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October 10, 2016

Who Is Durga?

Sinjini Sengupta tries to solve the mystery of the goddess and discovers herself in the process.

The idol of Durga will come across as a strange paradox, unless your eyes are conditioned to step into a pandal from the time you didn’t know how to walk or if you are a Bengal born. Even then, you will be aware of the conflicting dualities that Durga represents.

The paradox first brushed against me when I brought my British manager on a rather conveniently arranged campus placement drive, all the way from Delhi to Kolkata.  It had been a long exhausting day of interviews when I realised that I only had a couple of hours to show the world–through my white-skinned British boss’s eyes and camera–the magic of Durga Puja.

After we managed to rummage through the almost stampede, this man threw me apart with a rather innocent and seemingly obvious question,“so, what does this goddess stand for?” he asked.

Just moments before, over the deafening drumrolls, I mean, Dhaaker badyi, I had taken the pain on my vocal chords to explain to him what each of her children stood for. That one is for studies, I had pointed out, with a special fetish for the Saraswati. I noticed that he had some idea about the nuances, of the Hindu way of multiples. What I did not notice was that he did notice that I skipped elaborating about the goddess herself.

“So, what did Durga stand for?” he asked again.

Suddenly I was grateful that he had a flight to catch and I dodged the question as I ushered him into a taxi for the airport. The unanswered question haunted me.

So, really, what did Durga stand for and why did the question make me so uncomfortable?

Maybe it was because there are obvious points of conflicts, you cannot help but notice.

She vanquishes demons and she smiles through it all, unlike Kali, who is straight out of the war-field, blood stained and without clothes. You see Durga in the shape of family. She arrives with her children, those who don’t have much to do with the pose that she assumes at the center, as even if mythology is to be believed, they are but her children from another incarnation and not the one who killed the demon.

A couple of years back, I had written a piece on how Durga Puja, despite all and above all, is a festival of homecoming for a married daughter. How the mother, Menoka, coaxes the father, the mighty Himalay, to go get the daughter from Kailash, that mystical abode of Shiva. Because, she fears, Uma the daughter is missing her home. And thus she comes with her bags and children, and a picture of her husband in the wallet. (If you’re pandal-hopping this Pujo, check out the framed photo of Shiva behind the tall idol of the Mother. Yes, it is true. It is there.)

And yet, she is the one who had thrown herself to the fire when, after coming home, she had overheard rumours about the husband’s drinking habits. And then raging, Shiva had arrived, dancing the great Pralay dance of doom with the wife’s corpse upon his shoulder.

But then, Durga is also solo. A lone warrior, who can both kill with her charm and shower kindness. Legends have it that in some colloquial variations, she is a beloved to Mahishahura, the demon god, and thus you explain the joined hands gesture of submission some idols carry in place of a striking enemy.

And then of course, She is Annapurna.

She the savior, she the protector. And she the provider, who feeds a thousand mouths. She is your feminist idol. Emancipated, and perhaps more than that – for she not only has more power over most of the male gods put together, but even plays the damsel in rescue.

Keeping these various myths in mind, I could not decide what did she stand for really, which in turn frustrated me and made me ponder over myself.

What did I stand for? Was I a loser who cries in the middle of the night, suddenly wide awake and deeply scared. Or was I the winner who just won last night making it to the top 5 of a nation-wide poetry contest? Was I the individual who searched her soul? Or was I the mother first who sees her reflection in every little thing her little child does, from the way she dresses to the way she sleeptalks? Was I the daughter first, or the wife? The person in front of the laptop hashing out an article on the keyboard, was that me? Was I the one in this whole world, or was I the whole world in this five arm long body that I call myself? Who is the real person, say? Who am I?

In these existential questions, she came to me innocuously.

She too is like us, dwelling in dualities and complexes.

She is neither the kind mother nor the cruel fighter. She is neither the tormented lover, nor the loving daughter, and perhaps not the ashamed wife too. For, she encapsulates all, like you, and like me.  She is all woman.

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