinting with the joy of the changing season and a Dhaki playing his drum. Or a picture of the bamboo pandal half complete to receive the idol of the goddess and Bengali women in their lal paar saris holding prasad in their hands.
I haven’t seen Durga Pujo in Calcutta in over a decade. But that’s not quite why I’m having difficulty remembering actual Kashphool now.
As I try to think, only sketches on Pujobarshiki covers (annual literary collections published during Pujo), on advertisements, on Asian Paint motifs, on e-greeting cards, on Bengali food blogs and more recently, on airbrushed versions of Pujo in Calcutta in Bollywood movies spring to mind (Devdas and Kahaani).
Have I seen a single white sprig of Kash for real pushing out of the green grass anywhere in Calcutta? Not that I can remember.
For I always lived in the middle of the city.
So where is the original Kashphool that’s haunting me now?
I don’t know. But I always thought I did know. I did know the original. It’s supposed to be mine. Not like Wordsworth’s Daffodils that I kept reading about but knew I’d never seen. Not in Calcutta. It was always foreign. Not like Kash.
I know there’s that authentic Kashphool out there somewhere I’m missing now.
But I can only remember Kashphool through Bengali songs and poems. And articles by elderly writers in Pujabarshikis reminiscing about Pujo in their childhood.
Perhaps the older generation was also filling in their memory and enhancing their Kashphool in some way? How do I know if their Kashphool was the authentic Kashphool, the harbinger of Durga Pujo?
If I go to Calcutta during Durga Pujo now, I’ll be on the lookout. I might just spot a sprig next to the City Centre mall as people come out in their new clothes drinking their cappuccinos and eating their pizzas and waffle fries while also going for their pujor bhog and eating their rasogollas and luchi aloordum as the traffic snarls along the most famous pujo pandals that are likely to win the competitions.
A white sprig or two might just peep out of the concrete somewhere to celebrate the spirit of Pujo.
For Kashphool. It’s hardy.
If you liked this post, check out my other post My Durga.
For a more recent one, check out PRE-DURGA PUJA 2014: CHATURTHI AND PANCHAMI .