Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Navratri Naach

Before heading for my trip with Samir to the Himalayas, we had a few days in Baroda. The night before we left from there we went to a Navaratri garba. Baroda is known for having the biggest and best garbas in Gujarat. And the most glorious of them all is the annual United Way Garba.

Getting tickets to get into this particular garba is shockingly difficult. You have to buy an expensive pass at the beginning of Navaratri, and they issue you an ID card with a chip that stores your photo digitally. In order to enter the grounds each person passes their card through a scanner and your picture shows up on TV screens, which security checks before letting you in. Yes folks, this is for entering a garba. The picture thing means you can't use someone else's card. Also, sneaking in is hard because security is swarming and apparently you will get severely beaten if you're caught without a card.

In our first night in Baroda Samir and I didn't have passes so we bought tickets to the bleachers section to just watch the garba. As soon as I walked in and saw the scale, the colors, and the energy, I was mesmerized. It was like an event from another world. Planet Garba. Compared to the garbas I went to in the Bay growing up, this was like the Super Bowl and those were like exhibitions. I came to the realization that to die happy, I had to experience it at least once.

Unfortunately everyone we talked to told us it would be impossible to get in because we had to have bought our pass well in advance. All kinds of scenarios were discussed with local friends; I even emailed Raj, Sam, and Choks back home to see if they knew anyone who could hook us up at the last minute. No luck. But I absolutely had to go to this garba, this and no other. During the day we were busy running errands for our trip so we only got back to the grounds an hour or so before the garba to see if we could buy tickets. My stomach dropped when the guy at the ticket window said there was no way we could buy a pass for that night; their system was shut down and no longer issuing new passes.

But I would not be denied. It was abundantly clear that the only way in was by talking our way in. Luckily my resume for sneaking into restricted events is long and storied. I even co-founded a fake institution, Sneaking-In University, when I was in college for schooling others on the tricks of the trade. My prized pupil, Amit Sura, M.D., is currently Dean in SIU's School of Rhetoric. God Amit, you would have been so proud if you saw me in action this night.

The key is getting someone, anyone, behind the window sympathetic to your cause. First things first, I went heavy on my California accent. I made the case to the window guy that we were from the U.S. and we only had one night to garba. What can you do for us? Then large doses of confidence, patience, and persistence. Eventually the window guy goes and gets the head organizer of the event. At that point I knew it was in the bag. I repeat our case to her, and she grills us to make sure we aren't lying about our story. We stand our ground. And with a few instructions to the peons at the computers, that was that. We had our passes.

Riding high from defying the odds to get tickets, Samir and I walk into the grounds with all the enthusiasm in the world. I really felt like I was going to a Kings playoff game or something. I remember walking in and thinking that this must be the largest gathering of Gujus I've ever been a part of. I loved the colors of everyone's dress, which went with the beautiful multi-colored lamp decorations of the outdoor venue. I liked the soft, fine brown soil of the grounds; I imagined that this had been determined as the optimal garba turf after years of experimentation. Before things got started I crouched down and rubbed a handful in my palms and put it to my nose, like Maximus in Gladiator. OK I didn't, but that would have been tremendous.

Once the music started it was a blur of adrenaline-charged dancing. The music was world-class, performed by some of Gujarat's best. The music starts out at an inviting pace, but ends in a dizzying sprint. At one point the music was so incredibly fast, I forgot where I was because all I was doing was moving as fast as I could. If I stopped concentrating on just dancing for even a second to look up and soak the scene, I would get smoked. And just as I thought the music couldn't possibly go anywhere else but back down, it kicked into yet another hidden gear, thrusting the whole crowd to a frenzied new height. The garba was at least 10 circles thick, and everyone was all business. No messing around, strictly dancing. The lines were so tight that once you were in the inner circles you couldn't get to the outside until intermission. Made me feel like Abhimanyu in the chakravyuha.

There were a lot of innovative steps that I had never seen before at Cal St. Hayward garbas. My favorite was a step I coined the 'Baroda Gangsta Lean' where for three beats your line struts forward with chest out in a diagonal march before turning a shoulder and going the other direction. Kids these days. Another thing I loved about the crowd was their interaction with the singers. They would scream in delight when they heard their favorite songs come on, and during the choicest, climatic lyrics.

And there was sweat. Buckets of sweat. I was absolutely drenched by the end, my kurta had fully turned a darker shade. Luckily there was easy access to water. Not to mention a great selection of food booths. All-in-all a phenomenally managed event. For something so large scale, it was a wonder it worked as well as it did. Made me wonder whether United Way was really a garba-organizing firm that did charity work on the side.

There's really no point in going into more superlatives to describe the night, maybe my single most favorite thing I've done in India for the past three summers. Lifetime experience. Afterward I decided that it is absolutely necessary that the Bay crew, and I mean all of us together, come out for garba in Baroda once before we die. Maybe for Choks' bachelor party?


  1. Neil, can't stop laughing, you are great story teller...
    "The lines were so tight that once you were in the inner circles you couldn't get to the outside until intermission. Made me feel like Abhimanyu in the chakravyuha."

    You got to let GodAmit know about your this.... You topped it...

  2. You know I love that reference of Abhimanyu! You know he is my favorite character! My bachelor party for sure! :)