Raised by the Mother
My birthright was to become part of a faith that could trace its roots back to the earliest civilisations known to man, yet it always felt heavy on my shoulders. What my family constantly recounted to me as a privilege always made me feel like an outsider to the rest of the world, but it had less to do with being part of a minority community in this country and more to do with my upbringing.
I grew up in the city within a joint family where I lost my ranking as the 'apple of everyone's eye' when my nine-year younger sister was born. My mother's ever-growing responsibilities now included also having to tend to a newly born, which meant that other members of the family jumped in to pick up the much needed attention that my mother could not give me.
Aside from helping with my homework, my late paternal grandfather also taught me all I know about my religion, Hinduism.
It helped that he was a retired teacher — he spent little time forcing me memorise the 100 something names of Durga, never bothered to talk about the practices, or rituals and customs for all the different kinds of pujas. As a grandfather, his stories would reflect more upon the moral and philosophical aspects of life.
Dadu's stories would often emphasise on the qualities and the avatars of the gods and goddesses, and as a concerned guardian, he felt it was always of utmost importance to talk more about Durga.
Aside from being considered the Mother of the universe, she is also known to be the personification of love, kindness, wealth, power, beauty, and all other virtues. She stood for practicing restraint rather than giving into impulses — anger, arrogance, selfishness, greed and jealousy.
He would tell his impressionable eight-year-old granddaughter —
"Durga is a warrior goddess, the embodiment of the combined powers of all the gods in the form of weapons and mudras (emblems). Remember that Lord Agni granted Mahishasur's father Rumbha's wish that no man or god could defeat his son, and this was the very boon that Lord Brahma awarded Mahishashur, for his severe penance. The boon did not protect Mahishashur from a woman though.
"Every story of Durga's avatar is a testament to the many hats women in this world has and chooses to wear. That is why Durga Ma is supreme and that is why you, Ma, are empowered."
This often-repeated concluding remark of his would be followed by silly faces and animated ninja like noises from me and him laughing.
There were so many stories that always ended with — "You are a warrior, you are strong, you are powerful, you are equal."
Little did I ever realise how much of an impression these bedtime stories would leave on my mind as I got older.
Society's attempt to condition me into becoming the soft spoken tender and unopinionated woman would have me challenging those notions; I could hear in my mind, Dadu's voice reiterating the teachings of Durga.
Imagine a feisty, 'opinionated' something-teen year old speaking up against gender stereotypes, constantly referring back to how I knew my Durga.
Every October, while the rest of my community would be engaged in the celebrations of the Puja, busy with rituals and prayers to offer, and focused on only recounting the nine-day long battle of Mahishashur being defeated at the hands of Durga, I would stare at the adorned deity and remember Dadu's words and think to myself that there is more to it than just her defeating a demon. She is supreme not only because of her power.
I appreciate now more than ever what Dadu tried to tell me for all those years. The way I now see it, Durga not only symbolises supreme divinity, but virtuosity too, and as a woman, I should remember to always stand up for what's right and what's not.
I am strong because Durga taught me to restrain and never give into my own demons of jealousy, anger, arrogance and so forth. She gloriously fought Mahishasur and was the only one worthy to do so and defeat him; thus, I too am and can, against all the obstacles and the odds that try to impede my agency of independence.
More than a decade after those evenings of story-telling, I now believe that Durga is not just a warrior, but also someone kind and loving — traits that are too often undervalued and a rarity in today's chaotic world of violence and vanity; something that I struggle to consciously practice because giving into indifference and selfishness is always the easier route.
Dadu passed away in his sleep twenty years ago, but his teachings of morality and religion still live within me.
I celebrate, idolise, accept and strive to be like Durga for all that she is, while the rest of the world tries to constantly dictate what I should or should not be doing for being a woman.
Ma Durga made me a warrior; she made me a believer.
Model: Azra Mahmood
Photo: Sazzad Ibne Sayed
Wardrobe: LS Desk
Blouse: Jahin Khan
Jewellery: Glued Together
Make-up And Hair: Noyon Ahamed And Niloy
Styling: Sonia Yeasmin Isha
Set and Location: Mermaid Beach Resort, Cox's Bazar