Durga Puja ends today. Mahishasura has been defeated, the heavens have been won back for the devas, and Parvati’s annual four-day holiday in her parental home is also over—she now returns to Mount Kailash with her children, to her husband’s abode. For, the Durga Puja contains two parallel narratives. One is the ten-armed lion-riding goddess’s war with the buffalo demon, the other is Parvati’s story, for her husband loves her so much that he can let her leave his side only for these four days of the year. So one is a tale of shakti—the power hidden inside every woman, and the other, about the woman’s place in the social-familial structure, and even traditional Hindu society’s idea of a “perfect marriage”. Parvati is the happiest wife in the universe and Shiva the sort of husband every woman prays for, and her primary duties are to her husband, with only four days off in a year. I only mention this for the benefit of those who may not have known that the festival has two strands running through it. I am not equipped to get into the extreme sociological analysis that these two stories taken together seem to be crying out for.
As most Bengalis know, the Durga Puja is actually held at the wrong time of the year. By all authentic calculations, it should be held in the month of Chaitra, which is March-April, but a mass consensus evolved centuries ago to have it in autumn. Two reasons are given for this: one mythological, one historical (which has now been officially denied). Before he attacked Ravana’s Lanka, Ram invoked Durga to come and bless him. And since our epics revel in the morally ambiguous, one version has it that since this puja required a Brahmin to perform it and Ram had none around, he requested Ravana the Brahmin to do the puja. Ravana obliged. The autumnal festivities commemorate Ram’s calling down of Durga to bless him.
The other version is that the Debs of Shovabazar (no relations of mine), one of the wealthiest merchant-prince clans of the times, held the Puja at this time of the year in 1757 to felicitate Robert Clive for his victory at the Battle of Plassey (23 June 1757), and since the Shovabazar Debs were the leaders of Hindu society in Kolkata at that time, this became an annual tradition accepted by all wannabes and then the general public. The Shovabazar clan, in recent times, has denied this as a canard. But whatever the truth, by the early 20th century, when Bengal’s young men dived headlong into the independence movement, Durga was the shakti figure to worship and invoke before going into battle against the British, and had also become somewhat amalgamated with the concept of motherland. Bengalis have always been rather heavily into this mother business.
I write this as someone who—originally through circumstance, and then by choice—has always felt dissociated from this greatest festival of my race. As a child in Kolkata, it was, of course, a huge thing to get your parents to take you all over the city and see more Durga idols than anyone else in your friend circle. We were woken up at four in the morning on Mahalaya day to hear the late Birendra Krishna Bhadra’s broadcast of the Devi’s war, and the late Pankaj Mullick singing paeans. During the Emergency, All India Radio created a new programme for Mahalaya, with Lata Mangeshkar, Uttam Kumar, the works—a ham-handed attempt to identify Indira Gandhi with Durga. “Enraged rejection” is a very mild way to describe the general reaction to this blasphemy. Bhadra’s throbbing quavering falsetto, that could make a child’s hair stand on end in the half-dark of the dawn, was back next year.
But by the time one was old enough to figure out the actual benefits—the puja days as the best window of opportunity to do something about your pubescent desires, fumbling attempts at the mating rituals, at the very least get to speak a few words with a girl—I was no longer in Kolkata. Of course, wherever there are Bengalis, there are Durga Pujas, but our family was never part of any community actively involved in the action (for reasons as mundane as the location of our home, never within a two-three km radius of any Puja).
Visiting Kolkata during the Pujas as a college student, both my friends and I were outsiders at every pandal, and could only bask in the faux-superiority of watching young men dressed in the latest fashion make fools of themselves as they tried their luck with the other gender. After some of this, it always seemed a better idea to retire to someone’s home and drink.
With adulthood, the distance to the pandal seemed to keep growing longer. The crowds looked too formidable, the talent contests were infra-dig exhibitionism, and the apparently compulsory uber-flashy kurtas seemed to abruptly reveal a till-now unsuspected side of men you thought you knew well. Slowly, I came to realize that it was something wrong with me, not with other people or the occasions or the entertainment on the menu. I could no longer deny that the idea of mandated celebration—having fun by the calendar—was not something I was comfortable with. I was an asocial creature who abhorred prescribed joy. Even birthday parties were interesting only as occasions to observe people’s behaviour.
In 1995, I watched the Bengalis in the team cleverly engineer the postponement of the launch of Outlook magazine by one week, citing every reason other than the real one—that the original launch date would have had them working during the Pujas. So well-camouflaged was the move that I don’t think any of the others even figured it out. I observed and enjoyed.
And now this year’s Puja too is over, those atrocious kurtas have been packed away again, and I know that Ma Durga didn’t miss me. Anyway, it’s Parvati’s story that I find more interesting.