The Delhi Dussera Mela

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The Dussera Festival

On my Hindi teaching computer program, “Magic Guru,” going to the fair is such a calm, joyful, and almost quaint experience. “Neal has lots of fun at a fair,” announces the British narrator. Neal and his host family go on some rides, eat some samosas , crack some jokes about the Ferris wheel. In real life, in Delhi, the fair was far more of an adventure.

“The streets seem especially busy today,” I told Amar, when we ran into him in the early afternoon. Main Bazaar boasted a long, unbroken line of green and yellow auto-rickshaws zipping toward the train station, and there seemed to be more cows than usual meandering along roadside.

“Today fire holiday,” Amar said. “Last day Dussera festival. Everyone go to train station. Go see the plays.”

Dussera is the Hindu festival that celebrates the legendary victory of the Lord Ram over the demon Ravenna, and, cosmologically, the impending exchange of the summer heat for the cool of winter. We learned, with a little research afterward, that the traditional observation involves elaborate reenactments of the battle culminating in the burning of giant Ravenna effigies, ignited by flaming arrows. (Our research helped fill out the excited sentence fragments with which Amar and Nicky tried to express the significance of the holiday—“Lord Ram…big man. Fire, fire. Shoot. Like this.”)

Dussera Enactment from Swades

The holiday is preceded by nine days of festivities, which take the form of roadside altars, giant straw men, and, most visibly, a fair. The fair preceding Dussera is one of those events in Indian life where culture and religion intertwine and become virtually indistinguishable. In rural areas, it is an important commercial and social outlet—a much anticipated opportunity to do some trading after the harvest. In big cities, like Delhi, it is more of an entertainment event.

“You want go see?” Amar asked us. “Is better for you.”

Of course we agreed.

Dussera through the Eyes of our Friends

Later in the evening--good friends, good food!
Later in the evening—good friends, good food!

Amar and Nicky met us at half past six outside the Grand Sindhi. The sun had set, and fireworks were already periodically exploding in alleyways and from rooftops. In the streets, little bonfires dotted the corners and the spaces between wallah stands.

Nicky gave us some options as to what we could do, although between the noise on the streets and the language gap, we had a little trouble interpreting his suggestions. Sarah and I had not yet had an opportunity to do the reading on Dussera, so we didn’t have much of an opinion of what part of the festivities we wanted to see. But above all, we were interested in seeing the city through the eyes of our friends, so we indicated that we were open to whatever they wanted to show us.

After a little deliberation, they concluded that the fair was the best place to go.

“Veeery many people,” Nicky warned us. “Much violence: all push, like this. Some thief come and take, reach inside and grab the monies.” Nicky and Amar spent several minutes miming how pickpockets operate. I told him the English word, which he practiced two or three times.

“That’s all right,” I responded. “Sarah’s purse zips closed, and I only have ten rupees on my person. So we don’t need to worry about pickpockets. And crowds—we can handle crowds, no problem.”

“Are you sure?” Nicky asked.

Sarah nodded. “Absolutely,” I said.

It turns out we were a little naïve. The everyday traffic of people walking along on Main Bazaar constitutes a “crowd” by American standards. Of the sort of crushing mob of humanity that India calls a “crowd” we had neither any experience, nor even any ability to imagine.

The Delhi Dussera Fair

The fairgrounds sat in an expansive lot, nestled in the shadow of a large building that is in the final stages of construction. The crowd along the streets gradually grew thicker as we approached the festivities, but otherwise there was no indication of celebration. Ahead of us, a great billowing cloud of dust and smoke obscured our view, pierced by a few anonymous halogen lights, like the glowing eyes of a great monster.

“Not this way in my home,” Nicky lamented. “Right by the river, not so dusty. Less crowd. Everyone first do the shower, go to the temple, light the incense. Everyone smell good, and no pollution.”

Terrorism is always a latent fear in India, particularly in the midst of great crowds. So, naturally, the Delhi police were out in force. (The police aren’t kind to India’s poor. “If the police people ask you, you will tell them we are your friends?” Amar asked, anxiously. “Of course you’re our friends!” we replied. “They might think we cheat you,” Amar said.) We were fed quickly through two sets of metal detectors. They were suspicious of Sarah’s camera, but ultimately let her take it in, with the unfortunate stipulation “No pictures.”

The colorful light displays were not the strips of neon and small, efficient LEDs that we have become used to in the US. Instead, hundreds and hundreds of colored filament bulbs twinkled in the dust. Even with half the bulbs burnt out, they effectively illuminated the fairground with an eerie orange glow. They looked like marquees that had fallen out of 1930s New York, and gotten pretty beat up along the way. The wiring was a huge step down from typical Indian electric lines—if I had been less over stimulated, I probably would have been worried that the whole system would spontaneously combust.

For the most part, it seems, an Indian fair is much like an American fair, except there are many, many more people, and far fewer rides and attraction. There were a couple of Ferris wheels and a flying ship, a couple of hawking stands, and a balloon pop. We spent a few minutes being shuffled through the crowd in front of a ride called “Break Dance,” where a chubby, smiling Buddha spun tens of eager Indian riders at breakneck speeds around pictures of Mickey Mouse and friends, and Spiderman.

The crowd was unbelievable: a shifting mash of bodies moving in all directions at a slow but constant pace. (Suddenly I understood how two hundred odd people could die in a temple stampede.) Someone pinched Sarah’s backside. She whirled around to confront them, but, of course, they had disappeared. “Come closer,” she told me, taking my arm and attaching it to the far side of her waist. Gradually, the crowd pressed us closer and closer together, until I was directly behind Sarah, holding her tightly, moving as one organism.

Nicky pointed to the Ferris wheel. “You want ride?” he asked us. We nodded. Nicky ordered Amar (the smallest and most agile of our party) to slip through the mob in front of the ticketing booth and obtain ride tickets for us. He disappeared into the crowd, and we stood thirty or forty feet back.

There was another large mob at the entrance to the Ferris wheel that vaguely resembled a line. The line ran past us on the right, and everyone standing in the line was interested in the two Americans (probably the only two white folks in the crowd) who were standing in the midst of the fairgrounds.

However, almost without us realizing it, the line moved, and the crowd changed. The space in front of us opened up. Suddenly, we were encircled by a sea of staring faces. Wide white eyes blinked at us, and brown lips twisted into sly grins. Sarah’s grip on my hands tightened, and my arms tightened around her. One man stepped forward offering to shake Sarah’s hand. Another approached with a piece of paper and pen, presumably asking for a phone number, or autograph. The ring gradually began to close on us.

“Is there any problem?” a stranger in the crowd asked me.

“No, no problem,” I said. In retrospect, there probably was a problem. But we were too overwhelmed by our environment to appropriately process what was going on.

Fortunately, at about that moment, Amar returned, and from another direction, two or three Delhi policemen appeared. Nicky exchanged a few Hindi phrases with the police, and the officers began to (rather violently) clear the crowd around us. They escorted us to the Ferris wheel exit, slapping and pushing people out of the way, left and right. And, after a few moments of confusion, and some loud exchanges with the Ferris wheel operator, we were invited on to the ride.

The Dussera Wheel of Terror

The Ferris wheel operators in India apparently have a very good eye for balance: they immediately determined that all four of us would be too much weight for the car. Nicky was held back for the next carriage. An Indian teenager waiting at the entrance, however, evidently disagreed with their ruling, and tried to clamber into the car with us as we left the loading platform. Fortunately, he was forcibly restrained.

By the time we were about half way up, I began to have second thoughts about riding the Ferris wheel. Our cramped carriage had neither doors nor restraints. Below, I could see the ride’s operating apparatus. A diesel engine sat about twenty feet from the base of the wheel, coughing up clouds of black smoke, and spurting tongues of flame with a loud, chemical “POP.” A long white belt connected the engine to the wheel by way of the operator’s station, where a huge lever (a hand break) was the only visible means of controlling the machine.

After one rotation, the ride hesitated. Below, I saw one of the operators climb on top of one of the cars below, with a wrench in hand. He tightened a few bolts, tore off a handful of wires, and clubbed the steel frame with his wrench a few times. Then he stepped off the car and threw a thumbs up to the operator.

In the US, the Ferris wheel is a family ride. In India, it is a thrill ride. I guess that the operators want to compensate for the lack of variety in their attractions by cranking the speed up past safe operating capacity. I don’t think that the designers of the Ferris wheel ever intended for riders to experience a sensation of weightlessness. On the downstroke, the carriages flew out from the wheel structure at probably a forty-five degree angle.

Amar looked like he was going to be sick. Sarah grabbed my hand tightly, and the color drained from both our hands. I’m normally a little afraid of heights, but I was too busy worrying that this second-hand amusement ride couldn’t handle our speed to notice how high it took us into the air. Nicky confessed to us afterward that he was terrified.

And the wheel spun on, the diesel engine sputtered away, and around we went. Around and around, like the Hindu wheel of life: we were riding a parable demonstrating the unpleasantness of perpetual reincarnation.

On to Safer Celebrations

After we disembarked from the Wheel of Terror, and our police escort had led us safely out of the crowds, Nicky was extremely apologetic for the downsides of our first Indian mela experience. “Indian culture,” he told us, “Too much the violence. Too much the bad looking. You OK? You happy? I am the scared for you.”

We both laughed and assured him that, yes, we were having a grand time, and that, above everything, we were extraordinarily grateful to have friends nearby that spoke the language and knew the culture.

The Wedding Procession
The Wedding Procession

Nicky suggested that we return to Main Bazaar, and we agreed. Sarah and I were still in good spirits, and strangely unperturbed by the chaos of our surroundings. But we probably should have been a little more worried than we felt, and we were clearly causing distress for our hosts, who (bless their hearts) were experiencing the evening through our eyes, and wanting us to be comfortable.

“Go to a good restaurant tonight?” Nicky asked us. We agreed. It was supposed to be a festive evening, after all.

Nicky and Amar led us to the restaurant at the Metropolis hotel, one of the pricier establishments on Main Bazaar. The restaurant was outside, on a third story balcony. The food was amazing, and we had an excellent view of the fireworks that periodically lit up the night sky.

To top off the festive atmosphere of the evening, we ran into a wedding procession, complete with groom on horseback and a chaotic ensemble of drums and wind instruments. The gaiety of the atmosphere was infectious.

“Look, look!” Nicky said, as they went past. “Tourist people making the dance!”

We may not have observed the Dussera celebrations as they are meant to be celebrated. But we certainly had a wonderful time with our friends. And though after a night’s observations, I have little comment about the interaction between the victory of Ram and the Victory of Christ, I can certainly say that the joy of hospitable hearts and table fellowship is certainly a foretaste of the Kingdom of Heaven.

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