"Poisha porachhe (burning money)," my grandfather would quip, as we watched fireworks shoot up the terraces circling our crumbling, mossy ground-floor house in south Kolkata, sandwiched between two shiny new high-rises. The rockets that burst into a cloud of glowing green stars or the string of blinking red lights that'd hover above our heads before burning out had never figured in the ration of a middle-class Bengali household.
Unlike the celebrations around Durga Puja, which brought with it a sense of homogeneity as it unfurled through long queues of fretting, sweating people in front of pandals and mini crowds of again, fretting, sweating people in front of chicken roll and puchka shops, the festivities of Kali Puja and Diwali were distinctly less homogenous in nature. Ask any average Bengali girl in Kolkata—she'd have spent half her Diwalis as a teenager convincing her mother that an apocalypse involving drunken men dancing to Suniel Shetty hits wasn't sweeping across the city's streets. Or, if you were fretful Bengalis like us, your grandparent would have listed the number of kilos of hilsa that could be bought at the price of those fancy crackers. My grandmother, and then my mother, could win the argument with, "Now count the kilos of mutton kosha you can get with the price of two of those?"
If you were fretful Bengalis like us, your grandparent would have listed the number of kilos of hilsa that could be bought at the price of those fancy crackers.
Nevertheless, we'd find ways to negotiate the distinctly different streams of festivities the city embraced and the various biases that came with it. My personal favourite was queueing up at a sweet shop that sold mostly north Indian sweets and demanding 5 pieces of kaju katli as the shopkeeper tried to explain they only sold in kilos. "Then give us 100 grams," my brother and I insisted, till the poor man gave in. Of course, my mother would still maintain she could buy gold at the price of those kaju katlis. There'd still be gaping differences in the discourse. For example, a number of middle-class Bengali parents would narrate stories of the Kali Pujo organised in crematoriums—known as Shamshan Kali—by doms, with a mix of fear and fascination, firmly other-ing a celebration otherwise ceremonially similar to the ones in their own neighbourhoods. I remember an uncle shaking his head and commenting how the Pujo in the crematorium was much like the lives of the doms who made a living by helping burn corpses and cleaning up after—'very scary', he said. However, there was always a steady stream of visitors decked up in their festival finery to visit the 'shamshan Kali', I had noticed later while crossing a south Kolkata crematorium.
A number of middle-class Bengali parents would narrate stories of the Kali Pujo organised in crematoriums—known as Shamshan Kali—by doms, with a mix of fear and fascination, firmly other-ing a celebration otherwise ceremonially similar to the ones in their own neighbourhoods.
It is, perhaps then, only mildly surprising that some sort of a Kali Puja versus Diwali comparison has reared its head on social media. One Twitter user commented 'Bengalis don't celebrate Diwali' and pointed out that mutton is widely consumed on Kali Pujo. While that could be the personal experience of the Twitter user and many others like her, it is not true that all Bengalis have not traditionally embraced Diwali in parts. For example, the formalised Bengali greetings vocabulary around the festivities included both the words 'Shubho Deepaboli' and 'Shyama Puja'. In fact, in my social circles, we followed the religious rituals of the Kali Pujo, consumed the barfis and laddoos typical to north Indian Diwali traditions and usually wished each other 'Happy Diwali'. The paraphernalia around the festival—billboards, television ads, print ads and greetings cards—used a mix of both words as well.
However, months before a general election whose grounds have been prepared by political parties over religious tolerance, or lack of it, people have begun to pick apart the threads from the tangled web of celebrations that Kolkata has traditionally embraced. Of course, in response to the original tweet, the Hindutva right-wing handles turned out in hordes to abuse and chastise the the woman who wrote it. And very soon, Twitter dived into a now-familiar 'I do religion better than you' battle. Last year, several Hindu right-wing handles tried to school Bengalis on the 'right' way to worship Durga—over a newspaper ad—and were immediately smacked down.
However, months before a general election, whose grounds have been prepared by political parties over religious tolerance, or lack of it, people have begun to pick apart the threads from the tangled web of celebrations that Kolkata has traditionally embraced.
The political rhetoric around the Durga Puja this year was clearly a response to the episodes of violence that West Bengal witnessed earlier this year. Three people were killed in March after clashes over Ram Navami, a first around that particular religious festival in the state. With BJP planning rath yatras at sites of Hindu pilgrimages—like Tarapith and Gangasagar— and making it clear they will go the 'champions of Hindutva' route in Bengal, the Trinamool Congress have also taken to performing religion with more gusto. While the TMC government put up giant billboards across the state with the following catchline—'religion is mine, religion is yours but festivals are for everyone'—they also gave Rs 10,000 to every Durga Puja organiser, costing the state exchequer Rs 28 crore. Before this year, the political class had never felt the need to emphasize that inclusive nature of the Durga Puja festivities at least. In 2013, the TMC government had tried to pay imams a monthly allowance, a move that was challenged by a BJP leader and also rejected by the Calcutta High Court.
Before this year, the political class had never felt the need to emphasize that inclusive nature of the Durga Puja festivities at least.
Dyutiman Banerjee, a lawyer who had moved a petition on behalf of one Sourav Gupta against the Durga Puja sop, said that giving Puja organisers Rs 10,000 was against the provisions of the Constitution. However, their petition was dismissed by the Supreme Court. Banerjee added that with the polls nearing and political parties going all out to milk religion for votes, the nature of festivities which thrived on the feeling of community in West Bengal have suffered. "Not only in Bengal, but I think throughout India because of the polls and the current anti-secular situation. Of course, in Bengal, previously nobody celebrated Ram Navami, but now it's turning out to be a big festival where the political parties are marching down the streets with swords," he added.
Anandabazar Patrika reports that this year, in districts close to the Bengal-Assam border, Kali Puja inauguration invites for BJP leaders have sharply declined. Following the NRC chaos in Assam, several Puja organisers have decided to not invite BJP leaders as they fear it would spark a controversy and rile religious sentiments.
A friend commented in jest on a Facebook status I posted referring to Diwali, "Shouldn't you say Kali Pujo instead of Diwali?"
As an election where religion is a weapon of choice looms ahead, festivals have become more 'us' and 'them' than ever before.