I was in Ahmedabad… or Amdavad… just before Navratri. My local friends reminded me that I was back in their mohalla after 11 years. Was it really that long? Nothing had really changed. Or maybe everything has, only, it’s not visible. Driving through the crowded streets, I see gigantic posters of our beloved Prime Minister. The young person with me smiles indulgently and comments: “Here in Gujarat, especially during Navratri, the headgear changes -- but the head remains the same.” We exchange meaningful looks. I am cautioned not to take “his” name in public. Or even in private. People are scared to open their mouths. “It’s too risky. Business gets affected…”
Our PM, mind you, is a jolly good sport! You should have watched him at the opening ceremony of the 36th National Games in Ahmedabad on Thursday evening -- a totally “adbhut” and “abhootpurva” performance! “Success starts with action”, he said to a full house at the stadium named after him.
I tell my friends I am keen to shop for Navratri finery at the many stalls along Law Garden Night Market -- the equivalent of Mumbai’s Fashion Street. “Are you sure? It will be very crowded.” Yes, I am sure, I tell them. And off we go, late at night, imagining we will avoid the crowds at that hour. But the street is crammed with eager shoppers, furiously bargaining with stall owners while police patrol cars cruise the area and shout orders from microphones. The person with me shakes his head sadly. ‘These people are licensed stall owners who are paying for the space. They make their annual sales and profit during Navratri… why harass them? They are hardworking craftspeople from Saurashtra and Kutch. This is their livelihood. We should show more respect.” He is right, of course. Especially, given the context of what he says next – “We are lucky these beautiful embroidered ghagras, kediyas, odhnas and chaniyas are still hand-crafted by our people. Nearly everything else comes from China -- kites, decorations, raakhis, diyas, kandeels, crackers, accessories.”
Ironically, his comment came on the day Xi Jinping was reported to have gone missing. Where is he? Has there been a coup in China? Who’s taken over? Nobody is in a position to confirm or deny the rumours. I draw a blank when I Google the news break which is spreading rapidly. Last seen in Uzbekistan, says someone knowledgeably. After that -- gayab? Not possible, I declare, equally knowledgably, like I am on speed dial with Xi’s aides. I so wanted to phone one of the former Indian ambassadors to China, and the definitive China expert right now, to ask if he had any inside khabar!
By now, I have reached the airport, which is by far one of the best airports in India, and compares well to the best airports in the world. But naturally! The only thing I don’t like about the space are the hideous Gir lions (plaster of Paris? Fibre glass?) awkwardly stuck in the garden of the airport. All else is very spiffy and global, including luxe airport stores selling high-end merchandise. No, there is no liquor boutique in sight. Though, I’m told there’s enough alcohol available in Ahmedabad to float an armada. “Most of us have permits… and easy access to the best international brands. The most popular man during Navratri is a famous bootlegger from Surat, who efficiently home delivers orders of the most rare and exotic spirits.” Most encouraging!
There’s booze. There’s money. There’s style. But there’s nowhere to go! That’s the Ahmedabad story. Most of the people I met complained of perennial ennui. Same old, same old… The restaurant scene is dismal, with two and a half places worth patronising. The five star hotels cater to the business people, mainly traders, who come and go for “vyapaar’’. The once culturally vibrant spaces for the performing arts are also reeling from a lack of patronage and funds. Only the film industry and Gautam Adani are scoring big time. A young jeweller tells me how his Adani shares went up from Rs 400 to Rs 4,000 within a few years! It is like a miracle, he exclaimed, beaming from ear to ear. So it is, my friend, so it is. The Adani Chamatkar, it’s called, I told him. And he beamed some more.
Back in Mumbai, the prickly Dussehra turf war had been resolved without too much fuss. I am looking forward to seeing clips of Amruta Fadnavis clad in a glittering garba outfit, dancing to “Dholida” like Alia Bhatt in Gangubai Kathiawad at one of the non-controversial pandals in the city. Devendra Fadnavis’ fetching missus enjoys singing and dancing. Meanwhile, Uddhav’s equally lovely wife Rashmitai has announced that she will be visiting the pandal at Tembhi Naka, Thane, which is very nice of her. Thane is arch-rival Eknath Shinde’s stomping ground. The vexing issue of who gets to use the bow and arrow as a party symbol has not been resolved so far. Bow and arrow is so last century, darling. Let’s move ahead and create a new symbol -- how about an AK-57?
To avoid any confusion on D-Day (Dussehra), the rival Sena factions are going all out to differentiate their branding. A chair will be kept vacant on stage for Sanjay Raut, who is in jail, declared the Uddhav faction, which is hosting the annual Dussehra rally at Shivaji Park. In a lovely show of one-upmanship, the Eknath Shinde faction will be carting their supporters in 4,000 state transport buses to the BKC ground. Take that, you guys!
I am trying to wrap my head around what is being called a “Marathi Dandiya Plan” by irate Shiv Sainiks loyal to Uddhav, accusing the BJP of once again getting up to tricks via “Dandiya experiments”. These experiments will be conducted in the Lalbaugh and Parel areas (Sena-dominated parts of central Mumbai) throughout Navratri. Arrey baap re! So our beautiful nine-yard, kashta nauvaari saris will be replaced by Gujju-style backless chaniya-choli ensembles??? Nako! Nako!
Dussehra symbolises the victory of good over evil, with the burning of the Ravan effigy, accompanied by ear-splitting phatakas and rockets. There is a degree of golmal this year about this -- who is Ravan and which one is Ram? Will the factions compete in the my-Ravan-is-bigger-than-your-Ravan stakes to prove Mumbai ka asli boss kaun hai? All eyes on what promises to be a dhoom dhadaka Dussehra in Maharashtra. The multi-cast Ram Leela is on… Let’s see whose arrow hits the nishaan. Meanwhile, dhol baaje, dhol baaje… dhum dhum baaje dhol… dance on. Remember, Falguni Pathak never runs out of garba tunes!