Now out of the 3,300,000 gods that populate the night sky (the Hindu gods alone), the Bengalis have fancied only a handful. This article will be about those gods and what they mean to a quintessential Bengali. And also why they were handpicked out of those billions out there.
The bidhatas, or the almighty (almighties, because we love every kind of plural), are only three: the trinity, or Brohma, Bishnu, and Moheswor. If you think these spellings are a little offbeat, these are how we Bengalis love to pronounce their names. Brohma is the creator, so we don't disturb him much. He has created every conceivable thing and is perhaps happily floating in weightless space. He has conquered the dimension of time, and that involves a lot of hypothetical physics, which I'm no master of. So, like most Bengalis have done, I will leave Brohma alone. I hope he knows how to avoid being sucked into a black hole.
Bishnu, again, I don't know much about. I heard he had mastered the art of cloning himself and sent many of his clones to earth to save it from imminent disasters, and he may also have met Noah at some point of time. I won't be surprised if they exchanged notes over a cup of coffee sometime. I cannot really say he has succeeded in saving the earth much. All his clones went back leaving behind stories and myths surrounding their heroics.
Moheswor is actually Sib (or Shiva). The story starts getting interesting from here. Sib, as we all know and as many of the babas are trying to figure up there in the Himalayas, knew the perfect way to salvation. Leave home, forego your family and material pleasures, and go up to the Himalayas in search of good hash. If it's wet, burn it a little and dry it up. Stuff it into a cigarette and puff once. Puff twice...and you know where he has reached. Stretch your arms and try to fly away to him. Sib has attracted the fancy of men and women alike. Women even have a special prayer called Siboratri, during which they pray for husbands like Sib. If it is for his phallus, which is almost a legend by itself and is his sole symbol on earth, then it probably makes some sense. Indian men are not known to have phalluses like Africans as rumor has it. And if one Indian lady (whom I don't want to name here) can swear that Africans have bigger ones, we cannot possibly blame Indian women for their prayers. May their heartfelt prayers be answered.
After the bidhatas, come the mere gods. And here things get a little chaotic. At this level, the gods can be seen clamouring for space. Space in the mind of a Bengali, because that's where salvation lies for a god, doesn't it? And at this level you get a clear picture of the class divide that is so prevalent up there. There are the elite gods who are out of bounds for the lower castes of Bengalis. Then there is a snake goddess, and many others. Let me come to them one by one.
Durga is perhaps the most beautiful lady who comes visiting us once every year. She has a dudhey aalta complexion, the typical Israeli or even Punjabi complexion you get to see. Flawless. You dare not tell her that she has a slightly oily skin, she can get very touchy about such issues. Durga comes as the goddess of good harvest, as the savior, as the love of every Bengali heart. The fervour with which we wait for her homecoming is perhaps comparable to Europe waiting for Christmas. (Not so much the Americans because they're mostly spent after waiting in front of the discount stores during Thanksgiving. They probably sleep during Christmas, but like I don't know much about Bishnu, I don't know much about the Americans either.) And to wait for the idols being painted and dressed at Kumartuli is another beauty altogether. You sit there with a bowl of jaggery and puffed rice, watching the master sculptors bringing life to the numerous idols.
And finally when she is on earth, we try every possible trick up our sleeves to make those four days longer. We stay up till 6 in the morning, roaming around the streets, visiting the pandals, walking like we never walked all through the year in this Mardi Gras, and still don't fall sick. We eat from the roadside stalls, and still our usually weak gastronomies are not challenged. We survive Durga Puja and are left wiping our tears. If you ever experience a live bishorjon (immersion of the idol on the fourth day), you're bound to find your eyes full. Can seem inexplicable, but it's so universally true. So true!
The French Bengalis, who reside in Chandernagore and speak only Bengali and French, have a French Durga in place, who is lovingly called Jagadhaatri (or, the one who's held the world in her womb). Everything about Jagadhaatri is similar to Durga, only in a smaller scale, and restricted only to Chandernagore. I cannot imagine experiencing similar emotions during Jagadhaatri Puja, but would love to visit Chandernagore to see the lights. Someday.
Some of our Bengali gods are even more pricey. They come once in four years wearing the yellow jersey of Brazil. The chaos that ensues in Bengal during the football puja is best not written about. I owe allegiance to the gods above and if I show an iota of extra love for our Brazilian gods, I may invoke the wrath of god knows who.
Back to the gods, some are really not so lucky. The average upper-class hilsa loving Bengali does not worship Manasa, the snake goddess. She is worshipped mostly in the suburbs and remote villages where the snakes pose a threat. Even Santoshi Ma, who is about 150 years old and is mostly considered from the neighboring state of Bihar, is not worshipped in Calcutta households. This not-so-subtle discrimination among gods has gone unnoticed all these years, but nobody's complaining. And even if they do, Indra, the king of the gods, wouldn't probably have the time to listen.
Indra is another colorful character. When he does have time from watching those endless strip-tease and pole dancing shows, he's known to be thinking of some bollywood sirens. I don't want to elaborate, but not a single Bengali worships Indra.
They do worship some of Indra's qualities though. Indra is a connoisseur of good liquor, and Bengalis are no exception. And their favorite watering hole is Someplace Else at the basement of The Park on Park Street. However, there's a huge debate about whether Bengalis visit Someplace Else for its drinks or the couple of gods who perform there. If you hear one speaking about Nandanda or Kochuda, you know about the two new gods in town. They are reincarnations of Syd Barrett, Roger Waters, Mark Knopfler, Carlos Santana, Eric Clapton, JJ Cale, you name it . . . oh, how could I forget John Lennon, Bob Dylan, or even Dave Gilmour? The Bengali is very touchy about the god named Robert Zimmerman, although one may argue whether he had any sense of music in his peanut-sized head. If you like Tambourine Man, the Bengali will buy you a large drink.
So, let's raise a toast to some of our gods here. Here's to you, all you up there and deep in our collective Bengali psyche. You guys sure rock.