Navratri is a great festival to get together and admire things about other people, unlike other festivals, where you get together and just celebrate. In North India, you admire the effigies, the garba skills, and the Durga statues. In the south, you go from house to house, admiring the Golu display and the excellent sundal.
Last year, Navratri was celebrated at Indian Street in Jersey City.
Journal Square, New Jersey, sees hordes and hordes of Gujjus descend there every year, and Preeti-Pinky like artists going at the mic nonstop for a few hours. It’s colorful and energetic to say the least. I’m especially jealous of all the women as I cannot do even the most basic raas.
This year, I am in Coimbatore after almost a decade, and so, the Navratri saw me see Golus. They were colorful too, and some extremely innovative. People go to all extents to buy new ‘toys’ for the display. These toys, incidentally, also couple as being fit enough for going on the perumal sannidhi (“God area” in houses) and ergo, are mostly figurines of holy deities. My favorite was this impressive home-grown, home-made Tirupati which formed a part of an elaborate large golu; impressive because it was made by a couple of young teenagers.
I took bad pictures because I wasn’t fit enough to bend down or sensible enough to carry a camera.
Naturally, the golus attract a gathering of (mostly) women who brag about how easily they had set the extremely difficult and elaborate, multi-tiered golu displays at home and how expensive the dolls used are. It also entails the customary provision of sundal– a tradition that seems to have all but vanished in Coimbatore. In fact, the most common observation I made during Navratri this year is the long talk about how every maami has spotted a snake in her house or her neighbor’s house or her friend’s neighbour’s house. I consider this the normal turn of events because I have seen more snakes than sundal as well in Coimbatore. When I was ten, there was a tiny cobra right outside our front door. It was the cutest thing. I bawled for a while because my mum discovered me just as I was about to pick it up, and then had someone take the snake away in a bucket.
The mamas join in on the snake stories too. Most of them do visit households for the sundal or the fruits, and probably for their fellow mamas who are being subjected to the same extreme talk of crafts and colors as they are. But at the mention of snakes, their ears perk up. The droopy and silent men suddenly are excited enough to nod their heads and maybe speak a few words of assent. Some talkative mamas seem to have seen snakes when the maamis were away too. The stories were very loud and very gassy.
These stories, for some reason, are never interrupted. The only form of distraction for me was my sister punctuating each pause with, “I told you they’ll talk about snakes!” in my ear. The stories were pure science fiction, and great material for Mythbusters.
Most of these stories have a common motif consisting of:
– the antagonist, a snake, which of course, would have attacked each and every human in sight had it not been spotted
– the vivid setting of the night, sometimes coupled with a power cut in the evening (both of which occur for over 6 hours, I assure you)
– a kid who narrowly escapes being bit/gobbled/crushed/poisoned, and in some cases having the snake fall on his head
– one or many men who are the final heroes and capture or get rid of the aforementioned snakes
– and of course, the narrator herself, as these are all first person stories.
My few attempts at interjecting to point out that snakes do not attack till provoked were combated with “No ma, that day only, that little kid was dragged away by a snake. Or I think it was a little puppy, I’m not sure. But Chellam maami’s dhobi’s friend saw it happen.”. Or the more favorite, “Ayyo illa di. Unakku yenna theriyum? Nee chumma kadhaiya kelu!”, followed by cackling laughter. (Ayyo, no. What do you know? You just listen to the story.)
The stories follow a set sequence of events as well. They start off with a kid going to investigate a small or loud noise, depending on whether the narrator likes drama, or being admired for her kid’s hearing genes. Sometimes the kid spots the snake, sometimes the snake follows the kid. Occasionally, the kid is eliminated and the noise is heard by the narrator herself, as she dries clothes she’s carried out in heavy buckets or is extremely tired after all the cooking done for the pooja. Occasionally, it’s rustle of leaves. But the stories invariably start with a form of sound.
Enter: The Snake. The snake is usually hungry or has just eaten.
Hungry snakes are extremely rare in these stories, as there is no way to actually verify their hunger. So mostly, they’re moving about and usually take a minute or so to pass someone’s door as they stand frozen with fear. Sometimes, they hiss and stare and are then stealthily captured in a bucket by the auto driver. They are never captured on camera, however. Of course, what maami would think of taking out her iPhone or S2 to take photographs of the snake!
Snakes that have just eaten, on the other hand, are very popular. In fact, I suspect it was the same snake that visited every house this year. This snake was always fully fed, fat, and resting in the shade. Moreover, the snake was captured in a rucksack by many men in three different stories, and weighed over 40 kilos. Of course, during Navratri, who would think of killing a snake? So this snake has always been let out in the wild by these strong men. The poor, delicate ladies’ hearts were beating so hard! Bakku bakkunnu!
Day before yesterday was a great day for snakes, so many ladies spotted them and had really close escapes.
“Yesterday only ma, there was such a small snake right on the grinder in the kitchen”, one aunty said, marking the length of the snake with the left hand at the elbow of the right hand.
The inexplicable thing is that no matter what snake is being described, every person makes a cobra gesture with their hand. I’m completely stumped by this, but my sister assures me this is normal. “Nethu ivvalaam periya malai paambu veettukku pinnadi vandhudhu”, accompanied by the trademark cobra gesture.
(Yesterday, such a big mountain snake was seen behind our house)
At the gathering yesterday though, one maami won the game. Very slyly, she talked about a big snake that was seen by her young son behind her house. There were general murmurs of polite interest. Soon, she introduced many characters in the story and many more adjectives for the snake. Expressions of feigned awe were everywhere. She then said that the snake had probably just eaten a pig or a dog and was unable to move. This invited a few sarcastic comments. She slowly built up the story, making it sound more and more dramatic and obviously impossible. Lastly, she said the snake was yellow and its width was easily as wide as her skinny son. All the maamis and the few mamas almost laughed and told her that’s not possible.
After much weak defense of her story and basking in the attention, she coolly pulled out a newspaper clipping of a huge-ass light yellow mountain python, 22ft in length, according to the caption. It had evidently just eaten a four-legged animal. It was surrounded by multiple men, women and her 6 year old who was undeniably as wide as the bulging snake on the ground. Right at the forefront was the maami, with her dazzling smile the exact shade as that of the snake’s skin.