Come autumn, and Bengalis the world over assume a mysterious spring in their step and a gleam in their eyes.
The smell of shiuli flowers and a warm sense of anticipation hangs in the air and even the weather takes a turn for the better.
Ask any Bengali worth their salt for the one annual event they look forward to the most, chances are high that you’ll hear “Pujo” in response. “Pujo” refers to Durga Puja, the annual five-day Bengali carnival. Carnival is indeed the most apt description of Pujo, rather than any notions of sobriety, piety and seriousness. All night revelry? Check. Mind-boggling pandal designs? Check. Dressing up in all your finery? Check. Lip-smacking food on offer including, (the horror) a variety of non-vegetarian food? Double check!
The heroine of the grand spectacle, that is Durga Puja, is a certain lady we fondly refer to as “Maa”, or goddess Durga. As much as Durga is the ultimate power who vanquishes the asura, she is the daughter making the annual trip to her maternal home every autumn.
It is this narrative of homecoming which is the underlying theme of Pujo, religion is purely incidental. The goddess’s homecoming coincides with a lot us mere mortals to make that annual trip back home.
Image: Reuters photo
Pujo is a time for bonding with family and friends; for leaving behind one’s worries, if only for a while. The rigours of daily life are in some sort of suspended animation during the four days of Pujo. Routines, schedules, diets and deadlines can all go for a toss. Who cares about deadlines when the best of dance, oratory and music skills beg to be flaunted in the umpteen cultural events? What diets? Won’t you rather be stuffing your mouth with heavenly food ranging from khichuri to kabiraji? What a better way to break from boring formals than the latest in jaamdani and dhakai. For children, it is an especially merry time, when grown-ups will draw up their Bong versions of “have you been good” lists and pander to almost every seemingly outrageous demand.
It is not to say that Durga Puja has been bereft of its share of controversies. One year, it was the horror or pride (depending on which side of the political spectrum you belonged to) at Durga’s face bearing a suspicious resemblance to Mamata “Didi” Banerjee. Another year it was the 3D printed Durga idol; taking technology too far, lamented many disapprovingly.
Banerjee’s recent measures ensuring that the timings of immersion of Durga idols and Muharram processions do not coincide have been met with support and flak in equal measure. But never in my life did I imagine that this year’s quota of controversies would be dominated by egg rolls and print ads for a chain of salons.
My initial reaction to the vile egg roll video controversy was of amused disbelief. Of course this is satire, I told myself. The comments, a harmless vlog invited rage from pure ignorance (how can you Bengalis eat non-veg while the rest of India is fasting) to the unbelievable in their toxicity (I am sure you also cut-up your family and eat them).
The trolling of a harmless salon advertisement left me aghast at the irony. Leave aside the vile targeting of Jawed Habib, what the trolls didn’t realise is that what Habib did this year, we have been doing for years before this. Because she is “Maa” first and foremost, we have humanised Durga and made her one of our own. Of course, she is a lofty goddess figure, but she is also a mother, daughter and a friend. She is one of us, the pampered daughter, the harried mother and the often exasperated wife. She is a woman juggling her many roles and longing for a break.
It is, therefore, not at all difficult for us to imagine her sauntering into a salon with her children in tow. With her brood of four and the kind of immense responsibilities she is saddled with, it is nothing but well-deserved. Durga has often been a subject of humor, satire and even irreverence, but all of this speckled with the gentle indulgence we reserve only for the very near and dear.
Pujo is a lot of things - days of anticipation leading up to it, the child-like excitement for new "Pujo" clothes, the first awe-inspiring glance of Maa Durga, the hypnotising sound of dhaak, the mad frenzy of dhunuchi naach and the delicious food. It is going home where you belong and the warmth that can only come with being surrounded by family, friends and co-revellers. It is often the setting for romances - both short-lived and lifelong.
What it will never signify is bigotry and intolerance and certainly not getting one’s chaddis in a twist over egg rolls and salon advertisements.
Durga Puja has always been an event that embraces all and sundry. Religious, questioning and even agnostic - all participate with equal enthusiasm. Durga is not choosy, just like a loving mother. No wonder that on the day of dashami, a palpable sense of despondency hangs in the air, the only comfort being the refrain of "ashche bochor aabar hobe" or "it will happen again next year". And the never-ending circle of life continues.
Post-Mahalaya, the day when we honour and remember our ancestors, the final countdown to Pujo begins. As the inimitable Sawan Dutta demonstrates, this is what Pujo is truly about. An unabashed love for food, for good times, and for leaving differences aside and coming together.
Durga has been immortalised as an awesome, awe-inspiring female force-vanquisher of all that is evil.
How about vanquishing some intolerance this year?