Wednesday, October 1, 2008

A Blast from the Past

Here's an old article that I wrote about 3 years ago on Desijournal. The same still applies today, except that Evites and email invitations have taken the place of phone calls.

Nine Nights' Wonder

Having religiously celebrated Easter (garish bunny cutouts on windows, color changing plastic eggs), Halloween (brilliantly tacky neon pumpkins lit in the lawn, yards of fake spider webs dangling from our trees) and Christmas (fake Xmas tree threatening to fall apart) for five years, I decided it was high time I started setting up a kolu (doll display) during Navaratri. I must add that the garishness and tackiness apply to the decorations that we used, not to the festivals themselves. I have long given up hope of our house and yard ever showing up in a photo feature in Martha Stewart Living or Better Homes & Gardens magazines!

Designed as payback time for all the Maamis who insisted I attend their displays and put out rusty renditions of "Maamava sada janani", it would now be my turn to request musical (or not) offerings (granted, some were really good singers!). I was determined not to nit-pick and was quite sure the Devi would smile graciously upon even halting renditions of "Twinkle twinkle little star" or highly prompted versions of " Saraswati namasthubyam" performed by lisping toddlers. It’s just the principle of the thing!

Decisions, decisions, decisions - three steps or five, or perhaps "boldly venture" where nobody in my circle had gone before and try for a seven step kolu? How on earth was I going to cover seven steps, even if I brought out the entire set of Burger King figurines accumulated over a span of ten years? Perish the thought, especially with the specter in my mind’s eye of Neela’s impeccable, authentic Made-in-India collection inherited from untold generations, lovingly mummified in tissue paper and transported in elephantine hand-luggage. No, I would have to settle for the three-step, with foldaway features for easy out-of-season storage, and perhaps with future expansion capabilities built in. Ha! Now that was an interesting problem for my husband’s inner engineer! A trip to Home Depot for lumber and a few hours wrestling-with-the-saw-and-drill later - tada! Behold a new set of three kolu steps built to my precise specifications. I was thrilled with the results and proudly displayed them to all visitors, prompting a frenzy of similar "new construction" in their homes.

The top-most step presented no problems, since I had assorted statues of deities picked up on trips to India (Martha Stewart wannabes, please take note – only tasteful earth tones such as sandalwood, rosewood, black metal and bronze.) An expedition to the local dollar store netted me assorted witches, fairies, dancers and other miscellany to cover the middle step. I filched a few Disney dolls from my kids’ fast food restaurant "happy meal" collection to add to the groupings. Inspiration struck as I heard my friends discussing their ‘kid’s kolu project’ of gardens and farms. I spied a set of mini plastic pirate dolls and decided that with a bag of sand and shells, "Pirates in search of treasure" would work for my kids’ kolu activity, placed carefully on a small side table.

The big day arrived. I spent more than a couple of hours arranging and rearranging the dolls to my satisfaction. I then proceeded to make turmeric dough for the representative face of the Mother Goddess to be applied on a ‘haired’ coconut. I used sliced garlic cloves for eyes, and marked the pupils with laundry marker instead of kohl. A molded and gold-painted Sculpey crown with rhinestone decorations was my only innovation to the tried and tested look. Rhododendron leaves stood in for mango leaves to provide a collar around the mouth of the kalasam, or pot, on which the head was placed.

As demanding as any screen goddess, the Mother Goddess’s face needed a special moisturizing regimen. I carefully dripped water on the face every few hours with a medicine dropper to prevent any cracking of the smooth turmeric complexion. To my great surprise, the yellow of the face started to turn a rather rusty red in color while the tip of the carefully shaped nose remained yellow, prompting irreverent comments from my husband about "Ambal is turning into Elmo!". I anxiously googled in search of explanations for this phenomenon. Was this something I ought to bring to the notice of the local temple, a miracle perhaps? Alas, it was nothing so wondrous. The Internet assured me that it was just your average "chemical reaction of turmeric with water or lime juice, a long forgotten method of preparing kumkum or sindoor". Hmmm, at least I knew what to do if I ever ran out of sindoor.

Next, the mad race every morning to make the typical food offering every morning of the next ten days. Time for the sundal 101 course with the venerable Meenakshi Ammal’s text book - Cook and See - translated from the Tamil original.

"What is one ollock or viss? Must not forget to check the lentils for stones - are there any stones in the highly processed stuff we get at India Mart anyway? Why pachai karpooram (raw camphor)and why can’t I substitute the regular camphor used for pujas instead?"All these questions ran through my head as I determinedly struggled with the cooking.

Day 1: Overcooked lentils; decided to make a payasam instead of sundal.

Day 2: Undercooked lentils; I couldn’t offer these to the visitors and substituted fruits for the offering.

Day 3: Perfectly cooked lentils; but extremely salty – this sundal was ready for a rendezvous with the trashcan.

Day 4: Gave up soaking lentils and resorted to canned chick peas to prepare the sundal.

Day 10: The feminine curse struck, and with secret relief, I palmed off the puja duties to my husband asking him to set out fruit and milk for the final offering!

Busy lives that we lead here, the negotiations for visits and counter-visits consumed the morning hours.

"I could fit in a visit to your place on Wednesday evening, after karate class. Why don’t you stop by tomorrow evening? Is that so? Ragini has music class that evening. How about the weekend then? Oh, the Lalita Sahasranaamam chanting at Veena’s? No, I didn’t get an invitation to that yet…Okay, Sunday evening will be just fine!"( Fume…why didn’t Veena invite me yet? Am I so out of that loop?)."

Eventually, we managed to work out acceptable schedules for the visits, besting the top negotiators in the country in terms of juggling mutual interests and secret agendas. (Should I put in my job application to the U.S. Department of State yet?Maybe after a couple more Navaratris….)

Every afternoon, the scramble would start for the Ladies of the house to get dressed in formal Indian clothes.The Gentlemen of the house would remain in their usual costumes - boys badly in need of haircuts with un-ironed T-shirts and pants and men in golf- themed polos and shorts. This was the time to pull out all the marvelous saris, the not-quite-as-comfortable blouses of yore, the dazzling embroidered lehengas, cholis and dupattas. " Not pretty enough!" my daughter wailed, as I swore my way through fighting with recalcitrant hooks that fell off at first use, safety pins and salwars too loose in the waist. Three changed sets of dresses and matching jewelry later, the end result was worth the struggle. I have the digital photos to prove it- all to be printed hopefully before she is old enough to leave home for college.

The nine evenings passed, clothed in the glow of the small electric diyas and oil lamps softly lighting up the Devi’s face and shining on the kolu. Rustling silks, shimmering beads, tinkling bangles and anklets, voices raised in songs and hymns in praise of the Devi.I was starting to feel like one of those ads on Sun TV for Navaratri sales at Nalli’s when that illusion of tranquility was rapidly destroyed by discordant howls as my children fought, punctuated by "Aye-aye Captains" from the television.

At the end of the kolu season, this song kept running through my head " Hum honge kaamyaab ek din" ( the Hindi version of "We shall overcome"). The next Navaratri, I was sure, was not going to be such a mixed bag and would truly reflect the spirit of the season. In any case, my kids are already hooked and asking when we will have the next kolu.

Which was exactly my reason for setting it up in the first place!


  • Devi, Ambal: the Mother Goddess
  • Diya: small lamp
  • Kumkum, sindoor: red powder applied on the forehead or hair parting
  • Lalitha Sahasranamam: Litany of the 1008 names of the Mother Goddess
  • Lehengas, cholis,dupattas, salwars – apparel
  • Maamava sadajanani: Carnatic music song title
  • Maamis: Any youngish to elderly matron.
  • Navaratri : literally – "Nine nights" , a festival dedicated to the Mother Goddess celebrated chiefly in western and southern India.
  • Payasam: a sort of sweet pudding.
  • Puja: prayer rituals and offering to the deity
  • Saraswathi namasthubyam:a short Sanskrit prayer
  • Sundal: salty or sweet preparations with cooked lentils
  • Nalli’s: a huge clothing and furnishing store in Chennai ( with branches all over India)

Now, after 3 more Navaratris, I think that I am ready for the US Department of State post. Negotiations for visits have now been simplified by the Mutual Exclusion Doctrine : North Hills and other area visitors on Oct 5, South Hills visitors on weekday evenings. The Mother Goddess' face is of silver, no longer the turmeric skin that needs careful moisturizing, a few more additions and some deletions as the doll display changes over the years. My sundals tend to be properly cooked now, just the right consistency. Our once-brand- new stairs are now on their last legs, and will need to be replaced next year by a new design.


Lekhni said...

Lovely story. I can see that you have also graduated from 3 steps to 5 :) Maybe the new steps will be 7 or even 9 !

Sujatha said...

I don't think that I will move to a 7 step version unless I can get hold of some new dolls on our next visit to India.
This year's season is in full swing, with yesterday being D-Day- I had approximate 15 families visiting, and fitted in morning rounds to 4 houses as well.
I'm exhausted!