Durga Puja for All

Durga Puja for All

Durga Puja For All, Durga Puja, Dasara Festival, Goddess Durga. It’s time to celebrate Goddess Durga in all her nine powerful avatars. And it is also time for festive frenzy and unlimited shopping. Those with means splurge unabashedly on garments, parties and vacations, even as those without are

It’s time to celebrate Goddess Durga in all her nine powerful avatars. And it is also time for festive frenzy and unlimited shopping. Those with means splurge unabashedly on garments, parties and vacations, even as those without are

Come September and the festive spirit starts making its presence felt with a vengeance in every corner of Bengal. Shops offer glitzy displays and tantalising discounts. Newspapers and television channels begin their own countdown to the Puja, the single most important festival of Bengali Hindus, now celebrated across all communities. Elaborate structures to house the idols of the deities for four or five days, or even more, mushroom in parks, playgrounds and roadsides. Markets and malls record unimaginable footfalls as the entire population seems to embark on an unending shopping spree.

The meek, it might have been decreed in times long past, shall inherit the earth. But Suneeta Devi, 44, a worker in a biscuit factory in Sodpur, in the northern suburbs of Kolkata, Bengal’s state capital, laughs at the idea. “Try telling that to my colleagues,” she says. “Women work the hardest but not only are our wages too inadequate to raise a family, our annual bonus is also generally far less than what the men get. The festive season hits us the hardest,” she asserts.

For Suneeta, Durga Puja is that time of year. “I look forward to it the most and also dread it the most”. The children must have new dresses – in fact, it is the only time they get any new clothes. She also has to give them some pocket money – “much more than I can spare” – so that they can go out with their friends and have a good time at least on the days of the festival. The house must be spruced up; neighbours and relatives, who will drop in have to be offered sumptuous refreshments. After a moment’s pause she asks, “And shall I buy nothing for myself? It is impossible, I tell you!”

Suneeta’s friend and neighbour, Kiran Bhagat, a temporary worker in a soft drinks factory in Titagarh in the northern suburbs of the city, observes, “It is up to the women to ensure that the days of the festival are not as dreary as the rest of the days of the year. We scrimp and save all year round, do without so many essentials and avoid indulgences, just so that the family can have a good time during Puja.”

The festive season is expensive. Which is why it is a convention in most local mills and factories to pay their employees an annual bonus just before Durga Puja. According to the Payment of Bonus Act, 1965, an employee (in any factory or other establishment employing 20 or more persons) drawing wages up to Rs 10,000 per month is entitled to bonus and the minimum bonus payable is 8.33 per cent of the wages in the financial year. Thus, the minimum bonus payable to an employee is roughly equivalent to one month’s salary or wages.

However, for thousands of women like Suneeta and Kiran, the minimum legal bonus never finds its way out of the statute book and into their hands. Suneeta works six days a week and earns Rs 150 per day. Even if she has worked for no more than 250 days in the financial year, her annual bonus should not be less than Rs 3,000. Yet, she knows she is not likely to get anything more than the Rs 2,200-2,300 she had got last year as well.

Remarks Kiran, “We don’t harbour any such fantasies for getting 8.33 per cent bonus. And, anyway, we women have our own ways of making ends meet.”

Indeed they do. Kiran works in the factory from 10 to 6 and comes home to her sewing machine. From the beginning of August each year, she starts taking orders for stitching blouses from her neighbours. When business is at its briskest, she makes a profit of Rs 100-150 by stitching for five hours a day. “It is hard work,” she admits, “and I have to cook and clean for the family, too. But the festive season is a long one. It only begins with Durga Puja. Then there is Laxmi Puja and Diwali and Bhai Dooj and finally Chhat Puja, which is so important for us. It is a happy time no doubt, but it costs us dear.” Her big worry is that now her extra income may begin to dwindle as she faces competition from other women in her neighbourhood who have also started offering tailoring services for some desperately-needed extra cash during the month-long celebrations.

Suneeta fears no such competition. Apart from her job, she also deals in gold-plated jewellery. “My mother sends me the stuff – chains, anklets, bracelets, and so on – from Dhanbad, where they are really cheap. Here I can sell them at almost double the price. I have regular customers in my colleagues, both women and men,” she says. Expectedly, her sales shoot up in the festive season when she needs the money the most.

Yet, the money is never enough. The challenge is to ensure that no fresh loans are incurred at this time of the year and that a month of joy and plenty does not come at the cost of 11 months of want and insecurity. It is a grim challenge and, unfortunately, the system is simply not on their side. They have jobs but are paid way less. They have to balance home and job and yet be hauled up at both fronts for failing to deliver satisfactorily.

However, all said and done, factory women do not mind the absurd economising and the backbreaking toil that form the run-up to the Pujas. As the days draw closer, the squalid quarters inhabited by Suneeta, Kiran and so many like them in the working class belt of Titagarh brighten up perceptibly. Walls are whitewashed, ceilings are plastered with coloured paper, doors are painted, and bright curtains and bedspreads are pulled out from trunks. The children are filled with an infectious excitement as they wait for their new dresses, shoes and trinkets. The men are more boisterous than usual. Relatives make visits to exchange gifts. And in the midst of it all, the women labour relentlessly, in preparation for a few days of unadulterated joy.

The festivities kickstart with Mahalaya – the fifth day – after which Suneeta’s factory remains closed for three days and Kiran’s for two. “It is something I look forward to throughout the year,” says Suneeta, happily, “for it is the only time that I can actually give in to extravagance!” Nothing can keep her home after the sunsets on those magical days. “I rest throughout the day and cook a sumptuous, compulsorily non-vegetarian lunch. In the evening, I dress up and go out with my family. We are out all night, visiting the various prize-winning pandals across the city. We dine out and come back home only in the wee hours of the morning. It is a special feeling – the crowds of thousands and thousands women and men, all bedecked in splendid finery, the outlandish pandals, the impressive idols – it is as if the entire city is bursting with riotous joy. I wouldn’t miss it for all the world,” she asserts.

And, as they eat, pray and spread love and joy amongst their friends and family, it’s also a time when scores of women workers across Bengal invoke their inner Durga, drawing inspiration from the all-powerful goddess, to face their challenges with courage. After all, it is this brief spell of celebration and worship, of merry-making and mirth that sustains them over the rest of the otherwise bleak year.

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