Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The Disappearing of the Water Balloon and other Madikeri Dasara Stories

There are times I desperately wish I had the faith. But I don't, most often. That is the fact of the matter. But I do believe, with an innocent vigour, that it won't rain on Dasara in Madikeri. The temples in town collectively offer prayers for the rains to keep away and it usually works. There is rain on the morning of the 10th day of the Navarathri festival, there is rain the next day, but not that particular night. There have been exceptions though. But that it won't rain is something I like to believe, I am part of that one collective faith.

We had gone to Chettalli, 15 kms away along lovely roads with tiny waterfalls gurgling on to the road, on the morning of Dasara last Sunday. It rained along the way and back. But by 2 am, when we were out of the house, the sky was a deep dark blue and there were stars everywhere, like in early April. I did not remember to look for my favourite Orion. Some rare times, your belief does not also let you down.

Madikeri Dasara is a big deal, at least for me. I hadn't missed it for the first 23 years of my life. There are lights, music, dance, street food and a procession that lasts all night and part of the next morning. Ten temples have one mantapa as we call it or tableaux each where they depict a scene from Goddess Durga's tales or something from mythology, complete with flying demons, screeching birds and canned laughter (not the funny kind though). Each vie for an award, they are to line up by morning, in a particular order, near Raja Seat where a team judges them. There are usually fights about the decision, fuelled by a night of drunken dancing before the mantapas. Dancing, that ma has never allowed me to do, it is a small town after all.

It wasn't cold this year, it usually is and there is much fun in trying to bury your hands deeper in the folds of your jacket. It wasn't much crowded, as it usually is, maybe people went to Cauvery Sankrama, another HUGE festival that happened to fall on the same day as Dasara this year.

I suppose I go every year for sentimental reasons, because of the memories I associate with the event. Other than that, there really isn't anything very sophisticated about the festival. Dasara is loud, gaudy, call it even pedestrian. It is like a village fair that found itself in a small town and did not know how to behave itself. Most of the 'audience' is village people, usually from estates for whom the event, in the absence of a TV in earlier days, served as once a year entertainment.

Having wiggled out of work the next day, they will typically come into the town by evening, walk about, a little wary, wide eyed at the lights, in torn shawls and worn out chappals, clutching maybe a cheap plastic toy that cost a princely Rs 15. Or maybe they will hold tight a bunch of bright pink and yellow flowers to decorate the wooden shelf in the corner of their one room homes with. They will dance, the younger men, the teen boys, some drunk, some drunk on the headiness of being in a town and seeing things like lights and loud music.

They will listen to music from the mantapas, very loud, from Praveen Gokindi to the Kodava snake dance beats to Hindi songs sung hoarsely to Swami Aiyappa chants to anything with much drums. They will buy toys and plastic flowers, after bargaining and still over-paying. They will have bought water balloons, red and yellow filled with dirty water and a little rubber tag closing the mouth that they will tie around their finger and make the balloon blob up and down like a ping pong ball. The water balloon will have eventually disappeared, more sophisticated toys will replace them.

They will eat the churmuri and buy one ice candy for two and wash it down with watered down tea or bad coffee that would not come from the beans from the estates they work in. The older men will have got drunk on country liquor and will try to navigate their feet along the steps about town to go catch the best view of the tableaux. Or maybe they will stay put at a vantage point they came early to secure and the drunk guy will slump back on the wet grass. The loud absurd music, interspersed with the inaudible narration of the story of the depiction on the tableaux, will not wake him up. His wife, her saree draped in the style of the innerlands, will not care, her eyes will be lit up by the garish pinks and bright kingfisher blues behind the idol of the fuming Goddesss Durga.

Her son will have joined the dancers by then. He need not be drunk too, but he will surely be dancing in his own two inch wide personal circle, trying not too often to catch a belle's eyes, the dance is enough for him. Hands in the air, his moves will be uninhibited. The temple committees have begun to appoint separate vehicles to fix a few dozen boom speakers on top of, the music from several such quickens. Most can't keep pace, most are beyond the desire to do so. He will wear a grey and black jacket that won't do much by way of keeping the cold away. The jacket will have fake logos of Honda and Ferrari and lately, Playboy embossed on the back. He will buy them off the shack that sells them by the side of the roads on the day of Dasara for cheap. He will walk with a special swagger reserved for that night, hoping he will catch the eye of the group of giggling girls on the other side of the road.

His sister will look up and see fireworks. She will gape when there is a burst of golden stars in the sky. She will stretch out her hand, imagining a star or her dream falling into her palm as she keeps her head up in anticipation of the next burst of orange and gold. The stars in the sky, the ones sent up in a tube with a fire at one end, they are for her alone, she will think.

There will be lakhs of people milling around the sides of the mantapas. There will be many more under the large waterproof canopy at Gandhi Maidan where an orchestra will be playing under bright disco lights. They will be singing songs of love and dance, sounding hoarse from all the forced enthusiasm all night long. But they will have an audience that will sing softly under their breathe and louder as the night deepens. The singers will try to dance a bit, the guitar-man will sweat under the pink and orange lights from one corner of the stage. A policeman will look on, wishing just to go home on the cold night and sleep. There will be many policemen and women brought into duty from elsewhere in the city who will have no idea how and where to guide the vehicles from out of town. But they will stand their guard all night.

Then there will be the locals who will know all the inner roads and be able to navigate their cars to as close to the mantapas as possible. They will know where to get the best views from. There will be groups of local boys who will walk the town, girls with their parents and cousins who will meet other families and their cousins and sisters for a quick hello. They will stand on the sides of roads and the men will complain about the rain, the women about the crowds, the girls will giggle while the boys will try not to catch their eyes. They will flirt, as best as possible. Like in movies, there will be background music, for one night, in real life.

It will soon be dawn and there will be piles of trash left behind. The drunk, so much a part of Dasara night, will stagger along, the music still ringing faintly in their ears, from the night before. Those who braved the winds and the orchestra the whole night will trudge along, bleary eyed, into warm homes and bring in a whiff of the smoky mist as they open the door. The warm blankets and hot cups of real coffee will be much appreciated. The music will slowly die down, masked every passing minute by the growing daylight and car horns and kitchen sounds.

Then the Dasara night will be over. For another full year, people will wake up in the morning, eat, go to work, work. Then they will pass by the town, talk about the older married mother-of-two woman who ran away with the younger man as they pick up their groceries. They will wave their hellos to other people they have known all their lives and come back home to fight, scold their kids, eat, watch TV, and get to bed by 10 pm.

For another full year, they will lead the days of their lives. Until it is Dasara again and they stay up to live one night.

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