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With the onset of Navaratri on 29th of September, it marks the beginning of what we popularly call Durga Puja here in Assam. Durga puja is the festival of celebrations, the festival of joy, love and rejoice. This puja has a special attachment in the life of each and every member of the Assamese society. Irrespective of religious belief and caste practices, everyone seems to enjoy this festival. That is why this festival is also known as the ‘festival of harmony’. Apart from West Bengal, I believe it is Assam that organizes this festival with so much of joy, rejoice and vigour.
I still remember my childhood days in 1990s. It was the Durga puja when I enjoyed the most. Our old home was in a remote village in Sivasagar district. The nearest puja ‘mandap’ was also several kilometres away from our home. However, travelling to such a distance along with family members, doing all the ‘pujas’ or prayers, eating jalebi, and buying small toys, were the all joys that cherished me for the whole day, the flavour of which lasted till the puja the next year. Such was a strong celebration and joyfulness, still fresh and charming.
In later part of my childhood, we shifted to a small town for proper education and other civic facilities. With it came the opportunity to watch and enjoy the Durga puja from very near to our new home. The excitement was real. But today, when I am refreshing my memory lane from 1990s till date, I can see several changes being occurred in the field of durga puja. The Durga puja today remains no more a festive of joy and harmony only, but several ingredients have erupted in it, for good or for bad. Today as I think of Durga puja and compare it with that of my childhood one, I can see a lot of commercialization of this festival. Today the Durga puja means a rat race for money and commerce. When I see anything related to the Durga puja, the first thing that catches my eyes is the banners of big brands and their lucrative offers. As if the Durga puja means only shopping and spending money in these big brands. And mind you, these brands, as you might be thinking right now, are not limited to garments and apparel but it includes a whole lot of automobile industry, food industry, movie industry, telecommunication, alcohol business etc. Apart from these, several educational institutions, coaching classes are also seen giving several offers in their educational schemes in the name of Durga puja. What astonishes me more is hiring big ambassadors and actors by big companies to limelight their offers. Apart from that, using indigenous prides like ‘Japi’, ‘Gamosa’ etc in the name of puja offers and discounts to lure customers wonders me a lot. What does a ‘Japi’ or ‘Gamosa’ have to do with puja offers by some shopping malls and outside brands?
Next I see ‘politicizing festivals’, especially the Durga puja by politicians and political parties. It was something I never witnessed in my earlier periods of life. Today, almost all the political parties as well as politicians giving large-sized advertisements in the front pages of major newspapers, wishing people for Durga puja is common. Apart from that, almost every puja committee is seen making special arrangements for the local politicians to visit their ‘pandals’. Though I don’t see any wrong in any politician wishing or visiting any puja mandap and offering prayers, but I would have been happier had they visited like a common member of the society. Instead, they are seen visiting these ‘puja pandals’ with special arrangements, giving an impression as if they are there canvassing for votes. Addressing the puja audience is also common. But for why? I was familiar with a different perspective of puja in my childhood, the best perspective though.
As we are approaching more towards a greater risk of climate change and pollution everywhere, Durga puja has a major role to play here, both positive and negative. Today puja has not remained only a ‘puja’, but a symbol of strength, wealth and competition. This is evident from the fact of competition among the organizers in matters of height of the Durga idol and puja ‘pandal’, decorations and various themes that are associated with these pandals etc. Media is also busy telecasting these heights, the money spent by one committee vs other committee, themes of one committee vs other committees etc. In the process everyone ignores the fact that these durga idols are left behind in the roadside or submerged in the rivers, causing huge pollution, threatening the lives of many species. Using heavy loudspeakers and music and dances are something unusual and irrelevant to my eyes. However, the positive side here is nowadays people are being aware of these harmfulness and are trying to shift to biodegradable and eco-friendly durga idols, though a very meagre number of them.
The other day, I was roaming in the streets of Guwahati. The preparation has all begun for the decoration and celebration for puja. I could see big hoardings and notice boards for puja offers, sales and discounts in front of shopping malls, big brands etc. Earning profit is their business. But I was wondering how the small shopkeepers, small scale industries, roadside makeshift shops etc earn even their livelihood in competition with these brands? Nowadays visiting these brands and shopping malls also has become a part of civilization and urbanization for many. Irony here is we complain of economic onslaught and market intrusion by outside companies upon indigenous businesses. But the bigger question here is: who is more responsible for it?
Every society is a changing one. Change is necessary for growth and development of any society. However, in the name of changes we forget that our actions have a repercussion on ourselves only. Let’s pledge to observe an eco-friendly puja this time. Let’s pledge to look towards our own community members also and help them grow their businesses also; if at all puja and commerce are inseparable today. Let’s pledge for a different puja this time, a puja for all, a changed puja.