For the past three decades, a Muslim woman has been quietly doing her bit for communal amity by organising a Kali Puja every year at Kendua village of West Bengal.
Shefali Bewa, now in her early fifties, says it all began when goddess Kali came to her in a dream and asked her to organise a puja to cope with a nagging illness.
“About 30 years ago, I was suffering from an ailment. I visited several doctors and quacks but no one could cure me. One night, goddess Kali appeared in my dream and asked me to start her puja to get rid of all ailments,” Bewa told Hindustan Times.
Bewa initially faced a sceptical response when she told people in Kendua, a village in Malda district located 400km to the north of state capital Kolkata, about her dream.
“When I told the villagers about my dream, no one was ready to believe me. The artisan whom I approached refused to make an idol for a Muslim,” she said.
“However, after a few days, he turned up at my door and said the goddess had appeared to him in his sleep and told him that he had committed a sin by declining me. It was so many years ago that I have forgotten his name.”
The determined woman enlisted the support of other residents of Kendua and built a temple for the goddess. Bewa, who lost her husband at a young age and lives by herself, is a practising Muslim.
West Bengal worships goddess Kali every year on the day preceding Diwali, and it is the second most important puja in the Hindu calendar after Durga Puja.
Hindus have no reservations in participating in the puja organised by Bewa.
“There is no problem in accepting that this Kali Puja was started by Shefali Bewa. Now all Hindu and Muslim families of this village take part in the puja. We believe the goddess has no religion,” said Subol Mondal, a resident of Kendua.
The puja is held in a temple built on a piece of land adjoining Bewa’s home. Minority communities make up more than 70% of the population of Malda district and the village too is dominated by Muslims.
Though a Hindu priest performs the rituals, all the chores – from the cleaning of the temple and utensils, to the chopping of fruits and vegetables – is done by Bewa and her neighbours. Most of these activities, including the holding of meetings to plan for the puja, are held in her house.
Over the past few days, the courtyard between the temple and Bewa’s house has sprung to life, with Muslims and Hindus working together to give finishing touches to the idol of goddess Kali.
“The woman may belong to a different religion but she performs the puja of a Hindu goddess from her belief and love for the goddess. We have no right to resist it. Our party will not oppose her puja,” said Shibendu Sekhar Roy, the president of the local unit of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
Mausam Noor, a senior Congress leader and the MP from Malda North constituency, said: “Our country is passing through a period of intolerance. But as a Muslim woman, this year too I inaugurated a number of Durga Pujas and I have an invitation to inaugurate the Kali Puja also.
“The key feature of our country is unity amid diversity. We should preserve it,” she said.
Sukumar Mondal, another resident of Kendua, a backward village where most of the roads are not paved, said, “Goddess Kali will bless everyone equally. We will uphold Hindu-Muslim harmony in this area. We will not allow the repetition of another incident like Dadri here.”
Mondal was referring to the lynching in September of a Muslim man near Dadri in Uttar Pradesh over rumours that he had eaten beef. The killing triggered a heated debate on growing intolerance and sectarian tensions, and dozens of writers and artists returned government awards to register their protest.