‘I Am An Atheist, And I Love Durga Puja’: It’s Not Just A Custom, But A Way Of Life

Posted on October 14, 2015 in Culture-Vulture

By Sinjini Sengupta

I’m just back from a very sudden going-total-blank-at-a-most-obvious-question situation at a non-Bong gathering. They casually, only slightly curiously, had just asked me one simple well-meaning question: “What is Durga Puja?”

It got me! I went blank! I stopped short, I fell short of words.

They would not know how difficult it is for an inside-out Bengali to explain Durga Puja at one go, give them a ready yet satisfactory answer without fumbling words, without soul searching, which story of Durga Puja does she herself believe in, and which she should put across to them, so that they get the essence, and how much not to say, knowing well that one would just not understand, simply because one cannot!

How can I explain to them that, while I am an atheist – one who doesn’t believe in idol-worship – I still, happily and willingly, with all my might, love Durga Puja as if it’s a very part of me? How can I make them realize, to feel, to trust that Durga Puja is not a matter of just religion or custom, of social or familial order, but much more beyond that? That it is…sheer magic? How can I tell them, well enough, what Durga Puja is?

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Image source: Sinjini Sengupta

I smile back at them, still in loss, still in search of the right words, the right way…

Someone asked: “Bengalis wear new clothes on each day of Durga Puja, right?” I nodded, “Yes!” Almost instantly, it flashed before me like a picture, how as a kid I used to get new clothes from relatives, how we – my brother, our cousins, neighbours, school friends and I – would contest on the number of clothes we had gotten, unfailingly exaggerating the number a tad on the higher side to feel better. How my mom used to start drawing up her shopping list and budgets months in advance and flag-up the number to dad every other day, with newer (and higher) quotes every time. Then, one fine day, dad won’t go to work and we to school, and instead we’d hop into a taxi and go New Market, first shopping for clothes with soft-drink and chicken roll breaks in between, and wrapping up in a serpentine queue before the most popular “Free School Street” Sree Leathers’ shop for shoe-shopping! Once we were home after the long day, my brother and would put on the clothes on our very sweaty torsos, reassessing and reviewing the choice, its quality and prices. Once I started to take care of my wardrobe by myself, I’d make lists behind lined notebooks I carried to school; lists, scribbles, strikethroughs and fresh notes – on what to wear on what day of the Puja and at what time.

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Image source: Sinjini Sengupta

Today, my little daughter, all of four years, gets her new clothes for Puja just from her closest kin, us ourselves, my parents, and my brother – albeit in multiples! Will she ever know what Puja clothes meant when I was her age?

Before I could gather myself to tell them all about wearing new clothes for Puja, they had already given up waiting and were already at their second guess: “Ram ne Durga Puja kiya tha na, Raavan-vadh se pehle? (Ram conducted Durga Puja before he went to war with Raavan right?)” O yes, very true. Oh but am I not a steadfast non-believer, an atheist? But then, who cares! Didn’t I say – Durga Puja is not about religion or customs, and not about logic and rationality either! It’s magic. The magic that created around us when my grandmother would hum stories to me, I cuddled next to her, under the same blanket. She spoke in a soft, slow way, almost like a chant, as she lulled me to sleep every night. That story, when Durga teasingly, playfully hid away one of the hundred-and-eight blue lotuses, Ram offered one eye to replace the lost lotus, faced with the test of his dedication. Among the stories I have grown up with, my childhood, my very own source of magic.

But before they take another dig, I had to blurt out something. I am the Bong, aren’t I? “You know, the kind of money they spend on each community Puja, the idols later sell as art pieces at big museums. And I hear art college students these days make a decent living just out of Durga Puja productions. They just work towards these 4 days the whole year and it pays them off well enough.” – I tell them. Eyes of disbelief, I can see. Never mind! I continue, “And then, to celebrate Durga Puja,” – I tell them – “the entire city of Kolkata comes to a stop on this event, for all four-to-five days. Offices, schools, everything, may be just other than emergency support functions. It’s not a religious occasion anymore, you see!”

It’s true, actually! Durga Puja, as I said, is not about worshipping and seeking blessings alone. It’s not about the belief in the Almighty, it’s not about seeking mercy or granting wishes. Durga Puja is also about pandal-hopping through the nights, every night. Durga Puja is about hogging on all kinds of food, and all five days long. It’s about nostalgia, and about sentiments. Durga Puja is all about the spirit of it – the spirit of happiness! Old friends re-unite, new lovers fall in love, the older ones celebrate. Durga Puja is not just a custom, it is about life and its many meanings. It is a festival. No, wait, not even that. It’s a carnival!

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Image source: Sinjini Sengupta

I could see my audience fidgeting, losing engagement. But I could not leave Durga Puja at this, that would be criminal. So, after a hasty thought I add a new angle, hoping they’d like that better –
“You know, Ramnavami is just one of the many tales behind Durga Puja. Actually, in the Bengali sense, we more think of Durga Puja from a home-coming point of view.”

“Home-coming?” – They ask, surprised.

“Yes, homecoming,” – I insist and proceed to explain. Actually, all said and done, it is really a ten day long ritual about a married daughter coming home. Mahalaya marks the day when the mighty Himalaya who’s the father of Uma (aka Durga) sets out to bring the daughter home from her in-law’s after much coaxing from his wife, because it’s been long, because she’s missing her, and because, she thinks, her daughter must be home-sick. Over the last five days of the ten, we celebrate the homecoming of Durga, the daughter, with her children (and pets). And then, sooner than we realize, it’s time to go back! In tears, on the day of Bijaya Dashami, she sets out on her return journey. We bid her goodbye at the Ghat, as she slowly, very slowly, takes to the water, immerses. We wipe our eyes and come back home.

“So really, Durga Puja symbolises the annual homecoming of married daughters to their father’s home.” – I thought I had just said enough and no more, when the inevitable had to come. In shape of a most innocent query: “So, are you not going home?”