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PSA for All: Durga Puja is Not Navaratri So Please Don't Ask a Bengali to Not Eat Fish

PSA for All: Durga Puja is Not Navaratri So Please Don't Ask a Bengali to Not Eat Fish

Durga Puja is not Navaratri, it never was.

There's a very popular saying in Bengali, 'Baaro maashey tairo parbon'. It translates to something like this- in twelve months, there are 13 festivals. All twelve months of our calendar are littered with dates and days for celebrations. It is this festive diversity that is often eulogised in postcards, political speeches, songs and pop culture. But lately, there's a trend of cultural homogenisation, especially during festivals. The latest example of this can be seen in the Fortune advertisement controversy in Bengal.

Durga Puja, the Bengali cousin of the North Indian Navaratri stems from the worship of 'avatars' of the same goddess - Durga or Shera Wali. However, having evolved in the Eastern state of Bengal, Durga Puja has its own flavour, its own rules, which are quite distinct from Navaratri. It is a carnivalesque celebration that goes on for almost a week and engulfs the entire city. It is not a replication of Navratri but rather a modified counterpart of the same, made peculiar by the particular peculiarities of the Bengali people.

So it is no great surprise then when a section of so-called 'Hindu' activists demanded and received an apology from Fortune for making an advertisement starring a Bong couple eating indulging in some 'sinful' fish eating on Navami, many Bengalis were mighty offended.

While the questionable fringe group, Hindu Janjagrut Samiti campaigned against the advertisement with the intent to boycott Fortune for it's 'egregious' assault on the Hindu faith, many in Bengal cried foul at the evident attempt of cultural (and culinary) appropriation. Because while there are, of course, vegetarian (and now even vegan) Bengalis, a majority of us consume meat and fish, the latter being almost a staple. In fact, we don't just eat the fish, we love eating the fish - it isn't just food, it's beyond. Fish is a way of life in Bengal, much like Pujo. It is therefore unthinkable for most Bengalis to think of the two as mutually exclusive.

If you have ever lived in Kolkata, you will know that Durga Puja has never been a religious festival. It is a festival that most people in the state, including Muslims and migrants from other states, celebrate with equal fervour. It is also not limited to the worship of a deity. Pujo means many things to many people in Bengal - a time for devotion, a time to let one's hair down, a time to buy new clothes and parade them in overcrowded pandals. It also, invariably, is a time to gorge. Food is an essential part of Bengal's rubric and quite a bit of its culinary culture is based and derived from fish and meat.

Every year, Durga Puja is an opportunity for restaurants to make a few extra bucks and even small-scale eateries often need to set up two extra roadside stalls to meet the increased demand. And out of experience, the number of non-vegetarian food stalls and restaurants is invariably more. While most North Indians, including young people, actively participate in fasting, in Bengal the culture of fasting and 'niramish' (vegetarian) is a bit different.

It is not necessary for people to observe fast on all nine days of Navratri. Rather, most people observe a vegetarian diet (if they want to) on Shoshti and Ashtami (the sixth and eighth day). The rest of the days are largely non-vegetarian and eating meat on Navami, the ninth day is in fact customary. While some families that host 'bonidibari' or traditional pujas at home may stave off the cooking of meat inside the house for the span of the Pujo, these traditions vary from family to family.

In fact, many Puja pandals themselves distribute meat to devotees on Navami, the ninth day of the festival. In some similar traditional home pujas, there also exists the practice of animal sacrifice. Sacrificing goats at the altar has been given as an offering both during Navami of Durga Puja and Kali Puja. While the cruelty of the practice has raised questions about its continuance in modern times, it goes on to prove that meat has always been a part of Durga Puja.

The fact that the most consumed food items during the festival include fish fry, egg roll, chicken fried rice and mutton kosha, all don-vegetarian dishes, is indicative of the years of custom eating that Bengal has developed. To come here and cry foul over 'consecration' of Hinduism due to meat eating is as bizarre as going to Australia and saying you hate the sea or going to New York and saying you hate hot dogs. It is a useless waste of constructive discussion space and an insult to the secularity of Bengal.

But certain sections have for some time now been trying to introduce discord and religious morality into the otherwise almost Bacchanalian celebration of female power and gaity that is Durga Puja. Remember the controversy against an egg roll recipe video last Puja? To those sections, this is an earnest request, expressly from a Bengali from Kolkata on Pujo: Durga Puja is not Navratri, it never was. Bengalis love meat, they always did. Isn't an attempt to vilify something so intrinsically part of Bengal and it's population, Hindu or otherwise, an 'egregious' attack on faith too? Durga Puja, above all, is a celebration of strength - a strength which can often be found within oneself, in one's community and in the diversity of India.

Campaigning against meat eating during Puja is thus nothing but a political attempt to paint an otherwise multi-hued festival into a homogeneous saffron. And just like Bengalis don't complain about eating vegetarian fare on Navratri days or grooving to the Garba beat, we would like if institutions such a Hindu Janjagrut Samiti would let us celebrate Puja the way it was meant to be - with lots of colour, mirth, and meat. I rest my case.