I like some of it, and as for the rest....
….. It’s Navaratri again, and it’s a time when women and children exchange visits and bond with each other. All this, and the decoration of homes, and the setting out of the dolls, is great. But then, there seems to be a lot of other attached customs that don’t seem meaningful to me at all…
First and foremost, this custom of giving betel leaves, supari and other assorted stuff like haldi, sindoor and so on. This custom started in the old days when women used to chew on betel leaves for two reasons: the gums and teeth were strengthened by the combination of the betel leaf, the lime smeared on it and the supari; and it would also redden the lips; it came, in fact, to be associated with romance and sex, too….well, let’s not go there, it was a beauty aid. And along with sindoor, it was given to women leaving someone’s home, so that they could use it. But now, who actually chews on the paan leaves that are given during these festivals? Vast quanitities of these leaves find their way either into the mouths of elderly maidservants (the younger ones won’t chew them either) or into the dustbins. In fact, Indian ladies who live in the Gulf make a great thing out of secretly procuring these leaves and giving them away (paan leaves are prohibted in some countries there because we S E Asians have a habit of spitting out the red paan juice everywhere.)…flouting the law is a validation of their ability to spend, I suppose. All that trouble and expense, for something that is going to be consigned to the bin shortly!
Here, I have photographed some of these things, some of which were, in the past, actually used on a daily basis as cosmetics:
clockwise, from left: the betel leaf, a dinky little plastic “dabba” with a “yow!”-coloured lid, though it looks OK in the photograph; a sweet lime which will make about a thimbleful of juice (but which generally dries away and is thrown out); two pieces of turmeric; one what-on-earth-can-I-do-with-it “coin” made of plastic with an icon of Ganesha embedded; a coconut, which accounts for vast quantities of coconut burfi made in all the households post-festival, to use the coconuts up; one of those never-to-be-opened-but-permanently-recycled plastic packets of sindoor (vermilion) and turmeric powders; and in the centre, a packet of fried areca nut or supari, which a few people do chew on, but is, mostly, also wasted…..
The other beauty aids also have become so stylized that they seem to have lost all significance. What is the point of giving two tiny black bangles, and little yellow hard rounds of turmeric, which will only be recycled or thrown away? Where is the sense of gifting tiny mirrors in which only a few eyelashes of one eye are reflected? Who ever opens those “combination” packs of haldi and kumkum or applies them actually to her face? Some of those sindoor powders are really unsafe and very bad for the skin, causing contact dermatitis, too.
And then, this custom of giving “blouse bits” (no, my non Indian friends, those are not parts of blouses, but material from which our saree blouses can be cut and stitched.)…when I buy a saree, I hunt for the material and the colour for the exact match, if it doesn’t come with the saree. I don’t ever see myself making blouses out of the random coloured pieces that I get as gifts. So why not dispense with this? Of course NOT! It is the CUSTOM, it must be followed, no matter how irrelevant it is….
I have a nice large collection of these things, (along with the dinky little plastic “gift items” like bowls and trays in fluorescent colours which are also given away) and often give them to various friends who, I know, will love to get them (whether they use them or not.). But I have this nightmare vision of all these festival items being recycled for ever and ever…I am thinking of marking the ones I give away in future, much like tracking migratory birds, and seeing whether they show up again!