Archive for October, 2012

The outsider at the puja pandal

Wednesday, October 24th, 2012

Mint, 24 October 2012

Durga Puja ends today. Mahishasura has been defeated, the heavens have been won back for the devas, and Parvati’s annual four-day holiday in her parental home is also over—she now returns to Mount Kailash with her children, to her husband’s abode. For, the Durga Puja contains two parallel narratives. One is the ten-armed lion-riding goddess’s war with the buffalo demon, the other is Parvati’s story, for her husband loves her so much that he can let her leave his side only for these four days of the year. So one is a tale of shakti—the power hidden inside every woman, and the other, about the woman’s place in the social-familial structure, and even traditional Hindu society’s idea of a “perfect marriage”. Parvati is the happiest wife in the universe and Shiva the sort of husband every woman prays for, and her primary duties are to her husband, with only four days off in a year. I only mention this for the benefit of those who may not have known that the festival has two strands running through it. I am not equipped to get into the extreme sociological analysis that these two stories taken together seem to be crying out for.
As most Bengalis know, the Durga Puja is actually held at the wrong time of the year. By all authentic calculations, it should be held in the month of Chaitra, which is March-April, but a mass consensus evolved centuries ago to have it in autumn. Two reasons are given for this: one mythological, one historical (which has now been officially denied). Before he attacked Ravana’s Lanka, Ram invoked Durga to come and bless him. And since our epics revel in the morally ambiguous, one version has it that since this puja required a Brahmin to perform it and Ram had none around, he requested Ravana the Brahmin to do the puja. Ravana obliged. The autumnal festivities commemorate Ram’s calling down of Durga to bless him.
The other version is that the Debs of Shovabazar (no relations of mine), one of the wealthiest merchant-prince clans of the times, held the Puja at this time of the year in 1757 to felicitate Robert Clive for his victory at the Battle of Plassey (23 June 1757), and since the Shovabazar Debs were the leaders of Hindu society in Kolkata at that time, this became an annual tradition accepted by all wannabes and then the general public. The Shovabazar clan, in recent times, has denied this as a canard. But whatever the truth, by the early 20th century, when Bengal’s young men dived headlong into the independence movement, Durga was the shakti figure to worship and invoke before going into battle against the British, and had also become somewhat amalgamated with the concept of motherland. Bengalis have always been rather heavily into this mother business.
I write this as someone who—originally through circumstance, and then by choice—has always felt dissociated from this greatest festival of my race. As a child in Kolkata, it was, of course, a huge thing to get your parents to take you all over the city and see more Durga idols than anyone else in your friend circle. We were woken up at four in the morning on Mahalaya day to hear the late Birendra Krishna Bhadra’s broadcast of the Devi’s war, and the late Pankaj Mullick singing paeans. During the Emergency, All India Radio created a new programme for Mahalaya, with Lata Mangeshkar, Uttam Kumar, the works—a ham-handed attempt to identify Indira Gandhi with Durga. “Enraged rejection” is a very mild way to describe the general reaction to this blasphemy. Bhadra’s throbbing quavering falsetto, that could make a child’s hair stand on end in the half-dark of the dawn, was back next year.
But by the time one was old enough to figure out the actual benefits—the puja days as the best window of opportunity to do something about your pubescent desires, fumbling attempts at the mating rituals, at the very least get to speak a few words with a girl—I was no longer in Kolkata. Of course, wherever there are Bengalis, there are Durga Pujas, but our family was never part of any community actively involved in the action (for reasons as mundane as the location of our home, never within a two-three km radius of any Puja).
Visiting Kolkata during the Pujas as a college student, both my friends and I were outsiders at every pandal, and could only bask in the faux-superiority of watching young men dressed in the latest fashion make fools of themselves as they tried their luck with the other gender. After some of this, it always seemed a better idea to retire to someone’s home and drink.
With adulthood, the distance to the pandal seemed to keep growing longer. The crowds looked too formidable, the talent contests were infra-dig exhibitionism, and the apparently compulsory uber-flashy kurtas seemed to abruptly reveal a till-now unsuspected side of men you thought you knew well. Slowly, I came to realize that it was something wrong with me, not with other people or the occasions or the entertainment on the menu. I could no longer deny that the idea of mandated celebration—having fun by the calendar—was not something I was comfortable with. I was an asocial creature who abhorred prescribed joy. Even birthday parties were interesting only as occasions to observe people’s behaviour.
In 1995, I watched the Bengalis in the team cleverly engineer the postponement of the launch of Outlook magazine by one week, citing every reason other than the real one—that the original launch date would have had them working during the Pujas. So well-camouflaged was the move that I don’t think any of the others even figured it out. I observed and enjoyed.
And now this year’s Puja too is over, those atrocious kurtas have been packed away again, and I know that Ma Durga didn’t miss me. Anyway, it’s Parvati’s story that I find more interesting.

Mamata Banerjee and the Bong joke

Wednesday, October 24th, 2012

Mint, 22 October 2012

On 19 October, Union rural development minister Ramesh releasedRs.601.2 crore of NREGA (National Rural Employment Guarantee Act) funds to West Bengal. A routine matter, except that Ramesh added a sting in the tail to his covering letter to chief minister Mamata Banerjee. The last line read: “Incidentally, may I add, this reflects how sensitive the so-called ‘brain-dead government in Delhi’ is to the needs of the people of West Bengal.”
This was a reference to what Banerjee had said in an interview to a Bengali daily a few days earlier. Predicting that the United Progressive Alliance government would not last more than six months, she had said: “The UPA government is a brain-dead government now. A brain-dead patient can be kept on ventilator. Everyone knows the patient has died, but no one wants to pull the plug.” Jairam was also gently pointing out the fact that in 2012-13, the Centre had released about Rs.1,000 crore more to the state under NREGA than it did in 2011-12.
It doesn’t take very much to get Mamata angry, and this was an act of deliberate needling. An enraged Banerjee put up the letter on her Facebook page with a note that read: “You would be shocked to see the attitude of the central government towards the state of West Bengal…Good and effective governance deserves a clear delineation of governmental activity and political activity… releasing funds for the central schemes is not a matter of charity… (That line) is clearly vindictive, unethical and unconstitutional. I am really stunned to see that a Union minister can write a distasteful statement like this to a state government. This creates a bad precedence and adds stigma to healthy democratic fibre of our country.”
The Bengali public has responded enthusiastically to her post. Within 48 hours, nearly 5,000 people had “liked” the post (though I am unclear what that indicates: I have seen people “liking” posts by parents who have recently lost their child), and close to 2,000 people had commented. A quick glance through the comments reveals that Bengali pride has been hurt. Ramesh has been called a “megalomaniac” and “a bogash (sic) person” among other things. Several particularly outraged FBers have asked Didi to throw the money right back on Ramesh’s face. Now that suggestion is too “bogash” even for Didi to take seriously. But it indicates the complete disconnect with reality that has sadly become the hallmark of a particular type of Bengali.
Obviously, Ramesh is having a good laugh. This is exactly the sort of reaction he wanted. To him, this whole thing is another good Bong joke. This is sad. For Bengal and Bengalis.
While Ramesh’s jibe cannot be condoned officially—after all, it’s a letter on a government of India letterhead—it’s high time Mamata’s supporters realized that she has become a bit of a laugh. It’s totally unclear what her ideology is other than to look for a fight. Since the defeat of the Left Front, she has had to find a new enemy and it obviously had to be the Centre. So we have been subjected to this ridiculous Punch and Judy show for months now. Judy went hysterical about everything from the Railway Budget to the presidential candidate to the diesel price hike, while Punch nodded politely. When she flounced out of the alliance, Punch tried very hard to hide his glee but didn’t fully succeed. Judy, in the meantime, jailed amateur cartoonists, saw conspiracy theories in rape cases, and renamed water tanks. Industrialists who were considering investing in West Bengal are possibly queuing up at their favourite places of worship and thanking the Lord that they were saved in time.
And Mamata should be the last person to talk about “clear delineation of governmental activity and political activity”. Firstly, this fine line was obliterated in India many years ago, and I suspect Mamata never knew about the line anyway, till whoever writes her Facebook posts mentioned it. The ministry that was the first to delete that line for all time to come was the railways ministry, which Mamata ran for many years.
Yes, Bengalis should be furious. But they should be furious about how their leader, with her intemperate comments and irrational antics, has given a Union minister the gumption to add this snide remark to a letter releasing funds that are the state’s by rights. Would a minister ever do that to a Nitish Kumar or aJayalalithaa? Would anyone have dared to write this to a Jyoti Basu or a Buddhadeb Bhattacharya(Disclaimer: I think Basu ruined West Bengal. I am only referring to the dignity with which he carried himself)? The letter tells us more about the space Mamata has managed to trap herself in, rather than about Ramesh.
Though nowhere close to Santa-Banta, Bong jokes have always been popular. It’s sad for all Bengalis that Mamata Banerjee is becoming one.