Millennium Post

My Durga is greater than your ideology

Azure skies filled with white, fluffy, cotton candy-like clouds, 'shiuli' flowers drugging the olfactory senses, endless fields of 'kash' (kans grass) as far as the eye can see – it feels like Durga Puja by this time every year. To Calcuttans and especially Bengalis living in the state or as 'probashis' outside of it, Durga Puja means a plethora of things. During this time, migrant Bengalis, urban and rural, make that annual pilgrimage home. They meet friends and family, shop for new clothes and appliances, and make merry.

Here, making merry should be taken literally because that's exactly what we do. While the rest of India fasts, sticks to vegetarian food and a strictly 'no alcohol' policy during Navratri, we Bengalis rejoice with a renewed fervour. First, we eat and drink in anticipation of the Goddess, then in her celebration and finally, on her departure. We consider the Goddess' arrival to her maternal home for around five days in the year as our annual leave. It is also a time for romances started furtively on 'Shashti' that reach commitment stage by the time the Goddess bids adieu on 'Dashami'. You really have to be in Kolkata to understand the sheer madness, joy, energy and activity that those chosen days witness. The city comes to a virtual standstill; newspapers aren't printed, no work gets done, even cargo isn't allowed to enter city precincts during that time.
The Goddess is an integral part of every Bengali's life. And while we revere her and have rituals to propitiate her divinity every day, for us the Goddess is family. We may be jocular or sardonic in our literary representations during Durga Puja, and it has never been a problem. We believe that our Goddess, like us, is liberal, open-minded, and inclusive with definitely a sense of humour. She would find it shocking and would protest vehemently at the unnecessary outrage over hair stylist Jawed Habib's advertisement depicting Durga and crew getting a mani-pedi.
Goddess Durga is associated with religion, but for us, she doesn't just stand for that. Years of pandal-hopping have shown that the festival draws as many non-Bengalis and non-Hindus who gather to witness this panorama, as Hindus. There are no restrictions or banning of other religions from participation. Some of the pandals are shaped by Muslim artists, in many areas the pujas themselves are organised and executed by people from the Muslim community. The festival has always been a melting pot of cultures and ideas as has been depicted every year in the various pandal and lighting concepts. We revel in being culturally evolved and boast of a worldview devoid of pettiness and religious radicalism.
But what has been a norm for us is now being criticised. Our way of thinking and our practices are under attack. Social media is rife with personal attacks on the community for eating meat during the festival. Intermittently, some orthodox Hindu group or the other will call for a ban on meat during the festival. Our politicians want to segregate our festival from the religious mourning of another. After the Partition of Bengal in 1905, we have never again been deliberately divided on religion, but now, it is inadvertently happening. We are being told that our way of celebrating the festival is wrong. But you see, we don't view things in that vein. Not eating meat is no sign of piety, just like women, especially menstruating ones, don't actually defile the temple sanctorum.
Well, sorry Hindu hardliners, but that is exactly how we celebrate not only Durga Puja but obviously Kali Puja too. Our 'prasad' is meat and we have been chuffed about it forever. We don't tell people if they should or should not abstain from eating meat or how long they should fast or that their 'sattvik' food is tasteless and a torture on the taste buds. We accept other people's freedom to practice their religion the way they deem fit. So please don't tell us how to celebrate ours.
(The writer is a journalist and media entrepreneur. The views expressed are strictly personal.)

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