The wonderful thing about Durga puja is that it proves once and for all that god doesn’t exist. Well, for those who simply won’t believe me, Durga puja at least proves that god doesn’t need to exist. You don’t have to be a Bengali (ex-Marxist) to realise that for five days, as the tribe, friends of the tribe and even Desmond Morris-type observers of the tribe throng the pandals, hopping from one site of idol worship to another as if people were alcoholics hopping bars (the new clothes and the podgy kids give the game away), the religious bit is just an excuse. If there was no festival of Durga, Bengalis would have had to invent both the festival and the goddess. Which, come to think of it, they have.
There’s a negative correlation between the distance from the Bengali’s Mecca, Kolkata, and his or her clinginess to ‘Bengaliness’ during the pujas. Bengali households whether in Doncaster or in Utah underline their cultural identity with much more force during these five days than those, say, living in Delhi or Mumbai and certainly in Kolkata.
The BNRI (Bengali non-resident Indian) goes into a tizzy about whether the inflection in the Sanskrit sloka, ‘Ya devi sarva bhoot esho...’, has been done in the correct manner on Mahalaya (the day that the goddess sets off from her home in 221B Mount Kailash) to whether the right number of batashas (a hard sweet concoction that no Indian writer in English will dare to mention in a novel as it’s untranslatable even to fellow non-Bengali Indians) are part of the prasad. The BRI (Bengali Resident Indian) is more concerned about the food.
Which, frankly, is what the Durga Pujas boil down to. Food. Palates and taste buds go on a pilgrimage to taste gene pool meals such as (and I won’t even deign to describe them considering Marcel Proust never bothered to tell me what ‘madeleine’ was) fish orley, mutton kabiraji, moghlai paratha, aloo kabli, ghugni, egg devil (devilled egg, for the rest of the world). Even non-foodies are sucked in to this gastronomic universe — with dire consequences the day after.
So the pujas — as opposed to the ‘pujo’, which describes the actual religious bits and bobs — have as much to do with Durga as the IPL has to do with cricket, or Twitter to do with information. And you guys still complain of the Bengali mafia? Tut tut.