I am fairly certain I misspelled that particular god, but you know how certain themes keep appearing?
I was very excited to have come to Kolkata coincidentally just in time for Durga Puja (Durga is the goddess of good over evil). I came in September 2006 with my parents specifically because neither my mother nor I had seen Durga Puja, the biggest festival in West Bengal, ever before.
Not knowing the exact dates, I couldn’t figure out why in all these small pandals (temporary religious structures) the fashion this year seemed to be for Durga to wear a mustache and dhoti. Turns out there’s a festival a little earlier than Durga Puja in honor of Viswaskorma–the lord of the world of work. (Possibly also the lord of bangla, the local hooch…apparently this is a festival when the workers really unwind.)
You’ll see an image of a pandal for the celebration in this post. It’s celebrated by the workers–so you’ll also see an autorickshaw all decked out for the celebration. Reena Bose said when she was in college, they put a bindi and garland on the mimeograph machine to honor its work on Viswaskorma puja.
There are three reasons this festival is striking to me:
1) Iona was created in part to honor labor as holy and to reclaim the church as a place that recognized labor as belonging to God, because the church had become too removed from the lives of the working poor in Scotland (and everywhere else), so this is a repeated theme in a lot of ways.
2) The low-wage manual labor force in India is HUGE, and largely taken for granted. There are lots of things that we use machines for in America that, if those machines were more common here, another family would be without a source of income. Watching a building go up means watching men dig trenches and carry thatched baskets of bricks up five stories. Yesterday I saw a man pulling a rickshaw with husband, wife and two children all squeezed in. This wasn’t a motor rickshaw or a cycle rickshaw. Kolkata’s one of the only cities that still has hand-pulled rickshaws. Because the labor pool is so big, this type of work is taken for granted. (In the same way that America takes for granted the migrant farm laborers and dishwashers at restaurants etc etc). I love that the workers have time to recognize themselves as part of God’s work (I don’t know whether middle class hindus get into this particular puja or not), and that even the machines that aid the work are honored.
3) West Bengal is a communist state. (For how long is in question; they seem to be losing power after forty or more years of control.) This means that workers’ rights are embedded in the political rhetoric of this area, of the opposition as well as the ruling party. This rhetoric sometimes comes at a cost to the workers as well as to progress in West Bengal (although be it noted that, much to my chagrin, there is now a McDonald’s on Park Street. It was the one place in Kolkata I saw multiple white people. Why come to India to eat at McDonald’s?! Note to my family: when you come to India, I’m not taking you to Bengali restaurants. In exchange, I won’t eat at McDonald’s on Park Street.). As Viswaskorma Puja fades into the distance, I find myself wondering what kind of god it will take, what kind of political leadership it will take, what kind of revolution it will take, to create health and decent conditons for the people whose lives are “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” as Hobbes said in the Leviathan.
And what kind of puja will we have then?