The marigolds were the last touch. Shanti smiled graciously and handed the delicate blossoms to me, “Madam can help now.” I was pleased. The intricate rangoli was spread joyously on the driveway of our apartment building. Shanti and Kajul had been planning, chalking and decorating the welcoming design since sunrise.
The occasion was Navratri and from first light, our small apartment complex had been exuberant with the spirit that only a festival can rouse.
“First cleaning, then decoration,” I’m told as I venture downstairs to see the preparations firsthand. Boran is busy cleaning the gate and the doorways. By this time, Kajul and Shanti are applying colour to the rangoli at the front gate.
Our apartment manager Anand, and a friend, are just cruising into the driveway, back early from the market. Anand’s motorbike is barely visible. It is seemingly sprouting…with marigolds and banana leaves, with tulsi and sprigs of ashoka leaves. And of course there’s a bundle of food for the blessing, the puja.
Soon a stalk of banana leaf is attached to each side of the gate, garlands and greens are strung in place. Then it’s time to apply the tripundras. The three-striped motifs are streaked across the wooden slats of the gate and on doorways, even the elevators. They are decorative and spiritual, and the mark doesn’t disappear quickly. A tripundra had only just faded into an outer apartment wall from last year’s celebration. Now all is renewed, re-blessed.
Over the next few hours a more intimate glimpse of Kajul, our security guard, is revealed. I am fond of him and it’s a pleasure to see his creative side and his commitment to tradition. He is happily engaged in helping Shanti decorate the rangoli.
“Kajul have you done this before?” I ask, noting one of his fingernails seems purposely longer than the others. It is painted a reddish hue and I watch him wield it like a paintbrush; guiding different shades of kumkum into each petal, into each leaf-like pattern.
“Oh yes Madam. In my village, helping my mother and sister.” There’s a nostalgic look in his eyes and we take photos for him to send home.
Small parcels of vibrant kumkum await on snatches of newspapers. Shanti and Kajul converse in Hindi. There’s artistic planning and some laughter, but also a seriousness to their endeavour. I watch them for an hour or so, enjoying a coffee in the morning sun, savouring the activity of the neighbourhood.
A neighbour from the next-door apartment strolls through the gate to borrow a dash of the white kumkum. Their gardener passes by with lengthy stalks of banana leafs and a hatchet. It seems he avoided the market and fetched his from somewhere in the neighbourhood.
A few people peer-in to admire the evolving work of art. Oh we definitely have the prettiest and most elaborate decorations, I think to myself. If I might be forgiven the comparison, it feels a a little like I’m back home admiring the Christmas lights on our street. This festival does evoke that Christmas feeling: school holidays, time for family, best to do some ‘spring-cleaning’, perhaps a new outfit or two. It’s also time for veneration to the Hindu gods.
Finally, I can’t resist the temptation – that childlike instinct to paint-by-number, to colour. The enfolding array of designs beckon like a colouring book and a newly-sharpened box of pencil crayons.
“Would you like some help, may I help?” I ask Shanti. She looks over to Kajul, both of them are on their knees, delicately positioned between a flower that’s slowly coming to life.
“Oh no, no thank you,” they say shyly. I’m a little surprised. Is it maybe because I’m not Hindu, or perhaps they’re worried I’m not quite as fastidious as they are and will spoil their creation. I chuckle to myself remembering school days when I preferred that classmates did not work on book projects with me. I couldn’t bear the thought of anyone ‘messing it up’. Yes I understand.
I go upstairs to refresh my coffee and see that our front door is not being forgotten. Boran is stringing a garland of marigolds then dotting each side of the door with a tilak and also blessing it with the swastika symbol. This ancient religious mark is a symbol of auspiciousness and good luck, it remains that today in India. Boran then proffers the melon and I contribute a rupee or two into its dyed, square ‘collection box’. Before long, I’ll learn its destiny.
I’m soon called back down to the driveway where Shanti and Kajul are gazing proudly at their expansive creation. It’s a rainbow of colours. A feast of home-spun geometry. A happy mural – childlike, yet intricate and abloom. “Full complete,” Kajul says with a beaming smile.
“Madam can finish,” Shanti says kindly, handing a passel of marigolds to me. I get the honour of the last touches…a flourish of marigolds.
Meanwhile there has been a flurry of activity in the underground garage. “Time for puja,” Anand says inviting us down the sloping driveway, into a garage as pristine as a surgeon’s operating room. Cars and motorbikes have been washed. Machines tuned and cleaned. This day is Ayudha Puja, the occasion when traditionally weapons are worshipped, when tools are cleaned and revered, when specific attention to one’s profession and its tools is important. A divine force is summoned for all of them to perform well; here in Southern India it is highly adhered to.
Babu, one of the drivers, has set things up in immaculate fashion. The cars are festooned with garlands, an altar of sorts offers fruit and sweets. The tires have been marked with the customary three stripes and a lime has been positioned under each front tire. Motorbikes have also been decorated, but I notice a bicycle on its lonesome in the corner of the garage. The guys laugh when I note it has no colourful embellishments and before you know it, they are at its side decorating to match the other conveyances. After all, the apartment’s back-up generator and even the piping has received some attention.
With everything in place, Babu lights small flames and incense. Invoking the god Krishna, Babu holds the sacrificial melon with two hands and slowly circles each vehicle, then the motorbikes. He then smashes the ‘sacrificial melon’ on the floor. It crashes open, coins tumble out and a cheer of some sort erupts. Now its time to offer the sweets to us all. And for the final observance, the time has come to move each car and bike just slightly forward. Pop, pop, pop…each tiny lime, now sacrificed under the front wheels…the puja is complete.
It’s known that the most traditional and colourful place to celebrate is in Mysore with its parades and carprisoned elephants. Yet I’m pleased we were part of our apartment’s celebration, here to acknowledge the hard work these people perform throughout the year to make our lives more comfortable. It was special to have seen them in a more personal light and share in their enthusiasm. Yes, it felt like the very best, exotic neighbourhood celebration.
We thought we’d venture out into the streets and decided upon the older neighbourhood of Malleshwaram. It is a quaint lively area, built in the 19th century to accommodate people fleeing the city centre from the plague. Today there’s an excited atmosphere as families celebrate. Ladies are beautifully wrapped in lavish saris. Children delight in a festival treat, maybe an ice cream or a shiny new pinwheel from a passing wallah.
The streets are alive with marigolds and roses, with limes and banana leaves, and yet more of those melons. We come upon an orange-robed priest blessing a row of motorbikes. We stroll along lovely, well-lived streets. I adore the vivid colour, the whafting of incense and the easy smiles of vendors. Everywhere is verdant, alive and joyful. Here, still more banana leaves are just now being fixed to the corner point of shops, but so many more await to be be part of the festivities. The streets are awash in them. It occurs to us that most of Navratri decorations are natural, organic, connected to the earth.
And there’s more around every corner. More garlands of marigold, more lovingly designed rangolis, and more flamboyantly adorned buses, trucks, tuks – even a cement mixer has received some reverence today.
It is known that India, with its more than 30,000 gods, is a nation of festivals and cultural traditions. To experience these in an intimate fashion, away from the masses of crowds and feeling the spirit of a neighbourhood, is decidedly my preference.
“Madam, please take photo?” I’m asked yet again. The locals are keen to have the day captured.
“Alright, smile everyone,” I say happily. Serendipity has once again rewarded us with a feast of colour and with the gentle warmth of people.