Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The Diwali I Loved: Saudades after an Explosive Naraka Chathurdashi

If there is one thing that I absolutely adore about Diwali in Goa, it is the relative quiet as compared to other parts of India. It is as if all our explosive tendencies get used up in the course of Chathurti and it is only the die-hards who actually make a bang at Diwali. It could also be a reflection however, that the rhythms of our Hinduism is markedly different from that present in the rest of India, especially North India. Diwali is definitely not that big a deal for us, as compared to Ganesh. And if it is, then Diwali has still not been reduced to the consumeristic orgy that marks Diwali at least in the north of India.

Perhaps the fondest image that I have of Diwali in Goa is an image captured from a rather modest house in Taleigão. It is late on the night of Diwali, and all the world is asleep. It is the proverbial silence of Christmas in the air and before me, was the façade of this little house and its courtyard in front of it. All that one can make out of this house are the tiny, red fairy lights that hang from the eaves of the house’s roof, bathing the Tulsi and the rest of the court yard in the softest and most delicate red hues. I return often to this house, and simply drink up the scene. Having quaffed this scene so often, I can regurgitate it whenever I am away, drinking in once more the beauty of a silent, but light filled Diwali. What is perhaps most beautiful about this remembered scene, is that for me, the weak but constant light of the fairy lamps represents what Diwali could be all about. The weak, yet insistent commitment to good, over evil, that is always more powerfully arrayed and always returns with a vengeance.

If there is one thing that I abhor about the Goan Diwali however, it is this supposedly ‘unique’ celebration of what is now being called Naraksur Nite (shudder!). I used to be under the impression that the Narakasur effigy was this peculiarly Goan Hindu observance, until an anthropologist friend dragged me out of this dream. It is apparently, an invention that came to Goa from Goan migrants who had traveled to Bombay and then returned. Authentically Goan or not, my early recollections of Naraka Chathurdashi are fond. These memories remain fond despite the fact that I now recognize that they brought children and youth together in bonhomie under the umbrella of secular Hinduism. They remain fond, because there was nevertheless a spirit of innocence that we all shared. It was a time when it was possible to not be aware that there were problems with the way this nation was being sutured together. After all in the 1980’s we were just 2 decades away from being Indian and still without the bitter experiences that the last couple of decades has brought.

If there is a Diwali-related orgy in Goa, then it has to be Narakasur Nite. I use the word orgy very deliberately, since the event as it has been arranged does in fact have the necessary requirements for an orgy, which is an out-of-control mob. There is this awful din of pre-recorded music that allows for no conversation, and no meaningful participation. One becomes merely a spectator, who can only watch, ideally with open mouth, stand a while and then move on to view the next creation somewhere down the street, and then watch again. What Naraksur nite becomes is a night for the rowdy young man.

There is more than the environment that allows for the emergence of the rowdy young man, the image of Narakasur has over the time come to also represent the body of the violent young man. The Naraksur of perhaps a decade ago displayed something of the physical types of most, lets say, Goan men. Solid chest and arms no doubt, but definitely the pot-belly! Have another look at the Narakasur from a few days ago. He had the sculpted male body that is sold by Hollywood and Bollywood. This is not just a male body, it is the embodiment of untrammeled male power; muscled and hard. Funnily enough, these contemporary Narakasurs represent the same mistakes made by a number of Indian men who engage in ‘body-building’. So obsessed with cultivating the image of the powerful and strong man, they focus entirely on the chest, growing like bulls around their torso, but running around on stick-like legs. Just like the boys who fashion these Narakasur then, the effigy too is top heavy, and has to necessarily be built sitting down! Talk about worshipping gods with feet of clay!

There is definitely an element of worship that has crept into the celebration of Naraka Chathurdashi. Perhaps this is what the Sanathan Sanstha (SS) and the Hindu Janajagruthi Samiti (HJS) have also sniffed out. This seems to contravene a certain code that they have, as to what Hinduism actually is. I cannot pretend to make sense of this code, because I am as yet puzzled by the contradictions between this group that encourage militancy, and simultaneously discourage it. Could it be the contradictions of Hindutva itself? The contradictions of an ideology that rests on lower-caste/class mobilization and militancy, and yet must bind these cohorts to upper-caste/class leadership. Refering to the ‘dancing, drinking and singing and loud filmi music’ at the ‘Ganapati festival’ Kancha Ilaiah suggests that there has been a certain ‘Dalitisation’ of what had been intended to be modes of conversion to Brahmanism. Given the response of the SS and the HJS, that seek to clean up these acts of their bawdry, perhaps Ilaiah has a point. Perhaps the bawdry does represent a challenge of the ‘lower’ orders to brahmanical norms!

As perplexing as these contradictions are, it is crucial that we make sense of them if we are to ensure the kind of low-intensity Diwali that we seem to be used to in our little State. A rather belated, but nevertheless heart-felt Diwali Mubarak to all.

(Published in the Gomantak Times, 21 Oct 2009)

Image Credit: Cecil Pinto via

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