"During Navratri you have got non-veg!" My next door aunt exclaimed once she saw a famed chicken chain packet in my hand. "We do not even bit garlic or onion throughout Navratri." Her stance meant that I am committing a sin. "You also do not keep fast!!" I smiled and entered my apartment with a wry smile".
How would I explain to you that our Durga Puja is not the same as Navratri in North India, and the difference between veg and non-veg is distinct as well. When we the Bengalis speak about veg, that implies garlic, onion and also musor dal is out of bound. Moreover, you have to understand the sentiment and emotions involved with this festival that we call as Durgotsav – the Festival of Maa Durga. As every festival calls for celebration, so do we, and how can the Bengalis celebrate without non-veg food? You know what, Durgotsav can't be explained, it has to be experienced but it cannot be experienced in four days of festivity. It has to be experienced staying in Bengal or with the Bengalis for years to feel the essence of it.
Maa Durga is a member of our family. Since Maa Durga lives with her husband Lord Shiva at Mount Kailash and after the death of Mahishasur, she comes to her maternal home with her children Lord Kartikeya, Lord Ganesha, Goddess Saraswati and Goddess Lakshmi, so her arrival is entertained and celebrated as we do with our daughters when they visit their mother with delicious feasts and food.
Fasting? Oh, yes, we fast, but that's limited to the puja in the morning. We are on fast till we perform morning pushpanjali and we serve only vegetarian food as prasad or bhog. People involved in puja or purohit or panditji fasts for the day. Once again, our fasting is distinct from yours. Our fasting means no food at all. We don’t fast and eat with brat ki khana and brat ki namkeen and at times we fast without water (nirjala) as well.
If you've ever lived in West Bengal or C R Park in Delhi, you'll understand that Durga Puja has never been a religious festival. It's a festival that most individuals from any community and religion celebrate with equal fervor. It is a community festival and represents inclusiveness. It is above religion, caste, class, creed etc. It's also not restricted to a deity's worship. To many individuals in Bengal, ‘Pujo’ implies many things -a time of dedication, a time of submission, a time to purchase new clothes and hop overcrowded pandals, a time of endless adda, a time to display the magnificent hidden cultural talents. It also, invariably, is a time to gorge. Food is an important component of the rubric of Bengalis and it is based on and derived from its culinary culture of fish and meat.
In its platter, from snacks, primary course to main course, Bengali food that has originated and developed in the area of Bengal now separated is a distinct country called Bangladesh. Although the food habits, tastes, preferences and selection of food varies with distinct neighborhoods, communities and religions, rice and fish play a dominant role remain the fundamental course. The reason is simple, Bengal is very fertile and we reap a wide variety of rice. Also remember that Bengal is a river dominated state, hence, fresh water fish was always there in abundance. A Bengali meal follows a tradition of multiple courses, serving meals where food is served course-wise usually in a specific format, marking it as the only meal of the subcontinent to have evolved such convention.
So we hope you've got wiser now and you will not raise your eyebrows to a Bengali friend who is eating non-vegetarian food during Navratri next time. Your Navratri is our greatest festival of the year. During Durga Puja, we not only consume non-veg food but we even sell non-veg food in or close to our pandals but our goddess is not disrespected.
We don't commit any sin or blasphemy. Our Maa Durga, Durga's Bengali version, gladly gave us the authorization not to be on fast. She enjoys seeing us happy. She's a daughter of ours. She's a family member.