I was watching film director Aniruddha Roy Chowdhury’s short film Debi when I realized how simply and subtly the director put forward the idea of religious inclusiveness that has been a part and parcel of Durga Puja, the most important Hindu religious festival in West Bengal, India, and the most important festival for Bengalis settled in all parts of India and abroad.

Durga idol at Mohammed Ali Park in Kolkata

The short film shows the return of Anu (played by actress Ananya Chatterjee) from abroad to her ancestral home in Kolkata to celebrate Durga Puja after the demise of her mother, with whom she had an estranged relationship for she married a Muslim man against her wishes. She has her daughter Lali Rehman (played by singer Monali Thakur) with her.

But Lali’s Muslim identity does not stop Anu’s family from welcoming her with open arms and including her in the puja rituals.

Aniruddha has very beautifully incorporated the true spirit of Durga Puja in his film. The five-day festival of Durga Puja, celebrated with aplomb the world over, is definitely more about celebration of life than about establishing a religious identity.

Relevance of the film

Debi, which has raked up more than 100,000 hits in four days after its online release, has marvelously touched upon an issue that is presently tearing our country apart.

A still from Aniruddha Roy Chowdhury’s film Debi

Religion in India has suddenly taken on a new meaning. Starting from bans on beef and meat consumption in certain areas in India during certain festivals to a man being dragged out of his house in a place called Dadri in Uttar Pradesh and lynched to death because it was ‘rumored’ he had consumed beef in his home, to 25 writers returning their Sahitya Akademi Awards, one of the highest literary awards in India, in protest against the rising intolerance in the country under the central government — the country is witnessing a turmoil that is, in my opinion, more created than existent.

A month before Durga Puja (from October 19- 23, 2015) Hindu Samhati, a Hindu outfit in West Bengal, had requested the Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee to ban slaughtering of cows during Durga Puja, a request to which she didn’t relent.

And very rightly so. To the Bengali this is truly irrelevant. Unlike common perception that Hindus don’t consume meat during Pujas, Bengalis do. The “bhog” (food prepared as offering to the goddess) is usually vegetarian but on the last day of the festivities after the immersion (it is believed Goddess Durga comes with her children to visit her parents’ home when she is worshipped for five days and on the fifth day she is immersed in the Ganga river from where she takes up her journey back home to her husband Lord Shiva) in many homes where the puja is held, it is a ritual to cook and consume mutton (goat meat).

Religious inclusiveness

While the fiercely fish-meat loving Bengali usually consumes non-vegetarian food during the festival, Hindutva is also the last thing on his/her mind.

A Durga Puja pandal modeled after Taj Mahal

Growing up in Kolkata I remember Durga Puja was more about the lights, the pandals (which are the painstakingly decorated structures that house the Durga idols and is regarded as the largest open-air art show in the world), going sleepless for nights hopping from one pandal to another and standing at the long queues at the overcrowded restaurants (obviously to devour non-vegetarian food).

In fact, the religious perspective began and ended with praying to Durga with “anjali/pushpanjali” (throwing flowers at her feet while the priest chanted hymns).

Unlike most pujas which are usually celebrated at home, Durga Puja is a more community festival. But in a few homes, especially some where several generations have been doing the puja, Durga is worshipped with fervor.

My friend’s home in Kolkata was one such. In that city we have grown up having friends from Muslim and Christian communities, who were all invited to the Durga Puja at her home. And when it was time for offering the prayers (anjali) we all did it together, one’s religious identity was never questioned, never relevant.

Exactly in the way Lali Rehman, in the short film Debi is seamlessly included in the family and the festivities.

One of the best articles ever on Durga Puja has been written by veteran journalist Vir Sanghvi. He writes: “Where else could puja pandals go beyond religion to draw inspiration from everything else? In the years I lived in Calcutta, the pandals featured Amitabh Bachchan, Princess Diana and even Saddam Hussain.”

Durga stands for secularism

That is why a replica of the Taj Mahal has housed Devi Durga in the past and no one is ever surprised when many pandals are built in the shape of mosques, Jain and Buddhist temples, modelled on world-famous churches or inspired by ancient Inca temples.

One of the most popular Pujas in Kolkata is at Mohammed Ali Park in North Kolkata. The Durga Puja at Munshiganj, a predominantly Muslim area in Kidderpore in Kolkata, is usually organized by people from the same community. In an article published in the Times of India there is mention of Shahid Ali who is the priest at this Durga Puja. In the article Shahid says, “I fast for a month during Ramzaan and I also fast for four days during Durga Puja to offer my prayers to Ma Durga.”

This sums up the true spirit of Durga Puja. People from all over the country should take a cue.

Amrita Mukherjee is a freelance journalist who writes on social issues in India with focus on women. She divides her time between Dubai and India and blogs at www.amritaspeaks.com

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