Navratri in London is when lads with the British Premier League look, meet local Mallika Sherawats of the daring choli
Even in an England where immigration has become subject to some very strict Home Office rules, Durga happily has had no problems getting a single-entry visa for the nine days of Navratri. But Durga has to be a busy Goddess. Forget for a moment, the demands on her time from the Bengalis, who are convinced Durga belongs exclusively to them; she is also required at some 40 venues where Britain's estimated 300,000 to 400,000-strong Gujarati community celebrates Navratri. The ways in which the various communities mark Durga's return to her father's home can be a little different "but the (underlying) concept is the same," says Jayesh Manek, a fund manager who is something of a celebrity.
All together: Aarti by the North London Lohana community at
Brentford Leisure Centre, in west London PICS/AMIT ROY
All that raasmataz: Garba is followed by dandiya raas as UK's young
and restless click sticks
Investment manager JUST WANNA HAVE FUND: Jayesh Manek (left),
with friends at a Navratri event
DIRECTION: Leaders of the North London Lohana Community headed by
its president, Janubhai Kotecha
DANCE AND DONATIONS: Offering donations is part of the celebration
mixed with tradition
This is because back in the 1990s, when Ganesh clearly smiled on him, for two successive years, Jayesh won a fantasy fund competition run by The Sunday Times newspaper.
Jayesh, who then gave up his job as a pharmacist and became a fund manager in real life, dealing with people's real savings, says Navratri, "Keeps the (Gujarati) community together".
Jayesh is one of an estimated 1,000 devotees at Brentford Fountain Leisure Centre in Chiswick, west London,
where parking for latecomers was proving to be a major headache at 10 pm on Saturday, October 1.
The car park serving the spacious centre, normally used for activities such as basketball, was full and so were all adjoining streets. Cars clogged up all the narrow lanes. Thankfully, there was no evidence of road rage among the impeccably behaved Gujaratis. However, caution had to be exercised reversing back onto the main road where the fast moving through traffic is headed for Heathrow along the M4 motorway. On Saturday, October 1 it was said to be the warmest October day ever, it was almost as hot as Mumbai inside the leisure centre where aarti was in progress. One young man, whose arms were flailing, was said to be "in a trance", which perhaps explained why a senior citizen bent down and touched his feet. Hands folded in prayer and with an eye on proceedings was the most important man in the hall - Janubhai Kotecha, the main organizer of Navratri at this venue in his capacity as president of the North London Lohana Community. In his personal life, Janubhai, who came to Britain from East Africa, is a textile merchant. "I work with Marks & Spencers; I import garments for them for last 20 years and distribute to them in UK," he said. For the last 17 years, he has been involved in organising Navratri but has never had any crowd trouble despite the long queues to get in and the heaving mass of humanity inside.
He observes with justifiable pride, "The Gujarati population is very law abiding, very good, no rushing, no fighting, no masti, but they do enjoy. At the end of the day, they go home calmly. We have never had to call the police. It's the blessings of the Almighty." With passing time, Britain's Gujarati population appears to have become increasingly middle class. Even small business folk have children who aspire to become doctors, dentists or, at the very least, study some form of business administration. "They are all mixed," muses Janu, reflecting on peoples' jobs. "There are accountants, lawyers, doctors, investors, cash and carry big traders; we have got Madhvani group here, mixtures of industrialist people and that is the way we keep the community intact. The chairman of the Dhamecha cash and carry group, who is a big sponsor for tonight, is here." He pointed out a woman and noted with satisfaction, "Her husband is an accountant." The woman nodded assent.
After aarti, there was generous distribution of prasaad. Then the gathered populace got ready for the serious business of the evening - garba followed by dandiya raas. The young women, some in quite daring cholis that would not look out of place on Mallika Sherawat, had turned out in their colourful finery. Many of the young men, sporting spiky hairstyles favoured by British Premier League footballers or the new generation of England fast bowlers, had also made an effort. If during daandiya raas, couples should happen to click (literally and metaphorically), a budding romance will be given every encouragement to flourish and lead on even to marriage. At least, parents hope so. Janu beams. "Young people can find their partner, they can meet their partner," he confirms. He spots a likely looking lad. "His father is a trustee of the Swaminarayan Temple in Neasden," he says approvingly.
When the garba begins and the swirling men and women rotate round the room, they almost resemble figures in a Lowry painting. Since families want to foster the right atmosphere for matchmaking, wouldn't it be helpful if candidates wore badges, stipulating not just their ages (as sometimes happens during speed dating sessions) but also their salaries: for example, "24, Pound37,215" or "47, Pound250,000 plus bonus"? Jayesh Manek, the knowledgeable fund manager, grins but shakes his head. There is no need for such tags, he suggests, "because somebody or the other knows (what people earn) so it all works out very well."
Jayesh gets serious as he stresses, "This is a very important function because this is the main function for our community every year. This is the Lohana community but mostly from North-West London: Harrow and surrounding area. In (nearby) Northolt, there is a marquee where there are 1,000 to 1,500 people (visiting) every day. At Harrow Leisure centre, a group (of singers) has come from India so again it is a big function there." Jayesh goes on, "West London is separate - (their Navratri) happens in Greenford every year; south London is different, East London is different. It (Britain's Gujarati population) is a big community. There is no venue which can accommodate all of them." There are similar Navratri celebrations taking place all over Britain, according to Jayesh. "Outside London there are lots - Leicester, Birmingham, everywhere. So you get, at least, 30 to 40 different venues in Britain where this is going on. The aarti basically is praying to the Goddess for the nine days so that everything goes properly."
What does Navratri signify?
The word Navratri literally means nine nights in Sanskrit, nava meaning nine and ratri meaning nights. During these nine nights and ten days, nine forms of Shakti/Devi are worshiped. The 10th day is commonly referred to as Vijayadashami or Dussehra.
The beginning of spring and the beginning of autumn are two very important junctions of climactic and solar influence. These two periods are taken as sacred opportunities for the worship of the Divine Mother. The dates of the festival are determined according to the lunar calendar. Navratri represents celebration of Goddess Durga, the manifestation of deity in form of Shakti [energy or power]. The Navratri festival or 'Nine Nights festival' becomes 'ten days festival' with the addition of the last day, Vijayadashami which is its culmination. On all these 10 days, the various forms of Mother Mahisasura-mardini (Durga) are worshipped with fervour and devotion. Navratri in the year 2011 started on September 28, 2011 and ends on October 5, 2011 with Vijayadashami celebrated on October 6, 2011.