Lessons from Navratri in Gujarat: You May Not Get Laid, But You’ll Feel the Love


Lessons from Navratri in Gujarat: You May Not Get Laid, But You’ll Feel the Love

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

I’m a boy who grew up in south Bombay, the part of the city that is home to snooty Mumbaikars who dub a trip to anywhere beyond Bandra as a quick weekend getaway. So when I announced to my friends I was moving to Baroda, they protested. My carefully prepared arguments about urban migration to Tier 2 cities fell on deaf ears and they threw the ultimate trump card at me, “Dude it’s a dry state!” I wanted to correct them that Baroda is a city not a state, but I chose not to digress and continued talking about reasonable property prices and better quality of life. That too did not seem to impress them, until one of them added, “Dude, there’s always Navratri. You are so going to get laid.”

“No booze, lots of Navratri sex” is Baroda summarised for the outsider. But alcohol was never my high and the chances of the latter happening were as little as Indian men understanding consent. Because I have no experience with Navratri other than aesthetically choreographed dance numbers in Sanjay Leela Bhansali films. I also have no experience with dancing – in fact I’m blessed with two size 12 left feet.

Months after moving to Baroda, the novelty of affordable rent and pothole-free roads started wearing off and I began to feel homesick. I missed the mayhem and the madness that was Mumbai. Baroda was like any small city – sedate and slow. But this began to change days ahead of Navratri.  

The vibe of the city changed – there was palpable excitement in the air; boring Baroda had suddenly turned electric. Puja pandals cropped up in every nook and cranny of the city, streets were lit up. In a matter of days, the city had transformed and it felt a lot like Mumbai during Ganeshotsav. Everyone is cheerful, warm, and they can’t wait to shake a leg. There’s one difference, I thought to myself, while Mumbai chooses to do the “Zingat” in the streets, Baroda prefers to “Sanedo” in the sheets.

All set for nine days of music and dancing, I made by way to United Way, one of the city’s popular garba gatherings – a massive ground, teeming with hundreds and thousands of women in bright backless cholis and men in colourful kediyus. I have not seen so many people in one place at one time. It was a total sensory overload – the sight, the sounds, the heat. To kick start your Navratri experience with the United Way garba is like opening your rock concert tally by seeing U2 live at Slane Castle.  

Navratri is release – in a state that has recourse to few vices, this is the time of the year that everyone lets go.

But I was like that awkward guy at the rock concert who ends up in a suit. At United Garba, amid a riot of colour, I was dressed in a jeans and a T-shirt, sweating copiously, and with no knowledge of how to hold the damn dandiya. I did not have the courage to join the jamboree, so I stood at the side taking it all in, enjoying the choreographed dancing, thinking about the much-hyped music and mating.

I skulked around the corners taking in all the high-intensity twirling, skipping, jumping, and flirting. It was like a 2X version of speed-dating. There could be some crazy hot backseat sex happening in sedans and SUVs, but it isn’t the sausage fest, everyone outside Gujarat thinks it is. This went on until dawn, when United Way garba wound up – that’s around six to eight hours of frenetic dancing in 35 degrees. I don’t know how I was able to pull an all-nighter, considering that in less than half an hour of arriving there, I was ready to get on a frosted saline drip.

Navratri is anything but the Gujarati Mardi Gras. Navratri is release – in a state that has recourse to few vices, this is the time of the year that everyone lets go. But the whole affair is as much about amorous liaisons as Holi is about Amitabh and Rekha. What stands out is the spirit of community and togetherness. All of Baroda has the time of its life, soaking in the music and the dancing. And that unbridled joy is infectious.

I left United Way garba humming “Dholi Taro” with a spring in my step. Suddenly five hours of standing on my feet did not make me exhausted; in fact I was exhilarated.  It was a familiar feeling – the kind that grips you after dancing for hours on the road for Bappa. I did not do any dancing here but for the first time, Baroda felt like home. Navratri and all the energy it brought with it filled the void that Mumbai had left in my heart.

What this Navratri taught me is that you might not belong to a culture, might not understand its nuances, might take time to fit in, but that is no reason not to dive right in and experience it fully. So next year, I’m going to go all out and take garba lessons and put on a kediyu. I’m going to jump and twirl and dance like I belong here.

Maybe I will even invite my friends from the big bad city. But I’ll tell them, no we are not going to get laid, but sure as hell we are going to feel alive.