“Girls, make sure your clothes are ready for tonight,” our mother hollers down the stairs in her native tongue, Gujrathi.
“Ok, Mom, we got it,” my sisters and I reply in English, as we finish our breakfast.
Crisp gold and crimson leaves fall in our yard signaling that Navratri is here again. Loud prayer music bellows upstairs, from my parent’s room in our house in South Jersey. Inside the room, a walk-in closet houses a silver guilt temple with hundreds of pictures and statuettes of the various Indian gods and goddesses. A single deeva, a candlelight, illuminates the space signifying that morning prayer is complete and Navratri, the Hindu festival, has begun. For nine nights in the fall, we celebrate this festival in worship of a female divinity by filling the nights with music, dancing and prayer.
After breakfast, I start with the first untold ritual of the festival: choosing the right clothes. The week-ends draw the largest crowds for the festival, so the choice must be perfect. I pull out a deep sunset colored blouse first, one with mirrors sewn on the gharara, the long skirt ensemble. No, not this one. Then, one in maroon silk so slippery that I hold it by its delicate embellishments… not this one either. Gazing at my reflection in the double mirror closet doors, I imagine wearing each ensemble. I could wear this one Monday… or next Friday night.
Sitting on the floor, I immerse myself in hues of indigo, sangria, amethyst, and cerulean blue with a thick embroidery of pearls, reflecting mirrors or luxuriant bells sewn onto splendid fabrics until one finally catches my eye. Tonight, I will wear a rich fuchsia double layered chiffon skirt, known as a gharara, with a scroll design made of inlaid gold embroidery. I pull the skirt up over my jeans for a quick trial and then spin around. The full skirt of the dress forms a perfect circle screaming, look at me!
With one item complete, I begin the next step towards another walk-in closet, which holds dozens of bangles. To the untrained eye, it is nothing more than a painter’s palette gone mad. There are sets of four or more bracelets in every color and design. Deep rich tones, and soft pastels, made of plastic, glass, or shiny metals in platinum, gold, and silver with inlaid stones. After careful searching, I grab a glass set in a deep rose tone with gold ones to wear on the ends. Every time I move, the glass bangles clink like fine wine glasses in celebration.
Next on my list is finding the best coordinating jewelry set to complement the outfit. I study the neckline of the blouse and reassess the embroidery on the veil as both are crucial in determining the choice for the cut of the necklace. Long, graceful chandelier earrings and a matching necklace are the most appropriate choice, in the way that they hug my neckline in delicate scrolls, and add to the entire ensemble.
Somewhere in between concert ticket stubs to Hall & Oats, a Rubik’s cube, kohl black eyeliner, and secret handwritten notes hidden in my drawer, I find my favorite pair of anklets. They are pure silver like a thick chain with three rows of twinkling bells set upon them. I set them on the table with everything else in my room.
Lastly, the pièce de résistance and what every Indian woman is known to wear, I choose a simple yet dramatic round bhindi, in the same pomegranate pink with the faintest gold border, for my forehead. By the end of nine nights, with four women, my mother and her three daughters, living in our house, over 30 different outfits will be worn, admired, and tossed aside until the joyous marathon ends.
That night, my family and I drive thirty minutes into downtown Philadelphia for the festivities. Walking in, I shield my eyes from the reflections of the giant, over-hanging fluorescent bulbs off the gymnasium floors. I remove my shoes out of respect for the goddess, and the shiny floors are like hardened silk under my feet. The aroma of incense fills the air, while statues and paintings of the goddess form the centerpiece of the dance circle. My father, a Hindu priest, and a few others chant invocation prayers to commence the evening’s ceremony. The grand gymnasium is empty, but I know families will trickle in slowly to transform the room to wall to wall people by midnight.
The evening starts with musicians prepping their voices and instruments. Slowly, ladies join into a circle for the first dance routine of the evening, the “garba”, which alternates hand clapping movements in a beat that moves from slow to quick. My dress spins when I do the steps and my feet move in circular patterns that I learned as a child. Now as teenager, I know the intricacies of even more complex dances and carry every footstep with confidence. Under the veil of the melodious harmonies in the background, our entire bodies move with the music as my friends and I weave in and out of the various circles of complexity.
Hours later, with the dholak beating louder and faster, we begin doing raas. Boys and girls grab two dandiya, rounded, wooden sticks and begin a coordinated five steps move with a partner, where we hit their sticks with ours in a pattern. Each time, we look eye to eye, hit our sticks, twirl our best twirl, and sometimes share in a flirtation, as part of the dance. Dandiya Raas mingles grace, elegance, and above all coquettishness. Each pair is within a circle that is formed with everyone participating. The circle keeps moving, spanning the entire room until the same partners are rejoined again. This is speed dating, in motion, under the watchful eye of conservative Indian parents.
Perhaps, it is the safety of the sea of clashing sticks that gives a path for the curiosity, the bliss, and the innocent laughter of youth to reveal itself. I smile knowingly, at a few of my girlfriends who attempt a conversation in their five minutes of “dating” while loud singing and drumbeats fill the air. I chuckle as I see one grab her partner. She’s pulling him out of the circle, feigning the importance of finishing their conversation. I roll my eyes to see the game being played, as she beckons a few of us to join her outside.
Taking a break, my friends and I step outside to get a drink of water and wipe the sweat from our brow from the rigorous dancing. Tonight’s festival is held at of my favorite locales, one that has a pizza parlor in the lobby. The night is in full swing, the drumbeat growing so strong as if it’s oozing from the walls. However, at midnight, the pizza place throws open its doors with sounds of U2 blaring, drowning out the Indian folk music just inside the hall. Within minutes, flirty teenagers, overly made-up mothers, and bored fathers get in line to buy pizza, providing the satisfactory conclusion of a night in a way that only pizza can. Suddenly, we hear loud yelling and horns blowing in the street.
“What’s going on?” we quiz the boys who pass by in their blue jeans and kurtas.
“The Phillies!” they yell back at us.
“What? What happened with the Phillies?” a few of us inquire further.
“They won the Pennant tonight!” they all reply.
“They won? The Phillies won!” we all yell.
“P H I L L I E S! P H I L L I E S!” a new breed of chants erupts in the streets; the whole city rejoices. In our exuberance, we dance outside the hall in full view of the city traffic. Many onlookers slow down to see the spectacle, waving their hands and blowing their horns in support. The boys join in with a crisscross showering of dandiya around us. Our movements match the rhythm of the adrenaline in our heads. Our team has won!
We roam the streets sharing in the exuberant joy with our fellow Phillies fans, while dressed in our heavy Indian garb. Seamlessly, one festival has turned into two! Hours pass in raucous enjoyment. A sense of community and camaraderie is all we can feel. Hundreds of people moving in concentric circles to the same rhythm and music performed in India thousands of years ago morphs into a celebration of our baseball team’s accomplishment here in Philly.
Surrounded by vivid colors, thunderous music, and our closest friends, Navratri is the quintessential portrayal of “living in the moment,” whatever that moment is. Our hearts are full and even the blisters on our feet are memorable now. At the night ends, we are princesses attending a ball; but at midnight, we turn back to our comfy sweats and baseball caps. By the end of the week, a smorgasbord of glittering jewelry and clothes lays piled high in the corner of my room, right next to the 1983 Phillies Pennant.
Roopal Badheka is the author of several short stories, a screenplay and the novella The Beach Getaway. Her fiction has also been featured in such publications as Six Sentences, A Long Story Short, and Static Movement and others. Her full writing portfolio can be found at www.roopsworld.com. She also writes a motivational and inspirational blog for Neoteric Edge, a firm providing a modern take to management consulting & coaching. Roopal Badheka currently lives in Sugar Land, TX with her husband, her two sons, and her Siberian Husky Skye. Her heritage is Indian. Connect with her on Twitter: @NeotericEdge