Last Sunday was Vijaya Dashami, the tenth day of celebration after the Navaratris. And what exactly do we celeberate? Well, in the South, its the victory of the Goddess Durga over the demon Mahishasura who was terrorising the world. North Indians may hail Dussehra as the victory of Rama over Ravana, but in the South and the East, its the Devi who holds sway.
As a child, Navaratri (or Dussehra) was always one of my favourite festivals. I loved it for the Golu that came up every year – the festival of dolls, lovingly arranged on makeshift steps, and rolled up carefully in old soft cloth and put away, until the next year’s Golu. I loved it for the school holidays which were arranged to coincide with the celebrations. I loved it for the payasams my mother made, one for each of the nine days of prayer that Navaratri is. I loved the careful allocation of worship – Navaratri has nine days of festivity, my mother used to tell me, because we give three days to Lakshmi, three days to Saraswati and three to Durga. But most of all, I loved Navaratri because, it is a women’s festival.
For many of us who grew up in the seventies or eighties, even if you came from a reasonably liberal family, there would always be something that you couldn’t do, because you are not a boy. Some idiot who would commiserate with your parents because they didn’t have any boys. Someone who suggested that my dad (who had a perfectly valid reason), would have made it to my first birthday, if I had been a boy. Enough people who proposed that you study to be a teacher, not because it is interesting or worthwhile, but because it is a career a woman can have and get back at 3 0 clock.
So while my family is fairly liberal and never really prevented me from doing anything significant on account of gender, these little barbs still hurt. Navaratri then, was a huge dose of specialness being handed out on a platter. During Navaratri, whether or not anyone else had new clothes, the girls in each family did. Because Navaratri is a celebration of the Goddess, for these nine days, its mainly women who participated in the festivities, who arranged the golu, who visited the neighbours and got to eat delicious sundal and payasam. Girls got to dress up in their finest clothes each day. We were told repeatedly that the festival was for Us.
Also, worshipping these Goddesses made me feel good too. While Lakshmi, Saraswati and Durga (Shakti) are the spouses of the trinity, Vishnu, Brahma and Shiva respectively, they are worshipped not as adjunct goddesses, but as powers in their own right. Lakshmi, the goddess of Wealth, Saraswati, the goddess of Learning and Durga, the goddess of Strength – these three cover pretty much everything one needs to live! A festival that glorifies them feels so close to my heart.
Today I see many boys taking a keen interest in the festivities, and in a few generations Navaratri may no longer be a girls-only function, it may just be a girls-first thing. I don’t regret it though. By then perhaps both genders will be much more open to sharing things traditionally meant only for one.