(Photo by NOAH SEELAM / AFP)
(Photo by NOAH SEELAM / AFP)

The ten-day extravaganza of Durga Puja, which has just ended in Bengal, recalls the Kolkata dramatist Rudraprasad Sengupta saying in his popular stage production Football, “Everybody worships Rabindranath Tagore but nobody reads him.” The puja demonstrated a similar disconnect between practice and precept. It was an exuberance of politics and profit, tempered this year with a form of diplomacy that betrayed the sense of social inferiority many Indians suffer from. The absence of much evidence of faith and the conflict between the puja’s central message and surrounding conditions were, perhaps, even more marked shortcomings.

Despite worshipping the female shakti that Durga – the word means “fortress” – represents, Kolkata ranks second among Indian cities in crimes against women. The national position is even more deplorable despite the Prime Minister’s “Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao” campaign. India’s ranking in the World Economic Forum’s gender gap index has fallen by 21 points, placing us after China and Bangladesh.

According to the WEF, women are poorly represented in all decision-making bodies, and 66 per cent of their work is for free. Women are also at the tail end in such matters as health, education, employment, placing India 137th among 144 countries concerning opportunity for economic participation. So far as female survival is concerned, India ranks 141st. Indeed, the Census finding of 108.9 men for every 100 women suggests that in one form or another, female infanticide continues.

Attempts to bridge the gender gap like the Women’s Reservation Bill fizzled out. Social workers claim the last decade witnessed a fivefold increase in crimes against women and that a sexual offence against a girl child takes place every 15 minutes. Although dowry was outlawed in 1961, it is still in vogue.

The reason for dwelling on this shameful situation now is the supreme irony of revering Parvati as Siva’s all-powerful ten-armed consort, the supreme being and creator of the universe, the female power (shakti) without which the world would be nothing, while paying scant attention to the plight of earthly females. It is even more ironical that the goddess that Bengalis have been worshipping is Mahishasurmardini, or the slayer of the male demon, Asura, in the form of a buffalo, or Mahishasura, epitome of all evil in the universe.

The legend is that unable to defeat him, the gods appealed to the invincible Durga to take on the demon. This Durga did, riding a lion, a weapon of war in each of her ten hands and surrounded by her sons and daughters. The worshipped image shows Durga, the all-powerful woman, in the act of slaying the half-man half-buffalo Mahishasura, her spear dripping blood. The image symbolizes the triumph of good over evil. It also represents woman’s victory which is especially significant in a state whose female Chief Minister makes no bones of ruling her male colleagues with an iron hand.

Durga Puja was politics long before Mamata Banerjee announced a Rs 10,000 grant for each of 28,000 community pujas. Or her ruling Trinamool Congress declared she had been invited to inaugurate 10,000 of these events. It has also always been profit for you can’t have one without the other. Politics is money, and money is politics. It was reported in 2015 that the Durga Puja industry, said to be growing at a compound annual growth rate of about 35 per cent, was expected to touch Rs 40,000 crore. ASSOCHAM reckons that each year’s Durga Puja pumps about Rs 45,000 crores into the economy.

To some extent these are all guesses for Durga Puja is an orgy of cash spending. Nobody can possibly know exactly how much is collected in private donations and spent on sweets and flowers, priests and rituals, on garishly lavish electrical decorations, or, for that matter, how much money the politically influential patron of each puja and his chelas pocket. Even legitimate costs are forbiddingly high. At Rs 15 crore, one Kolkata pandal, themed on the Hindi period drama film Padmaavat, with its image adorned with 8 gs of gold, was said to be the costliest in the country.

An image made in Kolkata but for a puja for the Bengali community in Agartala, Tripura, cost about Rs 4 crores. In addition, there’s the cost of Ms Banerjee’s lavish Kolkata Carnival all along the main thoroughfares in the Maidan to judge and award prizes for the best idols and pandals. The immersions now are another major undertaking involving hundreds of vehicles, boats and workmen. The old days of volunteers inspired by faith are long gone.

Politics and profit had a third partner this year — diplomacy. Understandably, the American ambassador, Kenneth I. Juster, jumped at the chance of inaugurating a puja, beating drums and visiting pandals. It’s his job to impress the natives that far from being the blustering global bully that is so grudging with H1B visas, the United States of America under Donald Trump is out to win friends and influence people. It’s even more the job of China’s consul-general, Ma  Zhanwu, to cultivate Indians and try subtly to convince them China was not in the wrong in the Doklam standoff in Bhutan.

Mr Ma, who finished his term in Kolkata as Durga Puja ended and is now heading back for Beijing, inaugurated one of the events with Ms Banerjee, the Governor of West Bengal, and a galaxy of dignitaries including a high priest from the Jagannath Temple in Puri. He also imported from China teams of craftsmen and musicians in a demonstration of abundant goodwill. The cultural panjandrums of the British Council, who also featured in the event, might be said to have a prescriptive right to participate in any Kolkata event.

The point is not that these foreigners attended the functions but that the Bengali organisers wanted them to do so. This applies even more to the consuls of Germany, Japan, France and Italy who had no particular motive except to oblige hosts who clearly yearned for a foreign presence. Foreigners, especially whites, are much in demand all over India. If the country’s topmost dignitary fawns over them, it’s not at all surprising that foreigners still mean social cachet and PR achievement in the city the British founded more than 300 years ago.

Sunanda K Datta-Ray  is the author of several books and a regular media columnist.

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