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Puja seen through the eyes of the ‘other’
Durga Puja in the house of the Sardars in north Calcutta. Pictures by Mudar Patherya

What does Durga Puja mean to the Muslim in me? What is it about the festival that stirs this paanch waqt ka namaazi?

One escaped the urban “noise” and sought refuge in a traditional baari invocation to sift between din, design and devotion and then arrive at the answer.

This baari was the Calcutta 700004 residence of the Sardars on 7 Nalin Sircar Street, off Bidhan Sarani and behind Grey Street.

For two days I asked questions, interacted with the family elders on the sanctity of their tradition, spoke on change and continuity with articulate youngsters, was invited to sit for a meal (“aapni na kheye jetei parben na”), was periodically updated on the Puja schedule (“shondhi puja at 12.30am sharp, so don’t miss”) and was generally the recipient of the same kind of effusive warmth when you address someone from the outside expressing genuine curiosity about you and your own.

Except that in this case, the outsider was a Muslim in the house of landed Hindu gentry who had given up a sprawling Khulna estate on “the opaar” before settling here.

On a professional level, I had an article to write. But on a personal level, I also needed to cross this forbidden divide and see the festival through the eyes of the other side (or as close to it). The honest approach would have been to stay with the Sardars during the course of the festival — rise with them, eat with them — but with their visitors flying in from across the world and family accommodation being finite, this would perhaps have been inadvisable. So one did the next best thing; one frequented this north Calcutta residence as often as one could across four days to absorb the flavour of the family, location and festival.

Sukhtara proved to be an easily facilitating environment. Its gracious old-world architecture slipped me into a time when the world was quieter, the pace unhurried and traditions respected. Except for a Mickey Mouse towel on the first floor hung out to dry, this could well have been the Fifties. Square arches with swans on the corners. Ornate thakur-dalan. Black-and-white-checked marbled floor. Joint family living on three sides. Protective courtyard wire netting to keep birds out. Boudis wearing aalta. Key bunch on sari edge. Dhuno being fanned from the corner. Dhaakis sitting invisibly. Family servants in sleeved genji-dhoti. Patriarch in sleeveless genji-dhoti. Starched cottons everywhere. Purohit circling the air with ponchoprodeep. The hushed attendance during shondhi puja. The intoned echo across the walls. Matriarch bowing (sajda) to the Devi.

Bringing people closer

I went to the Sardars with the objective of finding ritualistic connects between my religion and theirs. And at a cosmetic level I may even have achieved my brief — ladies weep when Durga is taken for bhashaan and the priest leading the prayers on aakhri jumoaa (last Friday) of Ramazan does the same; post-Puja kolakuli is a Hindu custom and how is the post-Id galey milna any different; the Sardar household turns vegetarian for three days and hurting even a fly is haraam while one is in a state of ihraam on Haj; a number of Hindus fast on Ashtami while Muslims fast across Ramazan.

Interestingly, I came away with observations of how different the Pujas are from some of our Muslim festivals, which curiously only increased my respect for how India’s biggest public event brings people closer.

One, through the length of the Pujas. The Id, for instance, is effectively only 18 waking hours; a day later, one is slaving at an office desk as if the big day never happened. The Pujas, on the contrary, provide me with the kind of festive extravagance — five continuous days this year — that even festivals of my religion don’t.

Two, through a stronger sense of community. Among Bohra Muslims, the tradition of home-hopping on Id to wish relatives and friends is long gone. But during the Pujas entire neighbourhoods step outside their egos and thresholds to talk with each other and gossip with each other, leading to the kind of jamiat that even clannish Muslims will envy.

Three, through a stronger sense of family. The Pujas draw relatives homewards; two Sardar family sub-groups came in from the US, two from New Delhi and one from Bangalore. In a world of dispersed job opportunities, the Id is an increasingly lonely moment for nuclear families; besides, the big day is too brief for anyone to fly trans-continent and who would want to miss the last couple of rozas in a trans-continental commute to be able to spend time with family on the appointed date? Since the Pujas are longer-drawn they are still about meeting people face-to-face; the Id is about speaking to a voice on the telephone and making routine PC: “Roza thayaa? Roza laaga? Garmi hati? Tabeeyat? (Were you able to complete the fasts? Were they difficult? Was it warm? Are you ok healthwise?)”

Even as the Pujas help bring people closer — families and neighbourhoods — the irony is that it has yet to work its ultimate magic in bringing communities together. The Muslims principally see the Pujas as a Hindu festival (part true, part false) and the result is that they are no more than pandal-hoppers or city escapees or sit-at-home TV watchers.

I say this with sadness as it represents a lost bridge-building opportunity in a state where the minority community is not so minority after all (25 per cent of the state’s population).

So what can I tell my Muslim brothers and sisters?

One, their getting on to Puja committees would be a decisive mainstreaming initiative.

Two, Muslims who may feel awkward about compromising their faith, while being engaged in the Puja onushthaan, can be a big help in assuming non-conflicting responsibilities like managing pandal footfalls, distributing water or serving food.

Three, the picture of inter-communal collaboration runs deeper in rural Bengal. The time has come to demonstrate that this can be an urban reality as well.

Not the only dreamer

It is already beginning to happen.

Just a few days ago, a group of young Muslims from Bandukgally Welfare Society in central Calcutta emerged as a Durga Puja model of inter-community collaboration. At the Kapalitola puja, the group commissioned probably the city’s first counter for drinking water and sherbet run entirely by the “other community” — and free of charge.

This simple initiative entailed a budget of around Rs 20,000 which members of the Bandukgally Welfare Society mobilised from among themselves. On Saptami and Ashtami, they manned the counters from sundown to 3am and distributed more than 25,000 glasses. Then they pleasantly surprised the Kapalitola puja organisers with the promise that this water-sherbet responsibility would be for every Durga Puja in the future. Surprised, the Kapalitola puja committee made repeated announcements of this service and singled the boys out for special mention. Kapalitola will never be the same again.

Maybe next year, another Puja near Zakaria Street will follow suit, then another near Ripon Street, another near Ekbalpore, then in Park Circus and then… the entire city. In turn, Hindus will present iftaar during Ramazan at one masjid in the city, then another and then yet another. In a few years, festivals will no longer be ethically personal but “ours” and when that happens, it will be a lesson for the world. When that happens, our Pujas and Ids will be bigger, brighter and truly the phenomenon that they deserve to be.

I may be just another dreamer today but…

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