Fortune Cookie

Why Mahesh Sharma affects my Bengali Hindu sensibilities

The Union minister must realise that it may do the country a world of good if he sticks to meatier issues.

 |  Fortune Cookie  |  3-minute read |   15-09-2015
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When I was growing up in Delhi, I used to get mighty upset whenever my friends in school would quiz me about my religion. You can’t get a more Hindu name than mine, and I have grown up being told I am a descendant of Bharadwaj Muni, but my closest friends were very troubled by the fact that I claimed to be a Hindu and yet ate mutton and chicken and, worse, fish. (Food snobs were yet to fall in love with Fish Amritsari and Amritsar was then famous only for the Golden Temple!)

My friends came to the conclusion that being Bengali, I practised some alien religion that allowed me to eat meat during the Navaratras and indulge in other such dietary sins. They could not decide whether to envy me, or to hate me. Fortunately, we grew up at a time when our parents instilled in us Jawaharlal Nehru’s idea of India. So, my friends chose to envy me. We could not imagine hating someone for practising a “different” religion.

Later, as I entered my teens, I would wonder why my friends had a problem with accepting Bengalis as Hindus when some of the greatest Hindu savants have come from my part of the world — from Chaitanya Mahaprabhu to Sri Ramakrishna and Swami Vivekananda, from Yogananda Paramahansa to Anandamayi Ma and Srila Pabhupada. Were they too avant garde for mainstream Hindus, I wondered. Bengalis, whether we spout Marx or sing Tagore, moreover, are among the most ritualistic people in the world — we perform puja at home twice a day and we actually practise (well, my octogenarian mother certainly does!) what we jokingly describe as “baro mashe tero parbon” (celebrating 13 festivals in 12 months).

Of course, my friends and I grew wiser, but I now get the same feeling as I did when I was a six-year-old, when I hear Mahesh Sharma, India’s honourable tourism and culture minister, wanting us to voluntarily give up selling or eating meat during the Navaratras. Which Hindus is he speaking for? Certainly not the Bengalis, who cannot imagine Durga Puja without digging fish and mutton in abundance. That explains why community pujas all over the country have a lively subculture of stalls selling non-vegetarian specialities to the devotees who throng the temples and the pandals. Imagine pujo without "moghlai parota" and "deemer day-bheel" (as we like to call our version of scotch eggs!) Durga Puja is a time to celebrate life and what is life without good food. When the mother of the universe descends in our midst, we have heard our parents telling us, and their parents had expressed the same thoughts, that it is our duty to present our happiest face by wearing new clothes, eating good food, and celebrating with music, dance and drama.

Mr Sharma, do you have a problem with that? Hinduism, being a non-scriptural religion, takes on different forms in different parts of India. If it were as linear as Mr Sharma and his saffron brotherhood would have us believe, then 70 per cent of Indians, as established by The Hindu-CNN-IBN State of the Nation Survey in 2006, wouldn’t have been non-vegetarian (if you add the nine per cent of the population that is “egg-etarian”, the figure goes up to 79 per cent!). Even Narendra Modi’s Gujarat is predominantly non-vegetarian — 55 per cent of the state’s population, to be precise.

Mr Sharma (and do spread the word among your other non-performing colleagues), it may do the country a world of good if you stick to meatier issues. Let us eat what we choose to and live happily ever after.


Sourish Bhattacharyya Sourish Bhattacharyya @sourishb1963

The writer is a columnist for Mail Today, blogger at Indian Restaurant Spy and a founder member of the Delhi Gourmet Club.

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