Every fall, Hindus everywhere celebrate Navratri. The exact parameters and the name and name of the goddess worshipped may be different, depending on the area. Durgha is most likely to be worshipped in Bengali communities, and the Gujaratis do puja (prayer) for Shakti. Or Devi. It’s very confusing, really, and even reading Wikipedia three times didn’t help me much, but if you’d like to take a crack at it, the link is here — https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Navratri It’s vastly different all across the different regions of India, and even within Mumbai, I had a difficult time getting a straight answer out of anyone. Mumbai is an international city, and the person you ask about Navratri may be a Maharashtran, a Bengali, or, in the case of my neighbor, S, a person raised in Delhi by a mother who was a Punjabi and a father who was from Rajastan, and who married a man from Utter Pradesh. This means that unless you go back to the exact SAME person you asked your first Navratri question to you will be utterly confused as to the names, traditions and scriputres/legends surrounding the festival. I honestly tried to graph it out on a piece of paper and still came up empty.
The important thing for you to know, Dear Reader, is that it follows the Ganesha festival in Maharashtra, providing yet another opportunity for revelry for folks during the festival season months of August to December.
Last year, I went to my friend, Pranav’s chawl for Dandiya. I had no idea what to expect, and in fact, up until this year, I didn’t even know what Dandiya meant. Part of that whole confused thing. Pranav is a fun guy, and owns and operates his own tour company, Grand Mumbai Tours, so he invited a couple of his clients that were Mumbai-based. Other than that, it was all the residents of his chawl. We watched the puja from a distance, and then joined in a little bit of dancing. I had a vague idea of what was going on.
This year, I was determined to really enjoy the holiday, so the minute Ganesha was over, I consulted my favorite fingertip resource: Wikipedia. I swear, they should pay me for all the advertising I do for them.
The first thing I realized was that the “color thing” I had a vague idea was going on last year, was a bit more meaningful. http://www.india.com/whatever/navratri-2015-colours-know-the-9-different-dress-colours-to-wear-on-each-day-during-this-navratri-620166/ The colors represent the nine different forms of the goddess, and devotees wear the colors each day as part of the celebration. This year, the colors and the respective forms of the goddess were thus: First Day – Ghatasthapana / Pratipada – Red, Second Day – Dwitiya – Royal Blue, Third Day – Tritiya – Yellow, Fourth Day – Chaturthi – Green, Fifth Day – Panchami – Grey, Sixth Day – Shashti – Orange, Seventh Day – Saptami – White, Eighth Day – Ashtami – Pink, and Ninth Day/ Tenth Day – Navami / Dashmi / Dussehra – Sky Blue.
That’s a lot of color coordination.
I set out to try and observe the colors each day, but some of them weren’t going to work. Red – check. Royal blue – check. Yellow? Only if I want to look like I’ve got mono. Once I hit the yellow speed bump, I realized that at least one other day wouldn’t work – day 6 had orange as the designated color, which I also don’t do. Ever. I thought I could do green until the very morning of day four when I realized that I don’t actually own any green. Ooops. Still, I gave myself an “A” for effort.
Everywhere I went, I kept an eye out for fellow Color People. One lady at the Consulate actually wore a gorgeous sari in the appropriate color every single day. Women, I noticed, got into it a bit more than men, and I could see why – any excuse to buy another dress, right?
Aside from the color designations, there is the end of the festival that is called Dusserha, and is marked in Maharashtra by the Ayudha Puja, a prayer ceremony in which Hindus make offerings with their work implements and offer prayers for a successful year. Previously, a farmer may have put their hoes, shovels, and bridles on the altar, or soldiers may have used swords and shields on the altar. Today, the altar may contain such items as an iPhone, a laptop, some specialized tools, a dictionary, or anything the modern office worker needs to do her or his job. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ayudha_Puja
On the eve of Dusserha, the real fun part of the celebration begins. After a puja, Hindus gather and dance the night away in one of two traditional dances: Dandiya Raas https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dandiya_Raas and Garba https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Garba_(dance) . Dandiya is what I remembered from last year at Pranav’s, most likely because it involved two sticks and the DiploBoys.
This year, I got tickets for my apartment compound’s Dandiya party. The Divas, the ladies’ group at the compound, go all out in the planning. This year, they lined up a popular band, decorated with more marigolds than I’d ever seen, and arranged for caterers and lots and lots of Dandiya sticks.
DiploDad had to work that night, so it was just me and the DBs. I got to wear my really beautiful anarkali that I bought earlier in the festival season. The DBs wore kurtas. After suiting up, we headed downstairs to the khana (essentially the lawn). When we got there, we saw all the beautiful decorations and everyone all dolled up in their festival best, adding even more color to the scene.
We had brought our own sticks, but discovered that wasn’t even necessary. There were about five large baskets filled with Dandiya sticks, which the DBs made a beeline for. I could see trouble brewing there. Sigh.
While the DBs were attracted to the sticks as possible instruments of mayhem, their instincts and predilections actually are pretty accurate: the Dandiya has its roots in swordfighting. The dance itself is a staging of the sword fight between Durgha and the demon king, Mahishasura. To celebrate this occasion and the triumph of good over evil, the dance is performed at the end of Durgha puja.
While the Divas know me, I’m still not 100% integrated into the community in the same way, so after a few brief moments of conversation, they drift away a bit once we run out of steam. It’s totally fair – I don’t blame anyone for this. It’s hard to balance my time in between school friends, Consulate friends, friends I made outside both, and the apartment friends. When there’s a cultural barrier, the ones you need to work harder with to make that connection often suffer – especially when there are SO many of them. (There are about 300 apartments in our compound – that’s a lot of Divas to spread it out among.) My friend, S, had said she’d come down, but she’s got, um, a “different sense of timely” than I do.
So when it came time to dance, I was on my own at the outset.
The dance isn’t all that hard, but it can be dangerous when you get a few people who don’t know what they are doing. That would be us.
I’d actually had a brief lesson earlier that week from a Foreign Service National (FSN) at the Consulate, so I could do the dance, or at least make out basic steps. DB1 had disappeared, so I grabbed DB2 and started in on the edge of the dance floor.
“OK, so first hit the sticks together. Then to the left, then to the right, then again and spin!”
“Mommy, I know. We did this LAST year.”
Ha. That still didn’t prevent us from almost clocking some kid who ran by, dupatta flapping in the wind. Not only that, but DB2 was hitting the sticks together much harder than necessary, and with so much force, it actually was causing mine to fly back.
“Not so hard, honey! Not so hard.”
“But you said it was like a sword fight, so then if you do it soft, how do you win?”
For about fifteen minutes, we smacked sticks together, whirled about, and then DB2 had had enough. He gave me a grin, and dashed off to swipe a Forbidden Coke from the refreshment table. He left me standing there, all alone.
But then, the fun really started. One lady who was dressed in this absolutely gorgeous traditional Gujarati outfit pulled me into the circle to dance. She was really skilled, along with her husband, and, in addition to the traditional stick-hitting, she twirled the sticks in her long, graceful fingers before hitting and did little tricks and turns. She stayed with me long enough to get me integrated into the circle before moving on. After that, she twirled off and others began the stick dance with me too. After about half an hour, I was seriously in need of both food and drink and excused myself for the buffet.
DB1 was elbow-deep in pav baji when I found him and had already consumed four dosas.
DB2 was wanting ice cream, but didn’t have his ticket, so I bargained for some real dinner before the sweets in exchange for the ticket. He managed to eat half a cheese dosa before running off to grab some kulfi, a type of ice milk. Before digging in myself, I surveyed the food. Gotta make those calories count, you know.
At the first table was a lot of chaat, Indian tea snacks, usually sold on the street. I chose some pani puri, a type of fried puff filled with sprouted mung beans, crispy round puffs, and this spicy, green water.
I added some dahi puri to that – kind of like Indian nachos with plain yogurt on top.
The second table was laden with Jain options, so I passed. Number one, I’m not Jain, so I always make sure that I skip it so as to not have it run out before any Jains eat. Number two, Jain food is a bit on the bland side. Jains do not eat potatoes, garlic, onions, beets, or carrots for the reason that when you harvest the vegetable, you are actually killing the plant. I really like garlic and onions, and I can’t imagine living without them any more than an Indian can imagine going without masala. Beyond the Jain table was a selection of vegetarian fare, including dosa and pav baji. Before digging into the vege fare, I glanced to see if there was a non-veg table. For the same reason I don’t eat Jain food where there’s another option, I try not to eat pure veg food when there is non-veg if the veg supply is threatened. I don’t have the religious restrictions that a lot of my veg neighbors and friends have, so again, it’s not nice to load up on the veg stuff (even if I like that dishes better) where there’s a dwindling supply of it and more than enough non-veg. There wasn’t though, and only veg was being served. Then, I remembered that during Navratri, even Hindus who eat meat go vege and fast.
After I finished filling my plate, I ran into my other American neighbors. B had brought her two kids, and our friend, R had come too as a guest and brought her son. Their husbands were also AWOL. It was, you know, dancing.
After we finished, I headed back to the dance floor. This time, I spotted a few of the girls who’d danced with me earlier, and I broke into the circle. Shortly after that, I finally spotted my good friend, S.
“Come on! Let’s dance!”
We joined one of the circles that was doing Garba, as S had actually spent some time that week learning the steps for that from a dance teacher.
“You actually went to a dance teacher to get ready for this party?”
“Well, yes. A lot of people do. They held classes at some of the ladies’ flats. That way, we know the most popular and recent steps.”
“Nobody tells me anything.”
The Garba is, truth be told, easier. Circle around, dip forward into the circle, follow whomever is the most creative in steps, and try not to run into the person in front of you. I’m not graceful. Nope. But I found myself really getting into it, loving the music, the rhythm and finding myself getting lost in the moment. Before I knew it, S and B had bailed with their overtired children, the DBs had given up and headed back to the air-conditioned apartment, and I was whirling around in a heavy silk dress in the sweltering heat with the last 30 or so revelers.
The band took a few breaks throughout the night and announced winners for best dancer and best dressed for all the age groups. And then one of the organizers approached me.
“We made a category just for you. We want to give you a prize for your dress.”
“Um . . . .”
She dashed off after giving me a quick hug and telling me that she loved the effort I had made. I was a little surprised.
Half an hour later, some minor Bollywood star, whose name I completely forget, was calling my name and presenting me with a gift card for beauty services from our local salon. I felt really awkward as I made my way to the stage (and OMG, I hoped that I didn’t fall flat on my clumsy butt as I climbed up the milk-crate stairs). After thanking the committee (mumble, mumble), and doing a few dance steps, I turned 50 shades of pink, waved, and returned to my friends, gift card in hand.
S was so thrilled for me, but I was so embarrassed. Until it was time dance again. The last half hour moved all too fast, and then we went past it. We were flouting the noise permit limits, but sometimes, you gotta live on the edge, people. It must have been near eleven p.m. when the band finally started to pack up and I retrieved my long-abandoned shoes from the edge of the cricket pitch.
As I made my way out of the party area to the elevators, it occurred to me that what I had been taking part in was, at some level, a religious ceremony. No, there was no puja as there had been the previous year at Pranav’s. Most people in our compound pray privately at home or with friends and family. But the dancing itself is a form of prayer.
I’m going to go out on a limb and say something: the West has sucked most of the joy out of worship. Yes, we have. Maybe not every church, maybe not every religion, and maybe not every ceremony, but nothing I’ve ever experienced in my own church or in any of the other churches in the U.S. or the few synagogues, has compared to what I’ve seen and experienced in the Hindu tradition. Where dance is a celebration and form of prayer, some fundamentalist churches ban dancing. Others pass judgment on “mixed dancing”. The cross is carried down the aisle in quiet reverence. Little children bang loudly on a gong or drums to announce the arrival of Ganesha.
I think the Hindus have it right. Be joyful in your prayer, in your worship. Make a joyful noise unto the Lord. (Or unto the Spirit, the Universe, the Creator – you choose.) And, as Deepika Padukone said in the Bollywood hit, “Happy New Year”:
“Dance is art. Dance is prayer.”
So dance. Dance wildly, dance happily, and dance with joy. Dance.