Suryatapa Mukherjee

As Tanishq withdrew its ad about an inter-religious baby shower fearing their employees’ safety, Kolkata is gearing up for the Durga Pujas where people of all religions celebrate together.

Kidderpore’s 5 Star Club hosts one of the smallest pujas in Kolkata, the Durga Puja capital. And yet, it manages to capture a steady flow of press every year. In this Muslim-majority red light area, the puja is organised by more Muslims than Hindus who call the goddess ‘Ma’ like their own. A little distance away, in Ekbalpore, Munshotola Sharbojonin Durgotsav Club is organising a Durga Puja celebration that was started 80 years ago by a Muslim politician. The pandal is located at the centre of a marketplace populated mostly by Muslim business-owners who are its financial backbone. Chetla Agrani Club’s sprawling pandal sits proudly as one of the most well-known in the city. Started by TMC leader, Cabinet Minister and Kolkata Mayor Bobby Hakim, it’s right next door to the neighbourhood mosque.

The nation is caught in a conversation about inter-religious relations as Tanishq withdraws its ad depicting a Muslim mother-in-law organising a traditional Hindu baby shower for her daughter-in-law. In a secular country with a constitution that allows inter religious marriages, right-wing Hindutva activists have protested at Tanishq stores in Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh, demanding apologies. Home Minister Amit Shah has spoken up condemning such ‘over-activism’. All of this seems to be happening in a different world from the one where Hindus and Muslims are gearing up to host one of the biggest festivals of the country. On their list of concerns is the coronavirus pandemic and financial constraints, but not religion.

This is our next generation. The way we have been living, even if someone wants to break us, they won’t be able to. We have grown up together. Now we just want to grow old and pass away together too,
Unsurprisingly, with the emergence of BJP as the only opposition in the state, Durga Puja has found itself amidst political mudslinging several times over the past few years. Both Narendra Modi and Amit Shah had claimed that Mamata Banerjee doesn’t ‘allow’ Durga Pujas to take place in Bengal, the Hindu right wing protested when one day of immersions and Muharram clashes prompting the government to push back the former. And this year, the Kolkata Police has arrested dozens of people who had begun circulating a piece of ‘guidelines’ which claimed the government will impose curfews during the Pujas. In response, the Mamata Banerjee government rushed to announce sops for Puja committees, which had been widely criticised as a move to bury religious tensions with money.

The Puja Committee of 5 Star Club are unable to say exactly how old the tradition is. “It must be over 70 years, I guess. We have seen our fathers do it and they have seen theirs, so it’s hard to say,” Vikas Roy, the treasurer of the club, says. The previous Club President Sheikh Jahangir would conduct the puja rituals with a brahmin priest. He would cut the fruits and read the scriptures, like his uncle Shahid Ali. However, this generational family tradition ended when Sheikh Jahangir passed away a few years ago. “There was a year when Muharram and Durga Puja arrived simultaneously. The tazia was right next to the pandal. We celebrated with Ma and we performed our duties for Muharram too. We distributed khichra (a Muharram-special dish) while hosting Debi Boron,” says Mohammad Nazim the new club President. with pride.

Roy’s fondest memory of Durga Puja is from the year when Bakra-Eid and Durga Puja were at the same time. “We celebrate Muharram of course, but Kurbani is the most important occasion for Muslims here. So, we were in a bind, unable to decide what to do that year. We held a meeting and decided to do both! There was an opportunity for a dispute but we didn’t let that happen,” he says beaming. “They were only missing from the pandal on the day of Kurbani. All the other days we were together,” he adds. His son Kunal Roy, a pre-teen, sits next to him. They say that when Ramzan rolls around, Kunal showers and gets dressed in a panjabi and a prayer cap every evening. He then heads to his friend Ripon’s house in time for Iftar. “This is our next generation. The way we have been living, even if someone wants to break us, they won’t be able to. We have grown up together. Now we just want to grow old and pass away together too,” says Maqbool Saddar, a committee member.

Unlike other years, the pandal is not ready with less than a week before the festivities. Even with Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s grant of Rs 50,000 this year, finances are a struggle for this area. “We don’t let Ma lack anything so that she is fully satisfied with us. Sometimes it may happen that Ma is ready but there is no money for transport to bring her. So then we pay out of our own pockets. What can we do?” says Abdul Mannan, one of the oldest members of the committee. They say that being in a red light area, they are unable to attract sponsorships and businesses like pujas in other areas. Clubs that attract that kind of money are the ones that can afford themed pandals – a Durga Puja novelty.

The puja here is kept afloat financially by the sex workers living in the area. Their homes line the roads leading to the pandal. The women sit on the steps outside, fanning themselves and chatting. “We celebrate puja with a lot of pomp from Debi Baran to Sindur Khela. We dance to the drums when we take Ma for immersion,” says Puja.

She contributes to the puja monetarily every year, from Rs 500-1000. One of the women, Rani, goes to the pandal every day with her little daughter. She points to her at the incomplete pandal, playing with other children. When asked about what she thinks about the puja being organised by Hindus and Muslims together, she says, “Nobody looks Hindu or Muslim to us. We follow all religions. God is one.”

Ekbalpore’s Munshotola Sharbojonin Durgotsav Club is in walking distance from Kidderpore’s  5 Star Club. Waterlogged lanes snake into the sprawling marketplace which cradle the club’s pandal. The puja committee has downsized the festivities this year and are using the Chief Minister’s grant to arrange masks and sanitisers. The puja here was started by a Muslim political leader, late Mohammad Kalimuddin Saks. Now, the puja committee president is Mohammad Rabuddin who is also on Hitech’s board of directors. The puja itself is mainly financed by the Muslim businessmen who work in the surrounding market. “The contribution of the businessowners here to our pujo is a lot. We don’t have other sources of funding as such. It’s never like they step back because of religion. It’s simply not a factor,” says Sanjit Das, treasurer of the club.

Growing up, our Hindu neighbours knew that during Ramzan we were fasting. So they would skip their lunch and wait for Iftar to eat with us. That is the depth of the love here
When he was younger, Das says that this was completely a residential area. The marketplace popped up over the years and more and more families left. Brothers Md Amjad and Shahid look back fondly on their childhood in the neighbourhood, nostalgic for the times gone by. Now they own a local electronic shop in the market and are unable to take a break from work even during puja. “We would anxiously wait for puja and go out with our non-Muslim friends. Now with the pressures of family life, it’s not possible to maintain that friend circle,” says Md Amjad.

They say that the area’s culture is mixed, with all festivals being celebrated with equal fervour. “Growing up, our Hindu neighbours knew that during Ramzan we were fasting. So they would skip their lunch and wait for Iftar to eat with us. That is the depth of the love here,” says Shahid. However, with families leaving the neighbourhood, that feeling of community is diminishing and so are the puja crowds. “Now puja has just become about buying branded clothes and showing off. That’s it,” he says.

While Ekbalpore residents lament the shrinking of their puja, Chetla locals have seen theirs grow in leaps and bounds. Starting on a footpath 28 years ago, Chetla Agrani Club’s puja is now famous across the city. West Bengal Urban Development Minister Bobby Hakim started the tradition and is the puja committee president. He is also the caretaker of the mosque right next door. “When I am home, I offer namaz at that mosque and during Durga Puja I’m here at this pandal,” he says. Even before his birth, Kali Puja had been an annual fixture next to the mosque. In 2017, Hakim was appointed the chair of Tarakeshwar Development Board in Hooghly district, in-charge of the three centuries old Tarakeshwar temple. The decision received massive backlash from BJP leaders across the nation and it became an election issue in the state. After mounting criticism, Hakim resigned from the Board in 2019.

Hakim derisively condemns the backlash received by Tanishq over its advertisement. “There is no religion between a mother and her son or between a husband and a wife. These are divine loves,” he says. This would be expected from any Trinamool Congress Party leader with State Assembly elections approaching in 2021, as right-wing Hindutva is associated with its biggest rival, the Bharatiya Janata Party.

However, for Hakim in this instance, the political is personal. “I am the son of a Hindu mother. My mother was a Mukherjee. My parents had an interreligious marriage 67 years back, in those days just after independence! My sister is married to a Hindu. Can religion ever come between my sister and I?” Hakim says. He visits his sister for Bhai Phota every year like his uncle would visit his mother. “It is preposterous to say that religion should interfere with personal relations. Who cares?”

Courtesy Huffpost