In West Bengal, if not in the country as a whole, the gods are as earthly as they are sacred. And the pratimas (Durga idols), in pujo pandals across Kolkata, find the divine in the everyday. This year, for example, Mahishasur has been depicted as the COVID-19 virus, and Durga and her offspring as frontline workers slaying him. Then, there’s Durga depicted as a migrant worker — a rendition which sees divinity in those who do the most and, in return, receive the least. In the upcoming festive season — the celebrations were to begin in full force on October 22, shoshti — the goddess must be isolated, and the jostling equality of the crowd, eager to worship and celebrate her conquest and its interpretations, must give way to the necessary precaution of isolation.
The Calcutta High Court’s decision to bar visitors from pandals given the “uncontrollable” rise in COVID-19 cases certainly serves the public interest — only members of the puja committees and priests will be allowed into their respective pandals. It is likely that the rituals will be unaffected. And there will undoubtedly be live-streaming of aartis, Zoom calls where families and friends will eat together, in isolation, across distances, and the attempt at rescuing tradition in the face of the pandemic.
But the culture of Durga Puja is not just about religion. It is about community. Bhog is not about the food, but about communal eating — sharing a meal as much with acquaintances and strangers as with friends and family. It is a time when people across classes and backgrounds can enjoy a public space, and, for a period of time, come out from the mechanical oppression of modern life. In fact, even the inconvenience of the crowded pandals is part of their charm. The virus has certainly robbed people of something this year. Hopefully, it will be slayed in time for Pujo 2021.
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