When the average student of fifth standard in Bengal is asked to write an essay on Durga Puja, she does not forget to mention that besides being the most awaited festival of the year, it is a celebration of the power of womanhood. Saree brands leave no stone unturned to monetize this seemingly feminist stance in their commercials. Radio channels, newspapers and social media platforms are intoxicated in the worship of Maa, who, according to mythology, descends with her four children from her husband Shiva’s abode to her father’s home. The build-up to the festive days echo with repeated statement of the fact that Durga Puja is all about how powerful women are. This takes place every time one is told how the clay from prostitution is used in making idols, every time Mahisashurmardini is chanted and listened to with great fervour, and every time the following practices are observed.
This is a ritual performed by Hindu men on the occasion of Mahalaya. They take a dip in the holy Ganges and chant mantras in memory of their departed ancestors, praying for their souls to rest in peace. It is considered as a reflective start to the upcoming days of merrymaking that Durga Puja is. Undoubtedly it is an effective way to ward off negative spirit, but this way is only open to men. Talking about how Tarpan is practised, I have, in 19 years of being brought up in Bengal in a Hindu family, never seen or heard of a woman performing this rite. Salvation is difficult to achieve, so much so that you are not even entitled to the privilege of leading someone to it if you are a woman.
- The Fast On Sashthi
Hindus have various kinds of fasts on many Sashthis all year round. Now Sashthis constitute an exclusive reserve for mothers. ‘Barren’ women do not get to observe this fast for the well-being of wards. This fast is one of those incentives that patriarchy allows women for being…well, women. This ritual is made to look auspicious, hence, binding for mothers. The observance of this fast is a clear indicator to distinguish between good mothers and not-so-good mothers.
As they say, ‘Motherhood is a biological fact, fatherhood is a sociological fiction.’
-Nivedita Menon, Seeing Like A Feminist
Fathers, however, do not have to fast. While it strengthens the bond between the mother and child(ren), it is a form of socialization that imposes less burdens on the father who has neither borne the child(ren), nor is expected to have as much attachment to the offspring as the mother does. He is the perpetual breadwinner of the family.
- Kumari Puja
As a symbol of immense reverence for Naarishakti (female power), a girl around 8 years old is worshipped by the priest and other devotees. She is the Kumari Durga– the one with potential qualities of the goddess. She is draped in a saree usually too cumbersome for her age, made to wear elaborate ornaments and a ghomta (veil). This is an implication of her fate- one restricted by clothes which make her immobile and most importantly, the inevitability of becoming a mother, because lack of motherhood is implied futility of a woman’s existence. Out of all features such as matching up to the conventional standards of beauty, being very young, and the like, the most prized possession at the command of the kumari is the fact that she is yet to attain puberty, which brings with it the unholy condition of menstruating. A female is, afterall, pure only as long as she has not experienced menarche. Her purity gets tarnished with the ushering of her womanhood.
- Sindur Khela
When Maa is bade farewell, married women smear sindur (vermilion powder) on the faces of each other with the greeting, “Shubho Bijoya!” after having done the same upon the idol’s faces and hands. This is believed to bring prosperity to their households. No wonder sindur khela has spilled over the boundary of marital status with spinsters observing it for fun. However, this practice perpetuates the glorification of marriage in women’s lives. It automatically makes a distinction between the married and the unmarried, and makes it a “meyeder byapar” (women’s affair). Sugar-coated in the red powder, patriarchy marks the end of Durga Puja too.
Our Durga is fair-skinned, pretty and auspicious. She does not represent the inauspicious, the barren, the celibate. She is, through our practices, very mainstream heterosexual, but Ashchhe Bochhor Abar Hobe (shall recur next year)!
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