In frenzied pursuit of fleeting happiness, amid the sounds of a thousand dhaks, surrounded by a spellbinding outpouring of creativity in pandals, decorations and themes — like heartfelt worship in a fallen time — and dazzled by a myriad lights, it is possible to forget what exactly is being celebrated. Regional variants notwithstanding — Parvati coming home to her mother on earth being one of them — the myth depicts the victory of the forces of the gods, converging in Durga, over the overweening forces of disorder and violence, represented by the shape-changing Mahishasura. Invoked by Rama at a time that was not her time of worship, Durga blessed Rama in his war against Ravana; so all over India, Dashami in Bengal coincides with Dussehra, when huge effigies of Ravana are spectacularly burnt with great fanfare. That too is a representation of the victory of positive forces over negative, disruptive ones. Whether it is Durga killing Mahishasura, who is no mean foe, or, elsewhere, Rama triumphing over Ravana, another noble enemy, the war, commonly seen as the duel between good and evil, is fought for the sake of re-establishing order, balance, harmony and, therefore, peace. The array of weapons, the dazzle of a battle that shakes the three worlds, are all for the sake of peace.
In times as dishevelled, disordered and violent as these, there is immeasurable comfort in the imagination of peace. So when at least one group of organizers represents the goddess with her ten arms freed of the weapons that her peers among the deities have given her, when she is not warlike but beneficent, the iconic power of the Durga image is such that it transforms the traditional message into one of peace, of calm, of quiet good feeling distributed among all. Given that peace is won with such exertion and at such great cost, there is no reason to believe there is anything mealy-mouthed about it. In a way, it is fitting that it should be a gift from a deity often seen as warlike.
Another dimension could be imagined into the days of the festival. The carnivalesque quality of the enjoyment, the prolonged, almost surreal, quality of the merrymaking — and money-making, from food stalls to holiday trips — recall ancient forms of the licensed disruption of order for a few days, so that order could prevail for the rest of the year. Would the festive season this time bring back a sense of proportion, reasonableness, compassion, patience with and tolerance of others, and civic and social responsibility in the seasons that will follow? Holidays this time are inclusive and long. Will the effects be long and positive? If it is possible to conceive of the deity without her weapons, it may be possible, poised at the beginning of the celebrations, to imagine a city, even a state, where there are fewer victims in daily life, women or men, poor or middle-class, young or old.