Monday, October 10, 2005

Morsels of Poetry:
Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

The Garba
The nine sacred nights of Navaratri

we dance the Garba. Light glances off
the smooth wood floor of the gym
festooned with mango leaves
flown in from Florida. The drummers
have begun, and the old women
singing of Krishna and the milkmaids,
Their high keening is an electric net
pulling us in, girls who have never seen

the old land. This October night
we have shed our jeans
for long red skirts, pulled back
permed hair in plaits, stripped of
nailpolish and mascara, and pressed
henna onto hands, kohl
under the eyes. Our hips
move like water to the drums.
Thin as hibiscus petals, our skirts
swirl up as we swing and turn.
We ignore the men,

creaseless in bone-white kurtas.
In the bleachers, they smile behind their hands.
Whisper. Our anklets
shine in the black light from their eyes.
Soon they will join is in the Dandia dance.
The curve and incline, the slow arc of the
painted sticks meeting red on black
above our upraised arms. But for now the
women dance alone
a string of red anemones
flung forward and back
by an unseen tide. The old ones sing
of the ten-armed goddess.
The drums pound faster
in our belly. Our feet glide
on smooth wood, our arms are darts of
light, Hair, silver-braided,
lashes the air like lightning.
The swirling is a red wind
around our thighs. Dance-sweat
burns sweet on our lips.
We clap hot palms like thunder. And
the mango branches grow into trees.

Under our flashing feet, the floor is packed black soil.
Damp faces gleam and flicker in torchlight.
The smell of harvest hay
is thick and narcotic in our throat. We spin and spin
back to the villages of our mothers’ mothers.
We leave behind

the men, a white blur
like moonlight on empty bajra fields
seen from a speeding train.


I heard Chitra read this at the Asian American Writers Workshop in 1996 or 1997. This is from her book "Black Candle" and it moved me so much. I love Navratri and as an Indian-American, I felt Chitra had captured the holiday and what it means to us. We may dance on the hard gym floors and not on the Indian earth, but our dance connects us to a long line of women. I always felt sorry for my American classmates and friends who did not have Navratri.

For us, we would pull out the suitcases that stored our chanya-cholis for the year. On some special occasions - after a trip to India - we would have new spin-worthy ghagras and we finally wear the new Indian jewelry. My sister, mother and I would trade bangles and bindis trying to get the perfect match. Oh, and I remember the year I wore rings. My hands were so swollen after a night of garba they would not come off! I had to soak them in cool water to pry them.

It's not about just a dance, but keeping connections and traditions alive.

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