I remember reading somewhere in the context of Dwarkanath Tagore, about how the protestant ethic of Bengalis helped them succeed in business. That theory doesn’t quite explain the subsequent shrinking of the list of pre-eminent Bengali owned businesses. And I don’t quite know whether ‘protestant’ is the right word. But in no other Indian community, is religion such a matter of convenience. My mother, who considers herself to be quite religious, has forever had a scientific aversion to fasting. My grandmother is considerably more devout, having observed Shiv Ratri since she was twelve. She once told me not to say out loud the prayers that the priest calls out during pushpanjali since the Sanskrit words often hide behind them, quite regressive ideas. She encouraged me instead, to make up my own prayers in any language I preferred. And it’s not just a family. Our main festival, Durga Pujo, is essentially an excuse to overhaul wardrobes, dig into non-vegetarian food (to the consternation of the Navratri-observing, abstemious ‘non-bengalis’), and bond with old friends over aadda. Saraswati Pujo, unofficially Bengal’s own Valentines’ Day, is another one of those occasions when we mix pleasure with piety.
Saraswati in Hindu Mythology is the goddess of learning. This time it ‘fell on’ 15 February, though in the past, and especially in my board years had the tendency to be right in the middle of exams. Yet, I remember devotedly giving up all my books to lay at the feet of the Goddess and solemnly observe the ritual of not studying. To make up for that, I would concentrate on the prayers a little harder (notwithstanding my grandmom’s advice) and sometimes also offer to distribute the bhog- all to curry favour with Maa. Now of course things have changed. I no longer attend the pujo that the Bengalis of the middle-class colony I grew up in, conduct. We have a small pujo at home. Which my mom performs. Unlike in my old colony, where the priest had a day-job as a scientist. And there is no gaggle of gossiping women chopping fruits for the prasad. Only me, grudgingly carrying out the errands my mother sets out for me. We have the bhog at our dining table. Earlier, I would squat on the floor with my friends while an adult would dump khichdi and labra on our Styrofoam plates. And the celebrations would take all day. Now we are through by noon.
One thing remains the same though.