Mumbai Memoir- ‘Mumba-aai’ celebrating Nine Nights!
Mumbai celebrates the festival of ‘women empowerment’ in the form of ‘Navratri’, which is usually celebrated in the month of September-October. Navratri literally means ‘nine nights’, which are dedicated to the worship of Goddess Durga.
Traditionally Navratri festival is celebrated to acknowledge the divinity of Goddess Parvati, the consort of Lord Shiva. In Hindu mythology, Goddess Parvati is referred as ‘divine feminine energy’ (Shakti) of the universe. According to Hindu mythology, a powerful demon, named ‘Mahishasur’, had to be defeated to restore peace & prosperity on earth and heaven. Goddess Durga, an avatar of Goddess Parvati, thus was born. The Gods empowered Goddess Durga with their respective powers and offered her various weapons to combat the demon. Like a mother passionately set to protect her children from evil forces, for nine days and nine nights Goddess Durga ceaselessly battled with the ruthless demon and finally was victorious in her mission. On the 10th day there was rejoice and celebration in the heavens above, calling the day as ‘Vijaya Dashami’, which means the day of celebrating victory of good over evil.
The city of Mumbai gets its name from Goddess Mumba, who is also referred as ‘Mumba-Aai’ (Mother Mumba). The city’s name itself has a feel of feminine strength. Women empowerment in Mumbai and other metropolitan cities of India has grown over the years. The night life of Mumbai comes in full festive bloom during the nine nights.
Abiding to the ancient mythological belief, modern Mumbai’kars celebrate the nine days and nine nights with traditional fervor. As a Mumbai’kar of Marathi origin I was always fascinated of how people from other Indian states, particularly, Gujrat and West Bengal, have added their respective touch to the celebration of the nine nights.
During ‘Navratri’, most Mumbai’kars of Gujrati origin resolve to fast by following a strict diet and thus invoke the energy of the mother Goddess Durga in them. A burning oil lamp is kept in a perforated earthen pot called ‘garbo’. The lamp is kept burning throughout the nine days. There is a cosmic symbolism associated to it. It signifies eternal knowledge and the kindling of life at birth. After sunset men and women gather to dance ‘garba’ around the earthern pot on the beats of drums. The circular movement of the dance indicates the life cycle of creation, maintenance and destruction. Garba and Dandiya are traditional dance forms that hail from Gujrat, a state in Western India. Irrespective of their State of origin, energetic Mumbaikar’s attend events that organize these dance gatherings. On this occasion families, friends and well-wishers meet and join in to shake a leg. Here is a link to a Bollywood film song that features the ‘garba’ dance. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5fysIgn-AZQ
As the dance and music ripens at the gathering, foodies feast on typical Gujrati vegetarian food like ‘dhokla’, ‘khandvi’, ‘Muthiya-nu-shak’, ‘Kadhi-rice’, ‘sabudana wada’ & ‘thepla’.
Besides the Gujrati community, starting from the 6th day of ‘Navratri’, Mumbai’kars of Bengali origin, begin their independent celebrations in various pockets of the city. The Bengalis refer it as ‘Durga Pooja’ (worshiping the power of Goddess Durga). Huge sets hosting statues of Goddess Durga, Goddess Saraswati (Goddess of Knowledge), Goddess Lakshmi (Goddess of Wealth), Lord Ganesh and Lord Kartikeya (children of Goddess Parvati) are installed for people to worship and to make offerings.
The tradition of publicly celebrating Durga Pooja was set in 1910 at Belure monastery (West Bengal), by none other than the world famous Hindu monk, Swami Vivekanand. His main purpose, to institutionalize the worship of the goddess, was to symbolically propagate the message of ‘women empowerment’ among the then masses. Those were the dark days for Indian women, who were treated as second grade citizens by the conservative Hindu society that prevailed during the colonial rule. Following the century- old tradition, Bengali Mumbai’kars continue the legacy of worshipping Goddess Durga for 5 days, starting from ‘shashti’ (6th day of ‘Navratri’). During the five day celebrations, there are various cultural programs organized that involves dance, music, food and community events. I have always enjoyed watching the ‘dhunuchi nach’ (traditional Bengali dance) that’s performed on the beats of the ‘dhak’ (huge drums) at the Bengal Association at Shivaji Park. Here’s a glimpse to the dance: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VIsxXRQBf1c
After initial days of fasting, the Bengalis later feast on non-vegetarian delicacies that are offered at food stalls around the pandals (place displaying the statues). Egg roll and Hilsa fish dishes like ‘ilish paturi, ‘illish macher jhol’ & ‘shorshe ilish’ are relished by even a non-Bengali like me. For dessert, sweet dishes like ‘sandesh’, ‘gaja’ and ‘roshogulla’ give the taste-buds a heavenly experience!
On the 10th day, before the idols are immersed in a water body, married Bengali women apply vermillion on each other’s forehead and cheek. This activity is called ‘Sindoor Khela’, which is a playful way to wish each other prosperity and marital bliss. Here is a glimpse to ‘Sindoor Khela’: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=56DMB3ZZIh4
Every year when I witness the Navratri fever here in Mumbai, I wonder if Swami Vivekanand’s vision about women empowerment has borne any fruit? As I reflect on this thought, a deep sense of pride dawns on my mind as I see so many modern women of India or of Indian origin who have contributed internationally. Indra Nooyi (CEO, Pepsico), Arundati Roy (Writer/Environmentalist), Mary Kom (World Boxing Champion) and the Late.Kalpana Chawla (Astronaut) to name a few. Though there are still more milestones to achieve, but definitely the purpose of establishing certain cultural practices has made a difference to uplift the standards of Indian women, for sure. But, women empowerment does not occur in a vacuum. Asia’s first woman doctor Dr. Anandi Gopal Joshi & India’s first woman teacher (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ArG6uJLky3c) , Shrimati Savitribai Jyotirao Phule, ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vdqJgIHT7NU) could fight the odds because their husbands stood by them and supported them to be the pioneers in their respective fields. I strongly believe that when both, the men & women of a society, walk hand in hand thus encouraging and appreciating each other’s role in nation building, it is then when a city or a nation achieves true holistic empowerment.