Remembering Navratri – and Watching Kids Today Growing up Without Childhoods
Written by Dr. Seshadri Kumar, 10 October, 2013
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It is Navratri in India – the festival of nine nights celebrating the different forms of the goddess, the female force in the world. It is one of the most important festivals of Hinduism, and is marked by much pageantry.
In Tamil homes, Navratri is celebrated by having doll displays (Golu) in homes. The dolls are of gods and goddesses, as well as secular figures, and usually arranged in a mini-staircase arrangement (see this for a fairly elaborate Golu). Often, along with the dolls, people create contemporary urban or rural scenes in miniature, such as schools, railway stations, temples, merry-go-rounds, wells, parks, fields, cattle, roads, and the like with small dolls of people engaged in assorted occupations. A Navratri display in a Tamil home can be as elaborate as one wants it to be. People often search for interesting and unique dolls far and wide so they can showcase them in their golu.
Conversations between old-timers often are on the lines: “Look at my golu doll of Lord Krishna. I bought it in 1962 – see how fresh the paint on it still looks! Nowadays, the idols are not so well-made, the features are not so good, and the paint also flakes off very soon. Everything is going down the drain.” Everyone else nods sagely in agreement. Or, “Look at those unique Chinese dolls that I found a few years ago – I just had to have them in my golu!” Or, "My husband got those two dolls for me when he went to Jaipur 2 years ago. And those dolls on the third row are from a business trip he made to Japan. And the ones on the bottom we picked up from Poompuhar - aren't they cute?"
When I was a child, we used to have elaborate Navratri golu displays in our homes. We also had toy trains, matchbox cars with elaborate tracks, and electric toy race tracks with cars, all of which would go on display along with the golu. Our home was one of the most decorated homes during Navratri.
Festivals are useless without special foods, and Navratri is no exception. In Tamil homes, every evening of Navratri is an occasion for the preparation of a “sundal,” a spicy and savory treat made with pulses. Each day the pulse is varied – one day with garbanzo beans, another day with black-eyed peas, another day with peanuts, one day with peas, and so on. Some days snacks other than pulses are also prepared. For example, my mom made sankar pela, a fried savory item, yesterday.
Every evening, all the children of the neighbourhood would come and knock on the doors of our flat, crying out, “Maami sundal!” (“Maami” being an address to the lady of the house.) We’d welcome them in, they’d look at the golu, see the train, the cars, the pastoral doll scene, etc., and my mom would give them all packets of the day’s sundal wrapped in newspapers. Each day we probably had about 25 kids visiting to see the golu and partake of the sundal. Every evening, after coming home from school, it was part of my duties during those nine days to wrap the day’s sundal in dozens of small packets to distribute to the kids and adults who would visit. I also used to go to other’s homes to see their golus and ask for their sundal. It was a great way to keep in touch with each other.
Singing for the Goddess
In addition to this, the ladies of the neighbourhood would visit each other during Navratri. This being a festival of the divine mother, ladies have a very important part to play in it. The festival used to be a very good way to socialize and catch up with your friends and relatives. As a small kid, I’d often be ordered by my mom to escort her as we went to other people’s homes in the evening. I used to find this quite boring, because they would talk about all their adult concerns which were completely uninteresting to a kid; but I had no choice and couldn’t say no.
One of the common customs during Navratri is that people (especially ladies, but even gents who can sing) are encouraged to sing Carnatic classical songs in praise of the deity. So whenever someone came to our home to see our golu, my mom would ask them to sing a song or two; and when my mom and I went to someone’s home, they’d ask my mom to sing something (I had no interest in Carnatic music at that time.) Small girls in Tamil Brahmin homes would usually be trained in Carnatic singing; so one common scene during those days was to see young girls in their pavadai-davani (blouse-skirt – similar to the North Indian choli-ghaghra) come and sing whatever they had learnt from their teacher recently (in praise of the goddess, of course).
The final day of Navratri is Saraswati puja, in which all the books that we study are worshipped along with Saraswati, the goddess of learning. The day after the nine days is Vijaya Dashami, the day when new learning is begun.
The whole festival had so much fun associated with it that it is impossible to forget. For 16 years I lived abroad, but the memories of Navratri were always etched in my memory – taking the dolls out of storage the day before; arranging the golu; decorating everything; the kids ringing the bell and saying “Maami sundal”; visiting with neighbours and relatives; and the happy occasion of Saraswati puja (the day you were not supposed to touch your school books as you were worshipping the goddess that day!)
Playing in the Dark
But now, I am back in India, and yes, we do celebrate Navratri even today – we have a golu in our home as I write this. But no kids come home saying “maami sundal.” They don’t have the time. They are too busy doing homework, going to tuition classes, going to music, drawing, and dance classes, not to mention personality development and other such trainings. (I should add: I live in Mumbai. I have seen the same thing in Pune and Bangalore, but I don’t know how things are in Chennai.)
Why talk about Navratri? When I was a kid, on any day, we used to come home from school at 4.30 pm, and immediately used to change clothes, go out and play outdoors until sunset, which was 6.30 or 7.00 pm. The only criterion on when to come back home was that the light was so dark that the tennis ball which was used to play cricket could not be clearly seen any more. Once we got home, then we’d work on homework and other things, then have dinner and sleep. No coaching classes of any kind – but plenty of fun! If it was raining outside, we’d take out the carrom board and play carrom for hours on end, accompanied by cups of hot coffee, tea, or Horlicks, and the choicest snacks to go with them.
But now, when I get home from work, I see no children outside (if I manage to get home when there is still light). The first time I saw this was quite unbelievable – it was 5.30 pm, bright light outside, and not a kid in sight. And then, suddenly, at 7 pm, after it was dark and the electric lights went on in the housing society where I live, all the kids came out to play. I couldn’t understand why the kids weren’t playing in sunlight but preferred to play in streetlights. On inquiring, I found out that all the kids go to coaching classes immediately on arriving from school, and the classes end only at 7 pm, and so that’s when they play.
This is wrong. Children should play in the sunlight – that’s how they get Vitamin D - from the sunlight falling on their skin. And not just this – there is something really uplifting about playing in the sunlight. This is why, in some countries in the Northern Hemisphere, such as the USA, people are often afflicted by what is known as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) – a psychological illness with the symptoms of depression that is linked to the absence of sunlight in the winter, when days are very short – sunrise can occur at 8 am and sunset at 4.30 pm. These people are diagnosed “light therapy” – treatment with artificial lights to compensate for the lack of sunlight. And here in India, you are asking kids to stay indoors and play in the darkness when there is abundant sun available!! Not to mention that you cannot possibly play cricket in your society compound when it is hard to see the ball! And all this sacrifice for what? To attend coaching classes??
The Coaching Class Culture
Why do children need coaching classes all their lives? I can understand if parents are concerned about a coaching class for the kid who is in the Xth or XIIth standard, as they are preparing for important public board exams and so think a little extra assistance may be needed. But why have ANY coaching for a kid in the 5th standard? When are these children going to have a little fun and enjoy their childhood? I am truly saddened that these kids cannot live the carefree life I lived as a child. No coaching classes for me – except I did try Agrawal’s classes for XIth standard, hated it, and told my dad I wouldn’t enrol in it again in the XIIth standard. I simply told my dad that Agrawal’s classes was robbing me of all my play time, and he agreed.
Agrawal’s classes was the premier coaching establishment in Mumbai when I was a student, with its main branch in Dadar Circle. Their most coveted class, the “vacation batch” of XIIth std. coaching, was a perfect way to ruin the summer vacation before you entered the XIIth grade – spend the entire vacation enrolled in the “vacation” batch of Agrawal’s classes and mugging away.
No siree Bob! Not for me. I enjoyed my vacation soundly, slept happily every afternoon, had fun with my Dad on the weekends when we’d go to South Mumbai to take photos and he’d teach me about photography before both of us heading to eat at “Chetna” or “Talk of the Town” or some other place in that area. The entire summer vacation was meant for fun. My father wasn’t much bothered, really, whether I got into engineering or not. He used to tell me that engineering and medicine were not the only things to study in this world. If I got in, fine; if I didn’t, he said pure sciences were also a good option to pursue (he himself was an organic chemistry professor, and a very successful one, so he had reason enough to say this.)
The only coaching class I took in addition to that XIth Agrawal class was the correspondence course for IIT-JEE from Agrawal. Even in that year, I never missed my daily dose of carrom for 2 hours a day or other games. I also got sick that year with TB and was bed-ridden for 2.5 months. And I didn’t do too badly – got into IIT Bombay with a pretty good rank.
I can make similar comments about music, dance or any other personality-development class parents put their kids through. All this is good, of course, but within bounds and in balanced quantities. A sensitivity for music or dance in a child is desirable, but not at the cost of basic playtime, and outdoor playtime at that. Nothing equals the sheer joy of playing in the sun. If there is time left over, then chuck the academic coaching class and let the kid learn one thing - be it music, dance, or whatever he or she fancies. Don't make it an obsession. Training your kid in music is not going to guarantee that she will become the next Lata Mangeshkar, MS Subbulakshmi, or Kishori Amonkar, just as making your son mug all day is not going to ensure he becomes an engineer or doctor.
You Either Have it Or You Don’t
People have to stop obsessing about the rat race and think about the negative consequences of denying their children childhoods and the precious memories that go with it. My personal belief has always been that if you’ve got what it takes, you don’t really need any coaching classes. If you don’t have what it takes, all the coaching classes won’t help you. I think most people’s experience, if they are honest about it, will bear this out. The coaching establishments are taking everyone for a ride.
It’s much like that exam, the Graduate Record Examination (GRE), which one has to do well in to get admitted to American Universities after an undergraduate degree. The GRE, when I took it, had a Verbal, a Quantitative, and an Analytical section. The Quantitative was the easiest section, and you were widely expected to ace it. The Analytical was also easy to score, since it was mostly composed of puzzles and you could solve all of them with a little practice. The real roadblock for most people was the Verbal section, which tested your English. Most people would go around rote-memorizing words and their meanings by the hundreds, hoping that such an effort would help them achieve success in the Verbal portion of the GRE. But what I noticed was that only those whose native comprehension of English and ability to use the language well were already fairly good (because of a lifetime of reading) actually did well in the exam. All the rote-memorization was really of little use.
The same lessons are true for kids in today’s world. Yes, you should work and prepare for exams. But working all the time, spending all your free time in coaching classes, and obsessing about exams, will never get you there. If you still made it after all that pain, don’t attribute your success to the coaching class. You would have gotten in any way. And there is a price you are paying for all this. Don’t forget the old saying, “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” We are raising a generation of dull Jacks and Jills.
So parents, next year, please don’t ruin your kids’ childhood. Let them go around the neighbourhood shouting “Maami sundal” and admiring each other’s golus – and just be kids.