It’s Navarathri, which is that time of the year when we pause a bit, take a step back from our hectic office schedule, gather ourselves, and plunge headlong into the even more hectic schedule of visiting houses for the ubiquitous kolu
I have already logged in more households-mileage in the last five days than a beat postman does in an entire month. So how was my experience? Well, not just for me, it is the same for most people at kolus.
This is roughly what usually happens at kolus:
Enter the house and, in a spontaneous show of warmth to the hosts, start complaining about the traffic en route.
While they come up with their own sad spiel on traffic, you spend considerable time, a full nine seconds, to be precise, taking a keen and interested look at the decked up dolls. After that, all dolls start looking similar. Then wander for a quick gander of the side-section of the kolu, which is usually a park-themed setup, in pristine plastic and acrylic colours, symbolically highlighting the need to retain greenery and preserve nature.
Even though it is actually the 67th kolu you are seeing in the week and you can’t tell anyone apart, you still say, in the convivial spirit of the occasion, ‘nice, especially the Chettiyar doll at the entrance. Very authentic’, when your wife sharply pokes your ribs with her elbow, which makes you to quickly realize that what you took it to be an immobile rag doll is in actuality a real person — most likely the father-in-law of the man you have come to visit.
Such a social faux pas usually means that you end up laughing needlessly loudly for every inane joke that the man of the house cracks. Anyway, you sit on the nearby available chair and chat up with the man of the house covering wholesomely, among others, the topics of Telangana, the fecklessness of the UPA government, the rising price of whatever that has risen that week, the controversy surrounding actress Nazriya even while mentally wondering whether the now deleted portions that she found offensive and too glamorous would be available on Youtube, the arrogance of the BCCI and how the present-day youth have all become lazy, tasteless, useless, arrogant, stupid and disobedient. Usually this entire conversation, considering the sweep and depth of the issues involved, takes about three minutes, but, at any rate, never exceeds four minutes.
Meanwhile, sitting cross-legged in front of the kolu, your wife or daughter start off Sri Chakra Simhasaneswari, gather steam and stutter midway, leaving the song unfinished unable to recall cogently the remaining lines. ‘Can’t find the time to regularly practice,’ they will say in self-deprecating defence, as though if they had found time they would have emerged as a challenge to Sudha Raghunathan and Shreya Ghosal. The whole episode will last for two to three minutes.
The start of the song is, of course, the quick cue for the lady of the house to slunk surreptitiously to the adjacent room to get ready what is at the core of Navarathri kolu festivities: Handy gifts of remarkable hideousness or absolute uselessness.
Let us digress here, and talk about the Navarathri gift culture a bit more in detail:
For long, kolu was just a dinky in-house expo of dolls. And then somebody had the following brainwave: ‘Hey, it’s nice of my friends and relatives to turn up at my house for the kolu. I must give them something in return so that it will make their visit memorable.’
This sensible thought was the inspiration behind this gift set that stood the test of time: A mirror — probably the smallest that humans can design — in which it is impossible catch any two features of your face simultaneously. A comb whose main quality was that it unfailingly got lost, and the usual caboodle of betel leaves and nut, a fruit/coconut, some holy turmeric and a vermilion powder box.
This was the definitive gift for years without end in these parts. Every Navarathri people gave this to visitors. And received the same when they visited somebody else. Nobody ever once went: ‘What purpose such a mirror will ever serve? And, at any rate, I gave a similar mirror and comb the last year, the year before it, the one preceding it, and, in fact, the entire decade that passed before it’.
If people had conserved the effort and cost that went into making this mirror and comb set and turned that into something remotely useful to mankind, Tamil Nadu alone would have had an economy far more vibrant than that of entire China’s.
And then, after the dawn of new millennium, the practice of giving comb and mirror was pushed to the background. Probably it was part of the conditions laid by the World Bank and the IMF. Or most likely, all the mirror supply in the world has come close to getting exhausted. Now they seem to be gone, and today’s gifts range from leather bags to boxes to makeup items to many other thingummies that actually last for more than 24 hours. But still, most of them, continuing a hallowed tradition, are less than useful.
Anyway, kolus themselves are changing. Thematic kolus are becoming the fashion. Many contemporary ideas are woven into this age-old presentation. Next year, I am sure, Sachin Tendulkar will find himself shoehorned into the proceedings. After all, he is also a great tradition of this country.
I think it will be a good occasion to revive the tradition of comb-and-mirror gift set.
Also, Sachin’s last hairstyle could do with a bit of combing.