Taki in West Bengal is a town of green paddies and greener ponds on the banks of the Ichamati river separating India and Bangladesh. Like the rest of the state, it sees enthusiastic Durga Puja celebrations every year. The streets are lit up in canopies of fairy lights, Bengali songs and Bollywood hits blare from loudspeakers, and pandals, or marquees, compete for who carries the tallest, glossiest pratimas—idols—of the goddess Durga.
But what distinguishes Taki from other border towns is a particular tradition on the final day of the Puja. As its residents gear up for the immersion of idols, so do its counterparts in Satkhira, a district across the border in Bangladesh. The inhabitants of both towns place the pratimas in their respective boats and sail up to border security boats floating in middle of the river, along the international boundary. With a dozen metres between them, the two groups of neighbours wave at each other, exchange greetings and—with deafening shouts of “Aschche bochor abar hobe!”–Until next year!–immerse the idols together. For a day, citizens of the two countries, divided by geopolitics, come together to celebrate a shared heritage.
The practice of joint celebrations goes back several decades, Sridip Roy Choudhary, a local Communist Party of India (Marxist) worker, told me over tea and rasgullas when we met in late September 2017. Until the early 2000s, residents of both countries would cross the riverine boundary and dock in the neighbouring country to shop and socialise on the eve of visarjan—the day of immersion. “There would be a little mela on both sides,” Choudhary said. “We’d buy coconuts and sugarcane from there, they’d buy oil, soap and Boroline (antiseptic cream) from here.” Some people would even find a wedding match for their sons or daughters. His friend Subhas Pal, a 48-year-old LIC agent, recalled it as a time of fluid movement across the border. “I made a lot of friends in these visits across the border. Hindus or Muslims, they always treated me with the best of hospitality,” he said. “We’d fish in the ponds and have a feast after.” While those from Bangladesh made use of the medical facilities available in India, Indian visitors were keen on the cheap, “king-size” cigarettes of Bangladesh. And Pal added, these would not be bought, only bartered.
At 6 pm, the border guards would announce the end of the meeting-time. The residents would get into their respective boats and trawlers and return to their countries across the river. There were no passport-checks or entry pass for visitors. At its heart lay an implicit trust, according to Taki residents. The practice of an open-border tradition seems extraordinary now, with security concerns about cross-border terrorism, illegal immigration and cattle trade dominating the mainstream discourse. But academics specialising in Indo-Bangladesh relations consider the close ties between the border towns quite natural given their shared ethnic identity, the mutual practice of soft diplomacy and Durga Puja’s importance in the Bengali community.
“The Puja festivities have always been more social than religious affairs,” Somdatta Chakraborty, a research associate at Calcutta Research Group, told me over the phone. “Not only do Muslims participate in large numbers in the celebrations, most pandal-makers belong to the community.” Many villages along the border lie within shouting distance of each other, sometimes separated by a narrow mud path or shallow streams. Given their shared linguistic identity, it was not easy for many residents living in the border-towns to come to terms with the creation of East Pakistan in 1947 and, later, Bangladesh in 1971. Many had friends and relatives across the border—at times, in their backyards—and restrictions on free movement were often too much to bear.