September 2022: When pulsating dhol (drum) beats, raunchy Bollywood movie songs back spin through relatively quiet nights and make you snuggle deeper into your pillow… you know you are back home.
The ten-headed Ravana (centre) Effigy waiting to be torched on the 10th day of Dusshera (Google download)
Dusshera celebrations are in full swing (September 26 -October 5) as Indians across the country and even abroad loose themselves in festivities celebrating the triumph of Lord Rama over King Ravana. In short it is good versus bad but today the parameters merge. The ‘good’ is ‘bad’ and ‘bad’ is ‘good’ depending on situations. Dussehra is the joining of two Sanskrit words ‘Dasha’ and ‘Hara’. Dasha means ten (referring to the ten heads of Ravana) and hara means defeat. It is a herculean task to defeat the ten heads and finally a victorious Rama returns home with Sita.
Dusshera is also the worship of Mother Goddess in her avatar ‘Durga’ and her victory over the demon Mahishasura. Ten days are dedicated to her with new clothes, houses decorated, pujas and musical events across homes and public spaces.
On the tenth day the idols are immersed into rivers, ponds, lakes or the closest water body to the accompaniment of music and hymns. It is believed that after the immersion, Goddess Durga returns to Mount Kailash to be with Lord Shiva. (Google image).
Covid had muted the religious fervour for two years but in 2022 festivities are back in full swing with RamLeelas (skits based on Lord Rama’s life) depicting the entire story of how Ravana kidnaps Sita and how Rama valiantly fights against the evil king. On the tenth day i.e. on the day of Dussehra, huge effigies of Ravana are set ablaze signifying moral and physical victory of Lord Rama and his reunion with Sita.
As kids we would line up the streets to watch flashy floats or ‘chowkis’ with teenagers dressed up, with heavy make-up, as gods and goddesses from the ‘Ramayana’. It was a period of awe and innocence. Once my father, (he was president of the Ramlila Management Committee of our area) requested that the elephant carrying Ram and Laxman to stop at our house for relatives, neighbors to pay obeisance and how a crowd collected at our gate with flowers and gifts as if it were real gods come visiting.
Each area of our city, Allahabad, had their own organisations and arrangements and at end of seven days the best area tableaux was judged the winner. It was always the city or downtown areas walking away with the best tableaux in town. Over years the Chowkis or Jhankis got gaudier and brighter with multi colored lights. I wonder how the ‘live’ models, survived the heat and noise of gensets not forgetting the tons of paint on their faces and the mosquitos buzzing around the light.
India is a land of diverse cultures and traditions, and each state has it own additions to the celebrations. The ‘Garba’, a folk dance of Gujarat, has elbowed out the sedate festivities and across parks, halls, hotels the young and not so young in traditional attire can be seen clanging their Garba sticks to the sexually charged pulsating beat of the drum, popular film songs or live singers. (Google image)
Girl Power: Another addendum to the festivities is that on the eighth day of this 10-day festival, we worship little girls and wash their feet to honour goddess Shakti, the embodiment of female power. Groups of girls, as young as 2 years to 13 years, are welcomed to open houses and piled with oodles of gifts including cash, trinkets and food.
As I watch the ‘Ravana’ effigy engulfed in flames on the 10th day I am lulled into believing that we can still fight evil and that all is not lost in the race for eminence and prominence. A lingering question, like the smoke from the effigy….What about the real ‘Raavans’ who walk free and tall and belong to no caste, creed or religion.
The hidden message of Girl power is lost in the festival euphoria till newspaper headlines of murders, rapes and mayhem bring you back to reality.
‘Girl power’ asserted itself In Karnataka, South India. In January 2022, a few colleges in this state stopped hijab wearing female students from entering the campus as it was against the prescribed school/college uniform. A group of young Muslim girls, in defiance of the State government circular, insisted on wearing the hijab. The matter is being decided in the highest court of India.
On other end of fulcrum Iranian women are fighting it out against state mandated dress code. Their bravado was incited by the death in custody of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini for not following the strict Hijab rules of the country. The death let the genie out of the sack, the hidden girl power, and before long we had troves of female warriors out on the streets, burning their hijabs in bonfires, responding to the slogan “Women, Life, Freedom”. A freedom they had always enjoyed till sometime in the late 1960s the religious and political leaders imposed sanctions to complement their supremacy. The present protests are among the largest in Iran in years.
I remember, in our Convent school in my hometown in India, Muslim girls in skirts, tunics and blouses, the regular school uniform. Our names denoted are faiths. Slowly by early 1980s the dress codes of the more conservative amongst them changed, adding loose pyjamas under tunics and shoulder scarfs. No one reacted taking it as a personal matter.
A 2022 visit to Allahabad… there were more ‘hijabs’ in markets and streets and I was surprised at this sudden spurt of religiosity or modesty. Even though Muslim women are constitutionally mandated to wear the hijab or burqa anytime, anywhere, seeing these young college and school students covered from head to toe made me wonder that if they are so attuned to their faith where does this leave them time to deal with multi religiosity and multi-culture of India.
Maybe I am wrong.
A similar feeling in Oman, in 1995, that soon turned into admiration of Omani women for their active participation in all social, educational and cultural activities. They had the support of the state and a plus point, to me, was that the Abayas were in different shades of colour and not black …something that the late Sultan Qaboos had encouraged.
The debates and protests continue, to cover or not to cover, and no matter how much we predicate equality, at the core of our decisions it is patriarchy that rules.
As a foil to my soured mood I turn to the delicious sweets and special food spreads. Diwali, the Festival of Lights, is round the corner and, I hope, we shine bright in whatever we do and wear.