Durga Puja is a special time for the Bengali people. The autumn festival involves meeting family and friends, pandal hopping, and gorging on food. It was over the last of these that a cooking oil company landed in hot water this week. For depicting a couple eating fish and meat during the festival in a Puja-themed advertisement, Fortune Foods invited outrage from a Hindutva group. The company quickly put out an apology, which in turn triggered complaints from Bengalis who pointed out that eating meat during the Puja is not a taboo in West Bengal.

Culinary controversy

The Bengali language ad – titled Pet Pujo, or worshiping the stomach, and subtitled in English here – for Fortune mustard oil shows a woman cooking meals for her husband during Durga Puja, including traditional Bengali dishes made from goat meat and fish. The accompanying text reads, “For the food-loving Bengali, the Puja is a time to worship the stomach.”

This culinary levity found few takers at the Hindu Janajagruti Samiti, a Hindutva group affiliated to the Sanatan Sanstha. Members of both these organisations have been linked with the murders of rationalists and leftist thinkers Gauri Lankesh, Govind Pansare, Narendra Dabholkar and MM Kalburgi.

Boycott campaign

In a post on its website on Wednesday, the Samiti summarised the contents of the ad in Hindi. It then laid out its objections:

“Along with this, non-vegetarian food is prohibited during Navrati [the worship of the goddess Durga in North India]. In this advertisement, the husband fasts for Navratri but on Navami, the wife feeds the husband mutton kosha and fish made using Fortune Oil. Since this food is so tasty, the husband is forced to break his fast. This is an egregious insult to our Hindu faith.”  

This interpretation of the husband fasting may be incorrect but it did not stop the Samiti from launching a social media campaign with the hastag #BoycottFortuneFoods.

Fortune Foods responded the next day, posting an apology on Facebook and Twitter, and withdrawing the video from circulation everywhere except Bengal “where it is common practice to eat both vegetarian and non-vegetarian food”.

Counter anger

This, in turn, left some Bengalis outraged.

Sangeeta Bandhyopadhyay replied to Fortune Foods’ apology on Facebook, asking rhetorically, “Is this advertisement forcing you to have non veg?” Another user Santanu Dasgupta said, “Please do not mingle Durga Puja with Navratri. We Bengalees are hardly bothered about Navratri. If your video is aimed to capture the typical ‘Durga Puja’ mood, then you should carry on with that. Don’t succumb to superstitions and narrow minded attitudes.”

Sathyajit Jayaraman weighed in, “It’s a Bengali ad, for the Bengali audience and we believe the Gods do not care if you eat meat or not.” He also pointed out that the Bengalis “offer meat and alcohol to Maa Kali during Kali Puja”.

This is not the first time food taboos related to the festival have caused controversy. In North India, the worship of Durga during Navratri is usually accompanied by a prohibition on eating meat, fish, eggs and root vegetables. Bengalis, on the other hand, observe no such culinary restrictions during Durga Puja. Yet, last year, a Bengali food channel on YouTube was criticised for showing a recipe for egg rolls during the festival.