The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Undeclared pandal pariahs

Gangadhari (Murshidabad), Oct. 13: Try telling Dipali Das casteism has no place in a state and a village that has consistently voted for “progressive” Left in the past 25 years and chances are that she will ask you to speak to her children, who look forward to Durga puja with abhorrence.

Suitably decked for the occasion — in new clothes that their parents manage to buy them — they have come to understand that they have nowhere to go during the pujas. They have known that ever since they were kicked out of a pandal, where they had gone to offer anjali, last year.

In a forced enactment of a macabre sequel to Satyajit Ray’s Sadgati, Left-voting Gangadhari — only 35 km from district headquarters Behrampore — has denied its muchi (cobbler) community the right to be seen anywhere near a pandal during the state’s most important festival.

The 18 families comprising 80-odd heads are, instead, expected to look up at the neon-light-bright sky and listen to the dhak beats from a distance, making the premise — that Left-voting Bengal has no place for untouchability and caste-virus — stand on its head.

They are expected not to violate the lakshmanrekha, drawn centuries ago, that is as much on the ground as in the minds of the victims and their oppressors.

The present-day oppressors, however, do not see anything ghastly in the practice of keeping the cobblers at more than an arm’s length during the festival season. “We do not allow cobblers to participate in our festivals, religious or otherwise, as they belong to a low caste,” said secretary of the Mandalpara Sarbajanin Durga Puja Committee, Jiten Mandal, very matter-of-factly.

He also gave an explanation for the admittedly “irrational” behaviour. “They all skin cows,” Mandal said. Besides, the muchis could organise their own pujas. “The government has done a lot for them.”

With a touch of benevolence, Mandal added that they would “let” the cobblers organise their own puja. “We won’t come in the way,” he said, overwhelmed by his own indulgence.

The organisers of the other puja in the village, the Rudrapara Sarbajanin Durga Puja Committee, clung on to their “right” to not allow “others” into their own puja. And the fact that they did not collect subscription from the cobbler families was explained as an act of munificence. “They are very poor and will not be able to afford the subscription,” committee secretary Lakshman Das said.

Both Hindus and Muslims live at Gangadhari. Hindus live at Rudrapara, Mandalpara and Muchipara. Though the festival is observed with the ritual gaiety in the first two neighbourhoods, a visit to the third showed how far Mandal’s “they-can-organise-their-own-puja” line was from reality. The cobblers live hand-to-mouth.

The one or two families that can afford a donation say they are never called to do so. “We can afford to donate up to Rs 100 but we are told that the goddess will lose her sanctity even if we go near her,” said Satya Das of Muchipara.

Dipali said she had bought her children a set of new clothes. “But it’s no use.” “They (her children) are morose throughout the festival season as they are shooed away from the pandals,” she explained.

Three cobbler-families (those of Bhupen Das, Anil Das and Dilip Das) live in Calcutta and refuse to come home when the rest of the village is celebrating the homecoming season. Their neighbours here say they prefer the anonymity of Calcutta where they can partake in the festivities.

RSP MLA Jayanta Biswas admitted to having heard of the practice and that the political parties, including his own, had done very little to “educate” the masses. “These villages are still in darkness,” he said, referring to the “kusanskar (superstition)”.

Sources close to CPM state secretary Anil Biswas admitted that the incident was “disconcerting”. “We, as a party, are against the nation-wide movement against such practices and have asked our Murshidabad district committee secretary to submit a report on this,” he said.

There is, however, one silver lining. Cobblers are allowed to visit the riverside to watch the immersion. For the muchi community, the last day of the state’s most important festival comes alive — if not in festive gaiety — in a surrogate feeling of oneness with the goddess.

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