By Sharan Saikumar Sep. 20, 2017
There is nothing quite like the smell of freshly watered earth on the first night of Navratri, but there is something more than fragrance in the air. For these nine nights, all the bundled-up, repressed hormones of the year come roaring out and the mating dance commences.
couple of years ago, ahead of Navratri, my father sent me a clipping of a news report: Gujaratis were up in arms against a Sunny Leone hoarding, advising safe sex during Navratri. I replied with a string of laughing emojis, partly because I’m sure if Gujjus did outrage, they’d do it with a box of farsan in place, and also because it was funny to learn that the place I once called home was still determined to pretend that sex, like alcohol consumption, just doesn’t exist.
As young girls growing up in Baroda, Navratri for us would begin a month before the actual garbas began. Schoolwork would be abandoned and shopping trips to the old city would begin with fevered excitement. The air would be rife with talks of VIP passes for United Way (Baroda’s most popular garba venue), silver kandoras, and the most mandatory of all Navratri essentials – the backless choli.
This was the nineties, and we were relatively new to Gujarat. We were yet to learn the ways of this strange land, where every woman was a ben and every man was a bhai. Baroda was nothing like Bombay. Here the girls would constantly talk about boys but never play with them in the evening. The boys would never talk to the girls, but instead “aata maro” – the Gujarati version of geri – the evening away. One of my friends, who “dared to talk to boys”, had her jeans burnt in a fit of rage, as if the denim were somehow a direct connection to sexual pleasure.
My father sent me a clipping of a news report: Gujaratis were up in arms against a Sunny Leone hoarding advising safe sex during Navratri Image credit: Twitter
My father sent me a clipping of a news report: Gujaratis were up in arms against a Sunny Leone hoarding advising safe sex during Navratri
Image credit: Twitter
But all of this would change come Navratri.
There is nothing quite like the smell of freshly watered earth on the first night of Navratri, but there was something more than fragrance in the air those days. The nights, lit up with fairy lights and haunting folk songs (this was before Falguni Pathak became the patron saint of disco dandiya), would be charged with sexual tension so thick that you could cut through it with a dandiya. For those nine nights, all the bundled-up, repressed hormones of the year would come roaring out and the mating dance would commence. The men, dressed like peacocks on a parade, would dance with sweaty, intense fury, making lingering eye contact with the women they passed in their devilish whirling, and the women, all of us with smoky eyes, silver chains, and backless cholis would smoulder in return. The backless choli was the siren song of the “fast girl”, and for those nine nights, everyone was in a race to win.
The result of all that explosive chemistry would play out after the garba, over long drives into the black nights. Every parent worth their khakhara would relax any kind of curfew by filing late nights away under “cultural exposure” and sleeping soundly at night while their daughters necked furiously in parked Maruti Zens and Opel Astras, until they looked like victims of a localised strain of chicken pox. This would go on every night – for nine starry, sexy nights – at the cost of great discomfort (those were the days of the stick shaft!), with the last night ending in a blaze of such manic dancing, coupled with such furious making out, that some, we’d hear, would even go all the way. Doctors’ appointments, it was gossiped, would be discreetly taken and the evidence of the nine nights would be stamped out. After the nine nights, hormones would take cultural cognizance of the land in which they lived, and chastity would return.
The Navratri nights, lit up with fairy lights and haunting folk songs, would be charged with sexual tension so thick that you could cut through it with a dandiya.
Navratri has always been the exception in this land of backless cholis and burning jeans, where sex was the word that was never spoken of and alcohol was never consumed (hic). But being young in Gujarat was like being young in no place in the world. You were besieged on one hand by surging hormones, and on the other by a culture that adamantly refused to acknowledge that sex was even a thing. So dedicated were the people of Gujarat to this cause that when time came for us to study biology and reproductive systems, our Class IX science teacher came in and declared Chapter VIII and IX “out of syllabus”. The words penis and vagina would never even be uttered in this hallowed land of sanskars. In this world, men were not from Mars and neither were women from Venus – they were the same sexless species labelled forever by permanent markers with the words “ben” and “bhai”.
And yet sex thrived. We knew there were naughty “key parties” hosted in select houses (we even knew the hostess’s daughter!). We also knew Gujarat as the land of the baporiyas – the decadent afternoon sex that is a cultural tradition passed down proudly from generation to generation. And, of course, babies were being born everywhere. There was more than circumstantial evidence that sex was not just being had in these parts, but in fact being enjoyed. But the embargo on acknowledging it stayed on.
Today, I imagine Kangana Ranaut’s little song with the chorus “Coz I have vagina, re” being played in Gujju households, where bas and bens sit open-mouthed in front of their evening farsan, as the bhais behind them go into cardiac arrest. But I’m told things have changed. People back home tell me that now boys and girls do meet up in the open and mingle all 365 days instead of smouldering at each other for nine nights. My gynaec tells me that she no longer gets under-the-counter abortion cases and that people are more “sensible” now, at least more open-minded about sex education. The Gujaratis have started to acknowledge, with the barest of nods, that they may have had sex. Just once. That too for procreation. Never recreation. Never, no!
So while the sexual pressure-cooker situation around Navratri now seems to have been released a bit, to say that Sunny Leone was out of place, excuse my French, is a load of bullshit. Times have changed for sure, pregnancies may have dropped, but that’s more because awareness has increased, not because there is less sex being had. The Maruti Zens may have given way to Audis, “Macarena” may now play after the aarti break, and the traditional kandoras have been let go for a more minimalist look, but the backless cholis are still there… gorgeous, shimmery, and held together with the flimsiest of strings. To me, they remain the icon of everything that Navratri will always represent – beautiful, reckless nights that are danced away in an ode to young love.
And if young love is being advised to wear a condom by Sunny Leone, I think the Gujaratis should thank her for doing their job. And maybe gift her some farsan.