Covid restrictions have forced us into rather muted celebrations of Dussehra and Durga Puja this year. For a country whose traditional festivals have grown in scale, pomp and extravagance in tune with an expanding economy, this is unfamiliar territory. Most Ramlila performances were cancelled and burning the towering Ravana effigies found few takers, also because of air pollution worries. Puja pandals were often no-go areas for crowds in Kolkata, or not even erected in many urban localities. Many of us have been forced to celebrate the victory of good over evil within our homes, training our minds to the difficult task of making sense of an uncertain world.
Undistracted by ostentatious festivities, this is an opportunity to rethink the good-evil binary in new ways. Nothing could be more counterintuitive than a meeting of minds amid social distancing. But it is happening. A Kolkata pandal that attracted the most attention this year was certainly not the grandest, but perhaps the most relevant: It featured Durga as a migrant walking home, reminding us of the nationwide lockdown’s horrors. Much of India couldn’t have overcome the economic recession without individual acts of kindness or societal support. Grappling with Covid, Delhi’s Ramlila committees have rightly deferred to the city’s air quality woes.
There’s quiet realisation that a pandemic makes no allowances for maximalist approaches. But the same is just as true for extreme political polarisation, inequality or climate change. Once they start manifesting widely, we will have greater difficulty reversing the damage than refraining from causing it in the first place. One way to look at the restrictions forced upon us and the spirit embodied in the festivals is to recognise the value of communities and communitarian spirit. If other legacy problems pile upon the pandemic, the populist backlash against elites could take more insurgent turns.
But cooling the divisiveness whipped up predominantly by social media, acting to prevent climate from tipping over, improving public health, and uniting behind economic reforms that foster prosperity and reverse inequality appear impossible in today’s toxic politics. Borrowing from the festival ethos, Rama was a coalition builder and Durga was a coming together of all gods. Transporting these idioms to today, an apt message would be to build common minimum ground urgently. Can the maximalists moderate themselves, can we all reduce ourselves to becoming votaries for a better shared future?
This piece appeared as an editorial opinion in the print edition of The Times of India.