Gatari: The Mardi Gras of the Marathi Manoos

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Gatari: The Mardi Gras of the Marathi Manoos

Illustration: Cleon Dsouza

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atari is Maharashtra’s answer to the question, “What if we took Mardi Gras and replaced the alcohol with just beer, took away the hot, nearly topless women, and replaced them with banyan-wearing, gaali-giving kakas dancing to ‘Zingat’?” Gatari Amavasya can be loosely translated to the “Night of the Gutter”. On this night, the aim is to drink all you can, make merry, and pass out in the gutter near your house.

I celebrate this Mardi Gras of the Marathi manoos every year with my friends Umesh and Jai. We grew up together in the multicultural melting pot that is Parel. They’re the kind of friends who’ll occasionally send you a Marathi sex joke on Whatsapp or tag you in a Facebook post about plastic rice. It came as no surprise then that Umesh sent me a badly photoshopped creative of a chaddi-clad child, holding a beer in one hand and a dead chicken in the other, asking, “Gatari Kab Hai, Kab Hai Gatari?” I knew what Umesh was hinting at – a night of pure, booze-fuelled chutiyagiri. Of course, I was up for it. Our nightout would be like the Priyadarshan version of Hangover starring Tiger Shroff, Rajpal Yadav, and Himesh Reshammiya.

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Gatari Amavasya or simply Gatari is observed just before the holy month of Shravan begins, during which piety is the alcohol, the mixer, and the chakna. In short, you got to be holy: No intoxicants, no meat, no shoes, no sex, and no shaving (for men at least). Every year on Shravan, your average Marathi manoos goes on a detox, to appease Lord Shiva. We Catholics have Lent, which is our month-long wet blanket, Muslims have Ramzan, and just about every culture in the world has periods of abstinence, designed to keep us pleasure-seeking simians in check.

Aerial View of Multi Stories Building of Chawl and Tower in Mumbai, Maharashtra, India ( Income Disparity )

The first thing that hits me as soon as I enter the chawl on a rainy July night, is the warm, comforting smell of a thousand different masalas in various stages of preparedness.

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I decide to meet Umesh and Jai the night before Gatari Amavasya, which is good news for our health, careers, and sanity, as it happens to be a Saturday. First stop, Umesh’s home in a chawl in Parel. Jai lives in the next row of chawls. The first thing that hits me as soon as I enter the crumbling building on a rainy July night, is the warm, comforting smell of a thousand different masalas in various stages of preparedness and the sound of “Tamma Tamma Loge” – not the groovy old-school version from Thanedaar but that shit squeal of a song featuring Varun Dhawan and Alia Bhatt from a movie whose name I couldn’t be fucked to know. The rain gets heavier, the music louder, and somewhere in the distance a Maharashtrian kaka yells, “Aye tadpatri neet takli kaa peaker var? Peaker kharab hotil. (Have you covered the speakers with tarpaulin? They’ll go kaput in the rains.)” I run the remaining distance, the cracks in the tiles reminding me of holes poked in freshly fried wadas to let the steam out. The anticipation of eating kombdiche kalwan (chicken curry) and wadas has me at half mast.

Umesh’s father, Bajirao, is sipping a can of Kingfisher, sitting on a plastic chair outside his house, in a Rupa banyan and lungi. Umesh and I aren’t offered any beer because we’re unmarried, which technically means we’re still boys with intact virginities, unsullied by sex and intoxicants. We can only partake of alcoholic libations once we take a wife and lose the precious flower of our youth. I keep up this charade simply because I don’t want to offend Umesh’s mother, or drink Kingfisher, which I know is the only thing Umesh’s dad drinks. He works in the PWD – he’s essentially a fixer, in charge of making sure shit gets done, one way or another. My drinking tolerance surpassed his when I was probably 19, but he doesn’t need to know this. If male egos are fragile, the egos of Marathi males are made of tissue paper and eggshells, and I don’t want to offend him, lest my kombadi wade be taken from me.

Umesh’s mother belongs to the old wave of Marathi feminism: She’d rip the testicles off any man who’s not her husband if he crosses her path, but Bajirao’s one stare is sufficient to quell her outbursts. And “Kashi aahes kakoo? (How are you, aunty?)” is all it takes to melt her heart.

We sit cross-legged on the floor in Umesh’s 10×10 kholi, with 15-inch stainless steel thalis in front of us, as kakoo ladles piping hot kombdicha kalwan into our plates. She instructs us to let the steam die down, as she quickly fries crispy-yet-crumbly light yellow wade, meant to soak up the meaty goodness of the kalwan. Gatari is one day of the year when Mumbai’s Maharashtrian lower middle-class can partake of meat and alcohol, two things that aren’t taboo but aren’t fully acceptable either, for they invite the ire and ridicule of those who observe strict dietary rules. Enter gatari, the great leveller.

After Umesh’s cousin Jai comes over, we head to our first stop – Crown Palace,  a bar that is one of the last remnants of Bombay’s once-booming permit-room culture. It is in seedy bars like this one, under the psychedelic glow of neon red and green lights, that murders were plotted, jokes were traded, and future endeavours were planned. But we do no such hard work and get down to the business of chicken and beer. Jai is amazed, chicken at home and chicken for chakna. His happiness knows no bounds right now, for his happiness is a warm lollipop.

We think nothing of it; all’s forgiven on Gatari.

The bar is full of other men, mostly Maharashtrian, celebrating Gatari just like us. They’re getting their drink on to retro Bollywood music, and the three of us, connected by not more than beer, rum, and chicken, are trying to get the conversation going. Women is usually a safe topic. Everyone has  a story to tell. After we’re suitably buzzed, we decide to move the party but before leaving Umesh stuffs up on the muhkwas, because even though Bajirao knows we’re out drinking, Umesh still needs to appear sober when he returns home.

Jai is in full Gatari mode by now – a fact he makes evident by swearing at a passerby who bumped into him. He insists on driving us around the city in his Uber, but we hail a regular kaali-peeli. “Despacito” plays on Umesh’s mobile phone; Jai wants to listen to Marathi music, in keeping with the spirit of Gatari, but Umesh won’t have it. We make our way to a friend’s house in Byculla, only to be greeted by the sight of a dozen men in Rupa, VIP, and Lux ganjis and stripped shorts.

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After a couple of drinks, a game of cricket or carom is the order of the day.

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In the centre of a modest one-bedroom house, located in a once-beautiful, but now ugly, recently redeveloped neighbourhood, is a solitary carom board surrounded by four players in various stages of stupor. Crumpled 10 and 20-rupee notes on a synthetic chataai stand testimony to the action we missed. Looks like a full-blown carom tournament went down. The winner was accused of cheating and got into a fist fight before leaving. We think nothing of it; all’s forgiven on Gatari. We switch up our booze and pour ourselves some DSP whiskey. The house is ours all night. The host’s parents, brother, and sister-in-law are in Sangameshwar for the weekend: The rainy season is also mating season for the Maharashtrian middle-class.

As we play a desultory and drunken game of carom, the banter begins. Up for debate is everything from women to cricket with a generous helping of right-wing alt facts. Midway through my third drink, there’s some commotion outside the room. The “carom champion”, who was ousted earlier, is now back with a bunch of older kakas itching for a fight. On Gatari, when the drinking’s done, there’s always time for a scuffle or two. Umesh and Jai are up on their feet and join the heated argument even though they have no role to play here. The context they lack is provided by the whiskey they’ve had. I slip away, not wanting to harsh my buzz, because where there are alcohol and fights, there are cops. Umesh and Jai follow me.

We decide to grab one last drink on the way home from a wine shop, which at midnight, is still serving a swarm of intoxicated men – some just high, some sweating alcohol out of their pores, and others drunk enough to offer to buy all the alcohol in the shop with a wad of ₹2000 notes.

Amid all this babel, Jai propitiously throws up and the rumble of a police van grows louder. The crowd at the wine shop vanishes and the shutter of the store is sealed more firmly than the gates of Mordor. In a sort of “bura na maano Gatari hai” gesture, the cops leave us alone. Three drunks sitting under the orange-yellow glow of street lights on the side of the road on Gatari is like three hookers plying their trade in a red-light district, just faces in a sea of similar faces.

Tomorrow is a new day. Gatari will be just a fleeting memory in the minds of those who will now feign piety for 30 days and then go back to propriety and enforced sobriety for the rest of 335.

Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day, give a Marathi manoos some kombadi wade and beer, and you’ve fed his need to cut loose and get wrecked for a whole year.

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