Bengalis love to eat. To eat, is to live and not the other way round, for the fish-mongering meat-cravings ‘Bongs’. If life is a journey, then food is the destination. If life is a game then food is the reward. If life is a gift then food is the fancy wrapping paper! In a word, the imagination of the Bengali identity revolves around food, food-related anecdotes and stories of culinary achievements. One such collective identification is Durga Pujo and one such linguistic anecdote is ‘Bangalir Pet-pujo’ (the gastronomical pampering of the Bengali community).
For that matter, food is an important element in any culture and the Bengalis are no exception! So Durga Pujo, the ultimate showcase of the Bengali Broadway cannot be sans the culinary celebration either. However, let us clarify purely in public interest that food here does not refer to anything less than few spreads of fish, mutton, chicken, egg, pork and beef. Yes, while various other parts of ‘Mainland India’ shun the pig and worship the cow, the Bengalis love them both – just in their menu!
Even ritualistically, Durga Pujo is incomplete without mutton (ritualistic sacrifice of the goat which dominates the Navami grand feast!). Either way, the “Bangali” cannot enjoy the Pujo without the ‘Pet Pujo’. So the ‘o’ of the Pujo replaces the ‘a’ of the Puja, as pronounced by the rest of India, underscoring the ‘o’rganismic pleasure drawn from the gastronomic celebration of the Bengali community.
However, one would not need to champion the culinary agenda of Durga Pujo so much had it not been under threat in the latest trend of irrational regimentation introduced by the BJP in rest of India including the Bengali community – in West Bengal, to be precise. The Sanskari party tells the Bengalis that it will hurt the sentiments of those fasting on Navaratri (in West Bengal) if the former eat egg roll in these nine days of celebration. But the truth is Navaratri, Ram Navami and Durga Pujo have coexisted forever in West Bengal without much hassle, simply because culture can only manifest fully in its diversity. So why would the Navaratri gang suddenly feel upset if the Beef-fry gang eat their meal without shoving down a chunk of meat down the laters’ throat? Or, why would the egg roll monger feel disappointed over a sabudana khichdi lover if the later does not insist him/her to feast on the saltless platter! The truth is, the people of West Bengal, or the Bengalis, are fine with each of their respective ways of celebrating Durga Pujo (through Ram Navami, Navaratri and Okal Bondhon) but it is the Ruling Right at the centre that is interfering with public life of a community and defiling the Constitution in turn.
Incidentally, Durga Pujo is less of a religious festival for West Bengal and more of a grand celebration of the Bengali identity. Unlike many other states where migrants and religious communities with numerical minority are treated as ‘others’, anybody who lives in West Bengal is a “Bangali” (or Bengali, in the English language). Therefore, a Hindu Brahmin in Berhampore is as much a Bengali as a Keralite Christian in Durgapur or a (third generation) Chinese in Tangra. They all shop new clothes before the Pujo, plan pandal hopping for those five days (and nights) and queue up in front of the restaurants alike. It would take Barney Stinson’s guts to say “Challenge Accepted!” to differentiate one from another and determine who is the ‘real Bangali’ and who is offended by a veggie or a piece of meat! Therefore, it is not just ridiculous but even ludicrous to put food embargo on a Bengali celebration like Durga Pujo! The radical Right in Mainland India should perceive better – do they really want to hit a community in the gut when they want their votes? Lastly, many vendors eye these five days of Durga Pujo for selling gourmet street foods of Bengal like Mutton-ghugni, mutton/chicken/fish/beef rolls, different types of kebabs, among others, for earning the lion’s share of their annual income. From a purely economic point of view (since the BJP rose to its electoral success with the promise of an economic revival for Mainland India) it is a sheer blow below the belt for these petty vendors who otherwise lack steady employment.
To sum it up, what the BJP is trying to establish in India is cultural homogenization through ruthless, imposed and forced Hindi-ization of the entire landmass formally known as ‘India’, and the culinary embargo on non-vegetarian food during Durga Pujo in West Bengal is its latest blow. The Radical Right, spearheaded by the champions of Hindutva, is telling us to all become the same, shed our cultural exclusivity and become Sanskari Hindus with a Satvik diet. They will not succeed as long as the idea of India is still alive, just because of the fact that each state in India is too different from its neighbor.
Nation is essentially imagi-nation, and identity is half-hearted without the romanticization of that imagination. So the imposition of Hindi as the official language on our passports, beef ban in different states, initiation of a cow-culture on a Pan-India basis, the Foreign Minister’s official speech at the UN in the Hindi language, Adityanath’s diktat to shut meat shops in Uttar Pradesh during Navaratri are all state-endorsements of cultural monochrome on India that put embargo on that imagination of a collective identity. This cultural drive towards singularity is fascist and anti-people – a dangerous attempt of the BJP to divide and rule, a policy they have thrived on since the party’s inception.
Amrita Datta , Visiting Lecturer, Global South Studies Centre, University of Cologne, Germany