It was around 10:30 in the morning. A gentleman, in his mid-50s, was walking home Saturday after attending Eid prayers at a local mosque in North Kolkata.
He turned around when a thirty-something Hindu man – a complete stranger – spoke the words “Eid Mubarak” (“blessed Eid”) from behind.
The two men embraced in the time-honored tradition of greetings during Eid-ul-Fitr, the biggest of religious celebrations for Muslims, which marks the end of Ramadan. Then, as suddenly as they had met, and without bothering to learn each other’s name, the Muslim and Hindu parted ways.
Such brief encounters between followers of Islam and Hinduism may be unusual in a big Indian city like Kolkata, where Muslims are minority. But local residents say that times are changing.
“Unlike the Christmas celebration here, when even ordinary Hindus flock to the Saint Paul Cathedral with their families, Eid has not yet been able to assume that universal appeal among the common folks in Kolkata,” South Kolkata resident Sheikh Irshad told BenarNews.
“But happily, for the past few years, you can see a throng of onlookers standing in front of the Chitpur Mosque in our locality during Eid prayers, and their numbers are rising.”
Social scientists agree that a whiff of change is in the air, saying it won’t be too long before Eid celebrations attract more non-Muslims. This can only strengthen inter-communal ties and send a powerful message of equality and togetherness among all religions, they say.
“The reason why Bengali Hindus feel closer to Christmas than Eid is their familiarity with the former because of our colonial past. The British rulers were Christians and they celebrated the festival in a big way in India,” Sohini Sen, a sociologist who works for an NGO in Kolkata, told BenarNews.
“But a change is underway and you can feel it during Ramadan, especially in the area of food,” added Sen, who is Hindu.
During the daylight hours this past Ramadan, one could see long lines of food lovers waiting in front of reputed Mughlai restaurants selling “Halim” – a spicy meat stew with lentils that is a sought-after meal for Muslims when they break their daily fast.
The lines outside these eateries were made up largely of Hindus.
The other dish – another must-eat item for Muslims celebrating Eid – is “Laccha semai,” a kind of vermicelli cooked with milk and sugar, which has become very popular with Hindus.
In recent years, sales at the Haji Alauddin sweet shop on Zakaria Street shoot up largely because of the dish’s popularity.
“We’re simply overwhelmed by this huge demand of Laccha,” an employee of the sweet shop said as he handed out packets of the vermicelli.
‘A wonderful feeling’
The scene is changing too elsewhere in West Bengal.
Abu Naser Laskar, a trader in North 24 Parganas, where 25 percent of the population is Muslim, said the whole district took on a festive mood during Eid. There were ubiquitous pandals and stages that hosted musical programs and other entertainment similar to the Durga Puja, the biggest festival observed by Bengali Hindus.
“These pandals now serve as the meeting places for all communities, and it’s a wonderful feeling,” he told BenarNews.
Businesses also play an important role in making the Eid celebration a big event for all and sundry by announcing deep discounts on sales of clothes, furniture, cosmetics, jewelry and other consumer items.
This year during the last week of Ramadan, Anjali Jewelers, a reputed shop, lured customers with substantial price cuts, handing out a packet of Laccha to anyone who bought pieces of jewelry.
Local politicians also were equally enthusiastic, courting the Muslims during the entire month of Ramadan, and throwing lavish Iftar parties for them.
The growing interest in Eid celebration is also helping young Hindu kids learn about Muslims in particular and Islam in general.
“Just a few years ago, I had no idea about Iftar or seheri,” Ipshita Banerjee, a college student, told BenarNews, referring to the break-fast and pre-dawn meals served during the Islamic holy month.
“But now I know all these very well because of the festivities surrounding Ramadan and Eid.”