The time frame in which we were in India – i.e. September-December – just so happened to coincide with EVERY FESTIVAL IN INDIA EVER. Pretty much. (Except for Holi, I really want to go back during Holi). There was of course the big one that I’d actually heard of, Diwali, but also what felt like positively innumerable small(er) ones – Eid and the nine days of Navratri, which ended in the INCREDIBLE Dussehra). It basically felt like we were living in one big party (which, whilst obviously enjoyable, did mean a lot of disruptions in the work we were doing – it was difficult to argue with “I have to prepare for Eid” as an excuse for not coming to the session that day).
I’ll go in chronological order.
Navratri began about a month into our stay, and we were basically unaware of its existence until we started notice that there were decorations up in the streets – whole streets were strung with tinsel in a kind of criss-cross manner overhead, essentially putting even the concept of Christmas decorations to shame (and we haven’t even got to Diwali yet). A big part of Navratri was Garba, a kind of dance done with Dandiya sticks – which we were luckily able to “borrow” (by which I mean rent for 20 rupees, about 25p, and then sneakily rob as a keepsake) from the venue where the celebration was held. I am unsure whether I will ever again have the opportunity to practice Garba, but should the occasion arise I will certainly be prepared, as my Dandiya sticks are currently stored somewhere (not entirely sure where) in my bedroom, ready and waiting to be once again wielded in an entirely amateur fashion.
The end of Navratri (which lasts nine days – the name in Sanskrit literally means “nine days”) saw the advent of possibly my favourite (maybe after Diwali) celebration, Dussehra. The religious significance of this event was largely lost on me, except that it was in many ways similar to fireworks night in that an effigy was burned (but of Ravana rather than Guy Fawkes) and many many fireworks were set off. However, to say that Dussehra was like India’s answer to fireworks night would be to hugely undersell it. Dussehra was more like fireworks night on steroids.
As I’ve mentioned, they burn effigies of the demon Ravana, but unlike Guy Fawkes, these are filled with firecrackers that go off with a terrific bang at random intervals throughout the blaze, making you jump without fail with the sheer force of the explosion. And, unlike fireworks night, where you would usually attend an organised display with people setting off fireworks in a controlled manner with the crowd at a suitable distance, Dussehra – though this could have been because we attended a very local, “unofficial” celebration – saw fireworks being lit a manner with much less regard for the sanctity of human life, and which by the end were just being lit by the local youths and lobbed in a death-defying manner as high as their puny (and thankfully still attached) arms could throw. It is nigh-on impossible to describe the genuine my-life-is-in-actual-danger feeling that I experienced that night, but trust me when I say that the noise expelled from those firecrackers was closely akin to a cannon blast (not that I’ve ever heard a cannon go off, but I can imagine). What made it worse was that there was a woman aged probably 90-odd who was sat on the bench next to us in the temple garden where the display was being held, giggling every time a new explosion was heard and laughing at us (me) cowering for cover behind said bench. How embarrassing. But it was a fantastic night and afterwards I was thoroughly geared up for the next gunpowder-orientated festival (Diwali).
But before that came Eid, our first Muslim festival, the significance of which I am again a bit hazy on (though Google tells me it is in celebration of Abraham’s faith and devotion to God). In our context it meant that Becky and I were put into the tricky situation of having to negotiate our way through a meal of a questionable meat dish prepared in a slum (as I mentioned in an earlier post). I think we handled it pretty well, mostly through excessive consumption of (delicious) bread products. Slightly awkward though it may have been, I was once again amazed by the fact that these people, who had so little, were so generous and so willing to share it with us. Eid was one of the less extravagant festivals that we were a part of whilst we were in India, but seeing what it meant to the community we worked in – which was, as I’ve mentioned, a predominantly Muslim one – made it a lot more special to someone like me who has no real religious affiliation.
And then there was Diwali.
I have to say, even before I went out to India, I was very excited by the prospect of being there during such a well-known and widely-celebrated festival. Like everyone I had some vague concept of the lights and the decorations and the hype surrounding it, and naturally I was curious. Needless to say, my expectations were high, and perhaps equally needless to say, they were easily fulfilled.
Diwali is known as the festival of light, and revolves around the the idea of the victory of good over evil, and as far as I can remember hinges on the story of Rama and Sita, and Rama’s defeat of Ravana (knowledge which I have admittedly dredged up from the depths of primary school education). Practically what this means is that in the build up to the festival, incredible decorations and lights are put up in the streets and in and around people’s houses, and a lot of cleaning is done in order to invite the goddess Lakshmi into people’s homes on the night itself. Diwali is also a national holiday, which for us meant that we essentially had an extended weekend, and invited the boys down from Delhi to stay – apparently Jaipur is better at celebrating Diwali than Delhi.
Again attempts to draw comparisons with English festivals is a little bit futile – India seems to do everything better and with more conviction with England – but it was basically like Christmas back home. The streets were once more covered in decorations, even more so than for Navratri (in most cases they just hadn’t bothered to take the decorations down, instead just scaling them up); the markets all looked incredible with the ribbons and strings of tinsel draped artfully overhead; even the bank opposite our apartment was strung with fairy lights – you don’t see that happening in England! But it’s not just the decorations that make Diwali what it is; it’s the firecrackers constantly being lit by gleeful little boys, and the constant adverts on TV (actually it is a lot like Christmas), and the sudden upsurge of people milling about in the markets wanting to buy new clothes for the big day.
We all made the appropriate effort and bought saris (the girls, that is – though Rob was very seriously considering it as well) and posh kurtas (the boys); we even tidied up the flat before the boys came (it definitely needed it) and invested in some diyas – the little lamps – and fairy lights – which were a bit of a waste of money considering the unreliability of our plug sockets. The lights flashed constantly on and off, and that wasn’t part of their design.
Rakhi very kindly invited us (all 7 of us including Amardeep) to celebrate at her house, which I have to confess I was excessively excited about, having already sampled some of Rakhi’s sister-in-laws’ cooking. I was definitely not disappointed on the culinary front (puri and dal and chana masala and delicious, delicious kheer), but we also got to see a bit of the religious side of it when Rakhi took us round all (and I mean ALL) the local temples and shrines as she gave diyas as a sort of offering to all the various gods. As for the after-dinner bit, I’ll use an extract from my diary: “After that it was time for fireworks, Indian-style, which basically means with no regard for safety – light and run.” That pretty much sums up the evening for me – Rakhi and her brothers and other various relations (it was a bit hard to tell who were nephews and who were brothers) were using an old plastic bottle as a firework stand, and a worrying percentage of them ended up ricocheting off the tree. I probably would have done less cowering around the corner had I not been wearing a highly flammable sari – not that it seemed to faze Rakhi in the slightest – and I flat-out refused to light any fire crackers (I prefer both hands firmly attached, thank you). Pathetic though I may have seemed, I was largely just glad to escape with all my limbs, and having had a bloody brilliant day, we all retired to bed.
It was definitely an interesting experience for me to visit a country where so much impetus is placed on religion – it caused a few surprised looks whenever I mentioned that I didn’t have a religion – and I definitely appreciated the learning curve. People there (and here I’m thinking particularly of the national volunteers) seemed to have a lot more understanding and mutual respect for each others religions, where in England I think there’s quite a lot of ignorance (that’s of course speaking personally, in that I generally had little idea of what was going on when it came to festivals, appreciating the celebration but not reflecting much on the meaning).
Having said all that, having dismissed my own religious conviction and complained about the small scale of British celebrations, I was certainly pleased to be home in time for Christmas!