Durga Puja special: Renowned author Mani Sankar pens down his thoughts on Puja now and then
In my 85 years of 24-carat Bengaliness, I have been an eyewitness to only 84 Durga Pujas. The first four or five years of Puja, I do not recall, although my didima (granny) used to tell me that I spoilt the Puja opportunities of my mother, because I used to cry too much, upsetting the purohits and other devotees, who loudly advised my mother not to come to the Puja pandal to offer her pushpanjali, then described as‘flower offering’ in the papers that were diligently read by my lawyer father, who himself was more interested in staging Puja nataks (theatre) written by him.
Time and Durga Puja wait for none and I still vaguely remember the festivals on the Western bank of river Bhagirathi, called Howrah, where my father had shifted to, in the hope of doubling his earnings as
a lawyer in the local District Court. Howrah was then described by its loyal citizens as ‘almost Calcutta’, the second city of the British empire. In Howrah there was strong disapproval to my visiting the sarbajanin Puja mandaps, as my mother had heard on good authority about child-lifters from Banaras visiting Calcutta during the Puja and doing a roaring business during those five days.
A way out was negotiated, when our non-Hindu neighbour, three years my senior, volunteered to accompany me to the pandals. Accompanied by my Muslim dada, I successfully disappointed the criminals from a distant land, but created some problems for my escort, who started asking me difficult questions, not about Mother Durga, but about her favourite son, lord Ganesh.
Those days, every child in Bengal knew everything about Durga, the Bengali daughter returning to her
father’s home after a terrible encounter with the buffalo monster who was determined to drive away
the good gods from heaven. I knew a bit about the messy story, but not enough about our durgatinashini
— remover of all troubles after a horrible confrontation with the greedy and arrogant asura. Years later, when I started reading the Puranas and D e v i Bhagwatam and noticed endless contradictions in the Durga legend, but my friendly neighbour had migrated to the then East Pakistan by that time.
At last count, there were 33 crore gods and goddesses, and every one of them is entitled to their Pujas — Durga Puja being one among those. But Bengal’s autumn worship has been branded as the Puja, making it the most-awaited event for those who these days are called ‘Bongs’ across the world.
Bengaliness is a tough subject and deserves affectionate attention from IT, IIT, IIM, IMF angles. If I were ten years younger and was tempted with a lifelong scholarship, I would have undertaken this brave journey. That being difficult, let me for the time being restrict myself to Durga Puja in Calcutta since the
beginning of the Second World War in 1939.
In the beginning, Durga Puja was an intensely personal worship. The first thing the ill-clad, ill-fed and under-paid priest would ask was the name of the ‘beneficiary’? Over the years, this has degenerated into the term ‘sponsor’. There is nothing wrong or unethical in it. The Bongs, young and old, continue to chant the same pushpanjali (flower offering) from the same P u r o h i t D a r p a n ( P r i e s t s ’ Handbook). It is wonderful to remember that the same mantra is being faithfully repeated across the
subcontinent for more than thousand years. But if one looks at this uninterrupted flow of tradition, one may notice that in every great society community feasts are preceded by ritual fasting. It was so here once upon a time, but nowadays most of the devotees’ morning pushpanjali at the mandap is preceded by heavy breakfast! That raises an important issue, is it worship (puja) or just a festival (utsav)?
The elderly continue to get worried; will it not annoy our goddess with 1001 names? Will it not encourage the buffalo monster to perpetuate his misdeeds? There are different responses to these issues. But some say, every society changes with the advent of time. Our own puja time-table was broken by Rama on the eve of his campaign against Ravana. It is wellaccepted now as Akala Bodhana — the untimely invocation. Our Durga Puja in Bengal is a curious mix of changes and the unchanged. Even the Almighty Goddess has, in course of centuries, opted from two to a thousand arms — from dasaprohorodharini to sahasrahasta.
The worship format also continues to change, slowly but surely. Senior citizens sometimes regret that there is no central control to stick to the shastras, others are alarmed that no one is authorised to amend the great Red Book called Shri Shri Chandi. Others remind us that even the mighty Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva are accountable to a not-so-publicised super god, Mahakaal (time). Changing and at the same time not changing is difficult, but it is not an impossible task.
This is quite clear to those who have lived their 85 years to participate in Durga Pujas often branded as Sharad Utsav in a big city once called Calcutta, and now simply, Kolkata