We arrived in the ancestral home in our village Kalapur close to lunch time. Anookaka, who is my father’s older brother and was the senior most male member of the family present had gone ahead early and performed the pooja to ensconce our beloved Ganapati in his beautiful altar. When we walked in, we were greeted by his resplendent presence and beatific smile!
Through the morning, male members of the Naik family offered doorva (a specific type of grass considered auspicious) to Ganapati as an offering. By tradition, an upanayan ceremony is performed for Brahmin boys about the age of 7 to formally adorn him with the sacred thread. All boys who had their upanayan ceremonies done took turns to change into traditional savle attire (dhoti, bare chest, sacred thread and angavastram) and offer dhruv to the deity. Last year, we attended Arnav’s upanayan in Goa. For those of you curious to see what that ceremony is like, here’s a link to my blog post from then.
We all sat around and talked some more. Then we assembled for the aartis, sang them and finally, ate lunch together. Lunch is a traditional spread, the few days in the year when Goan Brahmins remain absolutely vegetarian. Coconut, kokum, ambade and whole bunch of local seasonal vegetables are used to cook traditional delicacies like khatkhate, kokum kadhi, chanyache tonaak, phodi, bhaji, papad, etc.
The firecrackers continue to light up the sky. I’ve pulled the cottonwool out of my ears now that I’m indoors, but I can still hear the thunderous sounds all around. This night ain’t ending soon for sure. My throat rasps from inhaling the pollution, my eyes water from too little sleep. And yet, I feel satisfied and satiated.
That’s the great thing about Diwali. It’s chaotic. Your back all but breaks cleaning your home. Your temper all but frays trying to keep track of all the stuff you need to buy, repair, reorganize, find…and yet, it’s all worth your time when you see the children’s’ faces light up at the joy of making rangoli, arranging flowers in a vase, wearing new clothes, holding a phooljhadi, eating a favorite sweet or savory…..
Where we live in one of Gurgaon’s gated housing communities, we’ve been lucky to find genuine friends. Plus, with my mum moving into the same complex recently, it’s been a fantastic experience to have friends and family close at hand during the festive season. The best part about being comfortable with the people around you is the sheer goofiness and abandon that is seen all around. No pretences, no inhibitions, just share the love and joy- it is actually that simple! The past few days have been about a lot of laughs and some really great moments! Here are a few snapshots….
Festivities. The lights are bright and cheerful all around. Down there in the park, the revelries of the Diwali party organized in our apartment complex are still on. Card parties are yet to be attended, more drinks are to be had, more food consumed.
There is a lot to be said for community, even the gated sort that gets frowned upon so much by my fraternity of architects and urban planners. This evening, out there in the decked up lawns, I saw quite a diversity of people having some serious fun!
Two young people were in wheelchairs. The girl, who I have known, has cerebral palsy. She was all dressed up and flush with excitement. Because we have lived here together for so long, many of us stopped to speak with her. Two young girls, clearly hired help, were entertaining the other young man in a wheelchair. They were all three having a good time too, feeding him, wheeling him around the stalls and sights, laughing with him.
Our own house help and my mum’s, two young girls from tribal Jharkhand, were having a superb time eating from the stalls and watching the teenagers on the dance floor. My grandmum, Amamma, who is 82 and rather deaf also thoroughly enjoyed the evening. She has always loved outings and her low energies the past few years have kept her away from the bustle, she is simply too tired to attempt too much. Today, because she had to simply walk across a few steps, she attended the party, taking keen interest in all that was being sold, in what the kids were doing, relishing the aloo tikki and papdi chaat and finally, even making friends with another old lady who could speak Tamil!
Children of all ages and sizes, of course, were a blas to watch. The younger ones had a choice of bobbing up and down in an inflated ‘bouncy’, playing a whole bunch of games, riding in a horse cart or on a camel. The teenage bunch were so entertaining. Some were dressed at their ethnic best, others made up in slick western wear, still others playing it really casual in denims. But most of them chattering, dancing away to the popular tracks the DJ was belting out.
I love the festive spirit that Diwali brings out. A lot of people in our complex have been donating clothes into baskets that have been placed by some good enterprising folks in front of the towers. This morning, I saw a sweeper stare longingly at some really cozy looking woolens that were inside the collection basket. He didn’t dare take any away and he started mutely. I could not help think about the irony of giving away clothes to an NGO with all good intentions when we are not able to help the people who work to keep our own complex in top shape. It was a small reminder that it is important to look after everyone around me in the spirit of generosity and festive cheer. After all, involving myself in the lives of the people who come to make my life easier, my cook, my cleaning lady, my driver, my gardener, my nanny, and truly wishing then well and giving them what they need and cannot afford, is the best sort of gesture for this season and a decent way of giving back to the community that nurtures me.
I woke up Udai with ‘Ganpati Bappa Morya!’ this morning. And the first thing he said is “Why didn’t you take us to Goa this year for Ganesh Chaturthi?”. That stumped me and pleased me and brought the tears to my eyes all at the same time.
When I was a kid, I remember making the trip to Goa for Chavath only once. In my mind, it is a blur of song and dance, firecrackers and new clothes, glowing excited faces and noise. I don’t think I ever asked my parents why we didn’t go more often. I was very much embedded in my role as the cousin-who-lives-far-away, an outsider of sorts, a tourist in the family. I knew we did not have the means to travel every year and that it entailed my parent’s taking leave as they did not have vacations at this time of the year. Logistics ruled our lives and that was that.
This is a different generation; many would say more technologically oriented, with an ability to take rapid changes in their stride. A privileged generation, secure and able to make demands without compunction. But that’s not what made me feel all warm and glowing inside. I was amazed and gratified because Udai’s reaction exhibited his recognition of the family bond, enjoyment of rituals and festivities and the security that comes with the unconditional love and affection my kids have got from all our relatives in Goa.
And in the end, isn’t that what festivals are all about. The symbolism and even the details of how we celebrate may change from Christmas to Diwali, from Thanksgiving to Hanukkah to the Chinese New Year, but festivals remain a means we employ to reinforce age-old systems, institutions and values like family, tradition, respect, love, faith, joy, etc. Myriad forms of expression, through art and craft, through elaborate culinary preparations often specific to the festival itself, make the occasion an opportunity to savor new experiences.
Last year, in Goa for Chavath, we got together to make a rangoli (pity, I don’t seem to have a picture of it), learning new techniques from older aunts, singing old songs together, laughing insanely at comic impersonations of characters from old Hindi films or family legends. What a good time, we had. Ganpati Bappa sat there presiding over all this frolic, a broad smile adoring his face. Now this is what I’m here for, we heard him mumble!
Here are a few pics from last year’s Chavathi celebration in St Cruz, Goa. Missing all of you cousins and kakas and kakis and above all, Ajjee, a lot today 🙂
Yes, yes. I’m cheating and writing yesterday’s post now, but you can blame it on Krishna. Janmashtami or Gokulashtami as it is known (or simply Ashtami!) was not fully in focus on my radar till I had kids. Udai’s school is hot on celebrating festivals and when he was in Playgroup (pre-nursery), they made butter in school the week of Krishna’s birthday. That got my attention. What a wonderful way to teach kids a miracle of science while linking it to a popular character like Krishna. There must have been songs too, but Udai was never one to sing the school songs to us!
Aadyaa is another story altogether. She revels in music and dance and art. And she totally dotes on Krishna. No matter how cranky, a story around Kanha can set that right. Each time we go to Noida or Ghaziabad, the high point for her is crossing the ‘Yamuna’, even though she cannot really see the water. Well, she would be disappointed if she could, ‘coz there aren’t any gopis dancing there or Kanha playing the flute. The legend of Krishna is enchanting, especially for children, because Kanha is imperfect. He is naughty, he lies, he plays the fool and troubles everyone, but yet he is there to rescue people, help them when they are in trouble. That is a potent combination indeed!
So the entire week was about Krishna. In school, she painted a pot and filled it with cotton, making it look like a pot of overflowing butter, the sort of pot Kanha regularly broke to get at the butter. They rolled paper to make it look like his flute. They learnt songs about Krishna and about the monsoon season. Many traditional songs that celebrate the rains are about Krishna, so there learning about seasons and climate intertwined with the Krishna theme. They helped decorate the class and the day they celebrated Janmashtami in school they all got to give the baby Krishna a jolly good push on the swing on which he was placed!
At home, we had a little brood of Radhas (Krishna’s legendary soulmate), all decked up, all enthusiastic. They trooped into the little celebration in our local club, danced and generally had a great time! A lot of colourful, crazy fuss; all thanks to Krishna!
Haryali Teej. The festival that celebrates the rain in the Hindu month of Saawan. When we appreciate the renewal of life, celebrate fertility, thank God for rain and pray for continued prosperity and abundance.
Green dominates. Women dress in traditional attire. Bangles, bindis, jewellery. And Mehendi.
To me, any excuse is a good one to put Mehendi (a henna tattoo) on my hands. A tradition that perhaps came to the Indian subcontinent from central Asian cultures, today henna marks auspicious occasions across North India. Thanks to the influence of cinema and tv, the Mehendi ceremony is a standard feature of weddings in many parts of the country. In Delhi, you can get a henna tattoo in most city markets on any day of the year, sitting by the roadside while a young man (yes it’s mostly men) adorns your palms with intricate traditional patterns.
I have been as fond of getting the tattoo as of making it come alive on another’s palms. Tonight, it was a most excited Aadyaa who demanded Mehendi from me. She sat there patiently and got both palms patterned over, appreciating the art, giggling at the cool sensation the henna creates, truly happy. Then she watched me adorn my left palm and promised to decorate my right palm tomorrow after she returns from school! Next in line was Amma, my mother in law, who patterned her left palm on her own while I did the right one.
While I would often get henna tattoos in the markets before, in recent years I have been happier doing this little ritual at home or among friends. The designs may be imperfect but the shared bonhomie, laughter and warmth is incomparable.
Festivals in cities have become an interesting phenomenon. Yesterday, we attended a friend’s daughters first Lohri and old-timers got into a discussion about what they did when they were children on Lohri. Akin to what kids in Muslim communities do at Eid and what kids in the US do at Halloween, they reminisced about how they went around the neighborhood asking for money/contributions. People gave whatever they could and the kids had a good time. We realized that many of the finer details about festivals are dying.
At the same time, festivals are being adopted across regional and linguistic barriers. In my colony, the Lohri party was a nice way for everyone to get together, meet and laugh over good food. Whether they were from Punjab or not was beside the point. In schools, especially for the younger kids, festivals have become a great way to talk about diversity, tradition, culture…and generally become a theme for artwork, drama and even hardcore skills training like reading and writing.
Because many Hindu festivals are related to seasonal changes and the agricultural cycle, usually celebrating harvest (Baisakhi, Pongal, Makar sankranti, Onam, Bihu, Lohri, etc), they coincide in many parts of the country, making it a collective celebration in a myriad different ways. Others like Diwali have more significance in one region than others (Diwali is not celebrated as the return of Ram to Ayodhya in the southern part of India and in fact Kartik Poornima is considered more auspicious).
Large-scale migration has imbued a greater importance to how festivals are celebrated in cities. Just like Chinese immigrants to the US made Chinese New Year a significant celebration of their collective identity, Bengalis make Durga Puja theirs wherever Bengali communities exist across the nation (read everywhere, to the delight of us foodies and culture vultures!) and Biharis celebrate Chhat with fervour once they have sufficient numbers to do so (Chhat has emerged as a festival of note in the NCR for instance, with thousands congregating at the Yamuna to offer prayers). Media (FM radio has an interesting role in this) and the ease of communication have made it even easier to spread the excitement of a festival among people. In increasingly cosmopolitan urban settings, our friends’ circles are diverse enough to give us a glimpse into many regional cultures. And, in the end, who doesn’t want to have a good time!
Indian festivals also underline our essentially family-centric behavior. I have felt terrible being away from my family on festivals, but someone has usually adopted me for the day, drawing me into their intimate circle and making it all ok! With the increasing commercialization around each festival (I got sms invites to random clubs for Lohri parties!), I fear a loss of this intimacy. The way I see it, family has been the traditional unit of interaction in India. With sweeping societal changes (unit families, migration, upward mobility, increased choice), community must move in to supplement the family where it needs to…or else, we would live in an unanchored world and fall prey to the worst kind of blatant, soul-less commercialization.
A part of me does wish that in all the festive bonhomie, we still make an effort to preserve the cultural uniqueness of each celebration, practice the small gestures and rituals that help reinforce the festival’s significance, rather then homogenize all festivals into a club-style drink, eat and dance party!