Durga Puja and the Poor, Naked, Hungry, Sick Girl

“Mystical Poet” Tagore wrote his non-mystical Bengali verse a hundred years ago:

“Anandamoyeer agamane anande giyechhe desh chheye

Hero oi dhanir duare daRaiya kangalinee meye…”


Bliss filled the mortal earth up and down below

Almighty Mother arrived: time for joyous psalm 

But watch the poor, naked girl with nowhere else to go

Arrived at the rich’s door with an ever-extended palm

Has anything changed since Tagore wrote it? Just look around.

Of course, Bengal and India were undivided back in those days. A British colonial rule was in place. People like me or my parents or grandparents didn’t have political freedom. There was famine. There was rule of the jungle. There was huge rich and poor disparity – with the Indian rich with their British masters exploiting and whipping their Indian servants, womanizing their Indian women, and shooting and hanging “terrorist” revolutionaries (they did it for a hundred years before Gandhi and his Congress Party were brought from South Africa, and put in power). There was extreme poverty; a once-rich and prosperous civilization was force-transformed very quickly into a pauper nation. Beggars would mob affluent Desi landlords and their ladies (i.e., Rajas and Ranis spending millions on their cat’s wedding) visiting the Kali temple in Kalighat. Prostitutes and their pimps would line up the same streets after dark. There would be huge charity at the Durga Puja festivities organized by powerful community leaders known for their unquestionable allegiance to the most powerful people in their version of White House or 10 Downing Street…

But wait a minute! I just read the above lines the second time over…what am I talking about? Have I gone insane? It seems I’m talking about  2011, and not 1911 — two years before Tagore got his first-ever-Asian’s Nobel Prize and exactly the same year when the British moved the Indian capital from Calcutta to Delhi!

I just realized I was describing today, when I was thinking about a century before. What nonsense!

So, now…I promised my readers that I would not write in a long-winded, complicated way; I promised I would keep it simple. So, my point is this.

The Slumdog Here and the Millionaire Over There

Nothing seriously has changed in India. Even after sixty-some years of the British-donated independence and transfer of power to a bunch of feudal, racist, patriarchal, corrupt and violent people that ruled the subcontinent and its three, partition-created countries, out of the estimated 1.2 billion people (i.e., a fifth of the world’s population), nearly eighty percent still live in either abject poverty or some variety of poverty. Women are systematically subjugated, bride burning and dowry deaths are rampant, children don’t get enough to eat and can’t go to school, corruption, police brutality and violence are sky high, and a large number of people are extremely superstitious, illiterate without the ability to think or analyze, and those who can afford to spend money would not spend money for any social justice or even a liberal-philanthropic cause. But they would not blink for a moment before spending millions on their cat’s wedding (or else, cat walks). The poor and the minority are considered untouchable.

If you need an even longer list of failures of a failed Indian (or Pakistani) state, read my little article Sixty Years of Fake Freedom.

Hey, nothing personal, really. This is what it is. You don’t believe me? Let’s have a debate. Now.

So, what does it all have to do with religion and spirituality? Well, the ongoing Durga Puja across India and the Indian-Bengali diaspora is an example of that fakeness.

What IS Sprituality? Live Merry with “Eyes Closed?”

The high-excitement community Durga Puja has taken an extremely degenerate form where corporate money flows like Hudson River’s polluted water (I was tempted to say Ganges’ filthy water — then decided not to because of religious sentiments, even though Holy Mother Ganges is perhaps the most polluted river in the world now). Billions of dollars are spent to erect makeshift community puja temples with their blaring-deafening microphones that would all come down in just four days; another few billions are spent on making the clay idols that would also dissolve in the same Ganges or her sister rivers in four days. The other few billions are spent by the upper class and middle class Indians and Bengalis on expensive saris, kurtas, ornaments and sundry expenses. And oh yes, how can I forget…Bengalis would spend like crazy to eat out…no fun and festivity would be complete for Bengali-Indians without fancy feasts and fabulous fish curry.

But they would not spare even a paltry ten or fifteen percent of the unthinkably-outrageous amount to feed, clothe, heal or educate the poor and the destitute, even in the name of the goddess. Swami Vivekananda called this ignorance-apathy “a crime.” But he died a hundred years ago, and his teachings died soon after.

Tagore observed the un-Godly inequality a century ago. He wrote about it all his life (media feel real uncomfortable talking about it; the “mystic” thing works nice). Nothing changed ever since. Poor people are still poor, the hungry and the sick are still hungry and sick, anemic women are still fetching water from two miles away from home, beggars are still begging at the temple courtyard waiting for the rich to dole out alms (for the “pious,” that would be a holy, religious act for a sure no-return birth to heaven — no reincarnation required at all), and slaves and virtual slaves are still serving their masters — in urban and rural India and Bengal.

In the midst of fun-holiday-decorated, highly charged, electrifying, gold- and silver-ornamented Durga Puja, Eid, Diwali and Christmas festivities, the have Indians don’t have much time to think about the have-nots — the poor and dispossessed that Tagore, Vivekananda and Sister Nivedita talked about. In fact, using terminology such as haves and have-nots would automatically qualify me to be a communist…radical…at least, too political. India don’t do political no more! That “sin” too died a hundred years ago.

The conscience of the haves, perhaps, still pricks once in a while. Then, to absolve themselves from the committed sins and possibly-committed sins, they offer more pujas, salats and salts to their gods and goddesses, and offer more alms to the beggars mobbing them at the temple courtyard. (Hey, you know, that’s safe too — just get rid of ’em ASAP — or you could get either bedbugs or badmouths.)

A great, ancient civilization — along with her great, ancient religions — moves on. That poor, naked, hungry, sick girl Tagore wrote about waits for her dream reincarnation to be a film star, or at least to be the wife of a politician, business magnet or cricket player.

Jai Ma Durga!

Sincerely Writing,


Brooklyn, New York


More than a Century at the Kali Temple: Waiting for Alms

8 thoughts on “Durga Puja and the Poor, Naked, Hungry, Sick Girl

  1. Very insightful blog Partha!! It is hard to imagine the things you describe but unfortunately the same similarities between the rich and poor are now occurring in this country… We still have a voice to protest but it seems as though the poor in India have none…

    1. Linda,

      Thanks for writing your comments of support, as always. India is in a horrific situation — and in the name of religion and spirituality, hollow, mindless celebration is going on 24/7. Indian middle class is now proudly “non-political,” as long as things don’t hit their wallets directly. And then, when it does, it’s too late. I’m greatly disturbed, especially to see this mindlessness.

      Here in USA, millions of young people are demonstrating right now against outrageous economic inequality and corporate tyranny — unthinkable in India. Plus, nobody even knows about it, thanks to Indian media’s total blackout.

      Please keep in touch. -Partha

  2. Though I’m in agreement with your thoughts expressed in the blog, at the same time, on the flip side, don’t you think festivals like Durga Puja give the rather underprivileged populace, belonging to the unorganized sector, an opportunity to earn enough to see their kitchen fire burning throughout the year? For example, a festival like Durga Puja gives the poor artisans of Kumartuli and the ‘dhakis’ the opportunity to make the kind of money they can’t think of seeing, least of all earning, the rest of the year…hawkers sell clothes, accessories and wares like no other time in the year and yes, the highly decorative pandals, idols and lighting also make way for poor laborers and technical hands to improve their otherwise ‘hand-to-mouth’ conditions…so, it is money rolling and circulating from hand to hand…..besides, one of the reasons of establishing festivals was to bring people together – in this fast moving, chaotic world, it is rather refreshing to meet friends, kith and kin during festival time, most of whom one does not get to see in a long time…however, thanks for the blog – it set me thinking..

    1. Shila, I have no problems if some people make some money out of this enchilada. But it’s what is called trickle-down economics: it throws crumbs from the top to the bottom of the economic and social pyramid, and it’s neither about dignity nor about economic justice. It’s self-gratification for us. We are afraid to face the reality; we are afraid to invite the drummer Dhaki man and his boy to allow in to our houses to sleep at night; they sleep in a corner of that extravagant makeshift temple or on the porch of the rich man’s house where the festivities are spending hundreds of thousands in cash. Plus, in more conservative places outside Bengal or Punjab, Hindus don’t even allow low-caste associates to enter the temple; I’ve seen it in my own eyes. But that’s another story. Right now, I’m focusing on the hollowness of this so-called spirituality. Fun for us few, sure. No fun for the large majority out there. This is not my religion. This is not my God.

  3. Partha Da,

    I don’t think anybody equates Durga Puja with spirituality any more. Not seriously, at least, not for decades now. I remember listening from under my quilt to Uttam Kumar’s voice instead of Biren Bhadra’s chanting the Chandipath early one Mahalaya morning. Though that died down soon enough, and Biren Bhadra’s voice came back the next year, even as someone just into her teens I knew that the meaning of worship – if one could still call it that – was changing, and not for the better. I do think there may be something to the circulation-of-wealth idea Shila Di refers to, but I’m not an economist, so I won’t venture any guesses on the level of skimming off, or the level at which it happens. As it undoubtedly does. I must ask you this question though, more because I’m curious than because I want to call you out on this : if you think Durga Puja – generally, as well as particularly among probashis in the US – is such a shallow and spiritually arid affair – why is it that your blog says you go every year? What is it you get from being there? Or do you do it only to gather your breath and data more fulminations? I agree with almost everything you have to say about the inequity we see around us, and from a feminist angle I also see how the terrible potency of feminine energy has been appropriated and tamed by patriarchy. Yet I go and offer anjali every year, hoping that the world will one day become more equal if we all try to think, speak and act in ethical and equitable ways. Does that make me confused? I don’t believe so. Spivak once wrote about our constitutive contradictions; the more I reflect on it, the more it becomes one of my favourite keys to understanding the world.


    1. Thanks for writing, SB. Gayatri Spivak talked about contradictions in her scholarly way; I’ve experienced it in my real-life, grassroots way. She makes us all think. I do not go there every year for “more fulminations” although some of my friends believe that is the case. I of course observe with this little thing Goddess Durga gave me: this little box attached on top of my shoulder — with two sets of antennas and a computer-like instrument. It helps. I see waste of human energy and idiotic, meaningless entertainment in the name of spirituality, but I never believe in detachment from the rituals and rites (plus or minus the religion) that I’ve grown up with and considered my own. In a way, I’m not an avidly atheist liberal; spirituality has serious meaning in me. But I connect my spirituality not with a self; but rather, with a collective. Maybe, it’s because of the teachings of Tagore, Sister Nivedita and Ram Mohan Ray. Maybe, it’s the collective spiritual consciousness of Sri Chaitanya. I’m still trying to understand the real purpose of my life through these yearly visitations. Plus, some places have good food.

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