Today is Mahashasthi and community Durga Pujo celebrations - the most important four days in a year on a Bengali’s calendar begin in earnest today. Before I delve further into my cultural obeisance on why I’m slightly disturbed and a tad offended this year — let me begin with an obeisance to the SEO gods (those who, as I’ve been reliably informed by the high priests at the Google altar, will help me more than the Mother Goddess in making this article reach far and wide)
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And now that Google bot devata has hopefully been appeased, let me move on to making a slightly more substantive point for any human being who is persistent and has managed to scroll past this point.
Durga Pujo celebrations across Delhi actually kicked off on Sunday with ‘Anandamelas’ - where families would set up food stalls at the various puja venues and members of the community gather going stall to stall and sampling staples such as ‘ghugni’ or ‘luchi- kosha mangsho’.
‘Pehle pet puja phir kaam duja’ - this Hindi idiom must’ve been created by a Bengali. Pet puja (or pujo, if you prefer) is what almost all Bengali celebrations are all about.
I recently came across this song that links ‘pet pujo’ to Durga pujo - you may need to be a Bengali to get all the references but the message is clear - it’s the food that matters.
I can understand the average Delhizen being aghast at my gorging on a chicken during Durga Pujo but that’s just the way it is. For uninitiated, most Bengalis are non-vegetarians, Durga Pujo is a unquestionably Bengali community festival and no festival is complete without eating well (so bring on the Biryanis, mutton rolls, kabirajee cutlets and what have you).
The understanding neighbour, or even my driver for that matter, makes peace by saying - Hum Brahman hai, Rajput hai (or whatever they are) hum Hindu hai, aap Bengali ho.
Good for you I say choosing not to go into the fact that being Bengali is a cultural identity that all Bengalis across the globe are proud of. It cuts across nationalities. It is a linguist identity that has led to the creation of a country. Sure we have our differences on caste, creed, religion but those differences are put aside or papered over at least these 4-5 days each year.
My long- suffering wife from Lucknow turns vegetarian on Navaratri - and must’ve struggled to understand how food is the way we pray. Perhaps the reason lies in the common lore that we’ve grown up on. For Bengalis Durga, a married woman, is visiting her parents with her children. Growing up in Delhi, I visited my maternal grandparents every summer and this was relatable. That’s not to say Bengalis aren’t religious or spiritual but there is something remarkably different about the way we associate with religion.
This year she arrives on a boat (an indicator that harvest will be bountiful) and leaves on horseback (an indicator of disruption and disturbances). So not just food but the festival also come with a built-in weather report - an asset no doubt when the society was primarily agrarian and illiterate.
So coming to visit her parents one might imagine how Ma Durga can visit a beauty parlour - exactly what the creative agency making an ad for Jawed Habib’s hair salon must’ve thought. Turns out what Bengal proposes, India disposes. Not only was one of his salons in Unnao vandalised but such was the ferocity of the attack that poor Mr Habib had to apologise for hurting religious sentiments.
— Jawed Habib (@JH_JawedHabib) September 5, 2017
The image of Durga with her family being used on magazine covers and advertisements is not uncommon. And that is part of a long tradition of humanizing the deity — so to those who dragged Mr Habib to court or spewed venom on Twitter — Ma Durga is chilling and doesn’t mind our sense of humor, so why should you take offense?
Back on food and Durga’s son Ganesha eating lamb in an Australian advertisement earlier this month. I’m not sure why that should offend my sensibilities so that a diplomatic protest was warranted. The Australian Advertising Standards Bureau dismissed the complaints by various Hindu groups saying the overall tone of the ad was ‘light hearted and humorous and it promoted a multi-faith environment.’ The status of the diplomatic protest is not known.
But is Ganesha a vegetarian? Hard to say. In most places, this elephant headed deity seems pleased with modaks or Ladoos. But in one Karnataka village, about 400 kilometers from Bengaluru, chicken washed down with whiskey seems to be the order of the day. Villagers say it brings them good luck. Hard to know what Lord Ganesha thinks about this change in diet but clearly he isn’t complaining about these 100-odd Kshatriya families sticking to their custom.
Biologically it would be difficult for an elephant to consume meat but Gods aren’t usually given to laws of science. Our Gods seem willing to adapt and accept differences - I pray that so are the devotees.