Things that go BANG in the night

Dussehra was two week ago, but my ears are still ringing. Dussehra is – yes – one more religious festival (I told you this was the season). Perhaps even more than other popular Indian festivals, it is marked by extreme noisemaking. Dussehra celebrates the victory over the God-man Ram (hero of the Sanskrit epic the Ramayana) over the evil demon/intellectual Ravan. In festivals all over India, huge effigies of Ravan are burned. I had a front-row seat at one of these Ravan burnings, and no one had told me that, these days, the effigies are filled with dangerous amounts of firecrackers. Thus, the ringing ears.

Actually, that’s not the whole story, ear-damage-wise. As Diwali approaches (Diwali being, ahem, another, even bigger festival, this one celebrating Ram’s return home from Ravan’s Lanka with wife Sita in tow), all the local kids are going wild with firecrackers. I’m pretty sure that kids all over the world and throughout history have enjoyed lighting things on fire and blowing things up. In my childhood, my moth-like attraction towards these activities was at least somewhat obstructed by stern adult disapproval. In India, no such barriers exist. Just today, I saw a mother eagerly applauding her young child as he lit a firecracker and threw it into the middle of our narrow lane.

Excuse me, back to Dussehra. It’s not just about exploding Ravans. In a manner typical of modern Hindu syncretism, Dussehra also marks the end of both the nine-day Navratri and the six-day Durga Puja, separate-but-linked celebrations of divine femininity. With all the testosterone in the air from the explosions and effigies, a bit of goddess worship is a welcome relief.

For me, celebrating Dussehra also meant experiencing, one again, the odd privilege of being a white guy in India. I’ve lived in India on and off for almost two years now, and sometimes I fool myself into thinking that I now fit in, but then I get reminders of my strange status here. This happened most strikingly when my parents were visiting back in 2008, and we were invited to a wedding in small-town Tamil Nadu. We did not know the bride and groom (we barely even knew our hosts in the town, but that’s another story), and yet – for reasons that are still unclear – we were made into the guests of honor, even being called up to cut the cake with the newly wed couple!

On Dussehra, I was out for a bike ride when I saw a huge Ravan effigy set up in a park. I stopped and asked a cop, in my best pidgin Hindi, when the burning would take place. The cop was one of several who were guarding a side gate to the park; the main entrance was through a large lot that had been converted into a festival fairground, complete with stage and many food stalls. After telling me that the burning would happen in about an hour, the cop asked if I would stay to see it.

“Sure,” I said, “But how do I get in? Do I have to go to that main entrance?”

“Well” – a glance at the gathering crowd at the side gate showed that the masses weren’t allow through here – “we could…”

After a brief talk with his superior, the cop ushered me through the side gate, into what was clearly a VIP area centered around the Ravan. A couple of people were setting up sound equipment, while well-heeled families sat in chairs set up in front of the effigy. Beyond the ropes, people milled around or sat down in the grass. I snapped a few photos, and realized there would be very few things to do for the next hour. When another cop told me that there would be a thirty-minute delay to the program, I decided to check out the fairground.

Here, it was much more packed and lively. I munched on some pani puri and aloo chaat and watched as kids dressed in ancient warrior costumes ran on and off the stage that had been set up.

Glancing at my watch, I decided to head into the park, this time through the main entrance. I joined the crowds, and realized I was now on the wrong side of the rope, if I wanted the prime view the VIP area afforded. As I walked away from the ropes, discouraged, one of the event organizers (I knew he was an event organizer because he had an important-looking badge) came up to me a gestured towards the VIP zone. I followed him, and he led me to the rope, lifted it up for me, and escorted me through. I couldn’t escape this special treatment even if I wanted to!

Ravan gets burned

The VIP area was filling up now, and I noticed that a couple other white folks had been herded in along with me. A makeshift podium had been set up, and community leaders were making speeches that, of course, I couldn’t understand. Then the costumed kids ran in and re-enacted the fight between Ram and Ravan, while the event organizers wandered around and gave flower garlands to special guests, myself included, of course.

But you already know the ending to this story: BANG!

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