In a few days' time the speed dating festival of Navratri will commence. I say "speed dating" because that is, sadly, what it has been reduced to these days. Scores of sports grounds in Mumbai and Gujarat are already being fitted out with government-funded equipment (including, condom vending machines - OMG: I can't believe I said the "c" word! Bad boy, Paras!) to accommodate and entertain the throngs of revellers expected to dance and partake in the adrenalin-fueled sweaty nights of garba. On the other hand, in a classic representation of exclusivity and discrimination, hundreds of private clubs across Western and North India will have sold their exorbitantly priced tickets to India's growing "nouveau-riche" bourgeoisie (middle class) who wish to have their own form of justified speed dating with appropriately adjusted pecuniary filters so that the "riffraff" don't get in and ruin the fun! All this, my friends, in the name of religion.
In England, scores of Church of England school and town halls have been booked up for a series of 9 to 10 nights. Ticketed events by several Gujarati organisations have been organised. Some even have special season tickets on sale which, if you intend to attend on all the days, might just work out to be cheaper. We Gujaratis love a bargain! 9 days of garba fun for the price of 8!!! Navratri here has been reduced to a spectacle that one might choose to buy entry for, much like buying your Arsenal season tickets! And if you think the speed dating doesn't happen here in England, I think you need to book an appointment at Boots opticians soon, my friends. In London, the Navratri equivalent of Tiger Tiger is perhaps Northolt, while Mahiki probably equates to Chiswick (minus the booze, of course!).
"Navratri today is an exhibition of vulgarity with young girls having barely entered puberty, scantily dressed, sweating and hot with belly buttons pierced in inappropriate backless cholis and tights. I mean, shouldn't we be leaving that to the experts in Bollywood?"
You see, it's only natural that the most important aspect of Navratri is its most celebrated - music, dance and general merriment. And don't get me wrong - one of the biggest social drivers for this festival is precisely the social cohesion and sense of community that the festival is intended to help foster. But what many forget is the real spiritual dimension of Navratri. Far from the tentacles of Narendra Modi's "Vibrant Gujarat" propaganda, the festival does actually have a deep-seated purpose of cultivating inner spiritual awareness through rituals that encourage self-control and renunciation. Many forget that during Navratri, several devotees fast for the festival's duration, renouncing all forms of meat and grain. On a meager diet of fruit and milk, devotees are encouraged to engage in meditation and self-contemplation. Many continue to get on with their daily lives notwithstanding the harsh pangs of growing hunger in their bellies and those irresistible cravings for carbs. Others decide to give to charity, either in cash or kind. But all of this is shrouded by the Navratri night clubs that temples and sports halls are converted into to satisfy the carnal urges of raging teenagers. And of course, it's all "legit", yaar - because it's all in the name of religion. It's the one time when if you're a girl and dare to wear something revealing (well really, downright vulgar, when put in context) without having to succumb to your mum's glaring looks, you're fine. Why? All in the name of religion, yaar! It's more pleasant to say to mum - "I'm going to the garba tonight and won't be back until the morning!". Replace the word "garba" with the name of any alcohol-fueled nightclub and you'll get a deluge of questions to answer and probably a curfew.
My point is this - the whole purpose of Navratri has become distorted. What, I think, was a festival conjured up in ancient India to drive social cohesion, inclusiveness, culture and spiritual awareness, is now actually quite the opposite. Sadly, Navratri today is characterised by youths lip syncing to vulgar Bollywood atrocities (Munni badnaam hui, anyone?), dancing in their own groups trying very hard to be as wayward as possible. Navratri today is an exhibition of vulgarity with young girls having barely entered puberty, scantily dressed, sweating and hot with belly buttons pierced in inappropriate backless cholis and tights. And you thought guys went to the garba to dance? We really should be leaving the "choli ke peeche kya hai" attitude to the experts in Bollywood.
Allow me to make myself clear. I am not saying that one shouldn't participate in this year's Navratri festivities simply because of all the vulgarities that exist! To the contrary, I'm going to have fun and make the most of it (to the extent, that I am able to get out of work on time!). All I am saying is that just by playing a few rounds of garba and dandia raas, don't fool yourself by thinking you've achieved any spiritual brownie points. Durga is not dumb.