To me, Navratri has always been associated with Maa Durga. Though born in a Tamilian household, my childhood and youth was spent in communities with a predominantly Bengali population, so Durga Puja is a part of my cultural heritage, not Navratri golu.
The frenzied beat of the dakis. The sound of conch shells being blown. The smell of camphor and flowers, mingling with the tantalizing aroma of street food. New clothes and conversations. And reigning above it all the benign face of Maa Durga, who’s come on a visit with her four children.
Dashami was the day when all the excitement came to an end. Ma Durga would leave her earthly home, and return to her heavenly abode. For us, the excitement would come to an end, and we would be left with three words on our lips, আবার এসো মা/ come back soon, Ma.
If you asked me my family’s traditions for Vijaya Dashami, I wouldn’t be able to answer. Perhaps even my parents didn’t know; they had both grown up in other states and had most certainly picked up traditions from the places where they lived.
Dussehra assumed significance after I married into a North Indian family. But I was never comfortable with interpreting the epic battle between Rama and Ravana as one where Good triumphs over Evil. Rama spoke about the moral code when it came to others, but he was not above breaking them if it suited his purpose and Ravana often conducted himself with more honour than did his antagonist. As I saw it, in that particular battle, good and evil were labels reserved for the victor and the vanquished.
I am not the only one who thinks that way. There are communities which mourn the death of Ravana, just as there are communities that celebrate the victory of Rama.
And that is what makes Hinduism unique. There is no common ‘Hindu’ culture or tradition. There is no single version of Hinduism. There is no one God all Hindus worship. There is no one way in which all Hindus worship a particular God.
In the last few years, there has been a strong attempt to homogenize Hinduism. One deity has been given prominence over the others. A deity that in my part of the country is worshipped in a benign form has metamorphosed into one who is ready for battle. A singular narrative is being thrust on the country.
The essence of Hinduism has always been its plurality. It has been the ability to assimilate and cherish different cultures and traditions. To cherish our differences, and to take pride in our collective tradition. It would be a shame if that is lost.
In my tiny home, we cling to the plurality. Though none of us is a practicing Hindu, and only my husband even identifies himself as one, we carry forward parts of the traditions of our families. On Ashtami, I make kala chana, sooji halwa and poori for lunch because my mother-in-law always did so, and requested me to keep the tradition going. But I soak a larger quantity of kala chana than required, and keep some of it aside to make shundal and payasam the next day because my mother wants that I celebrate Saraswati Puja on Navami. And I am hoping that neither of the kids comes to know about the tradition of smashing a pumpkin on Dashami day, because they will most certainly want to adopt that tradition, and I don’t particularly want to clean up after them!