Toe-dipping into Indianhood

Diwali lights - Belgrave Road

expedition |noun| a journey or voyage undertaken by a group of people with a particular purpose, esp. that of exploration, research, or war

The rather monotone Latin-heavy mass was drawing to a blessed end when the drumming began somewhere off in the distance. When we stepped out into the crisp Sunday air, the sound became almost deafening. And yet the streets were pretty much empty, save for the Council Christmas decorations. Another Leicester conundrum, I wondered? But then – like a Jack in the box – the mystery revealed itself at the turn of a street corner.

As far as the eye could see, King Street was jam-packed with men wearing turbans, men carrying swords, men sporting beards. There were women ceremoniously sweeping the streets, women pouring watery milk onto the ground, women carrying paper garlands. There were people piled together in the back of trucks sitting in the lotus position and some sort of chant blaring from loudspeakers. There were lots of dark faces, lots of orange, lots of flags and horns!

“What’s going on?” I asked a green-eyed Indian man standing there with his equally green-eyed daughter. “It’s the guru’s celebration.” “Like a birthday?” I asked in search of a reference point. “Something like that.” “And why are the women sweeping? What’s with the milk? What are they chanting?”

Whenever I run into Leicester Indianhood (which is not difficult taking into account that the majority of the local population is made up of ethnic minorities and the Indian community is the largest among those), I find myself asking lots and lots of questions. To be honest, I don’t understand half of the responses, but that’s my own fault – I’m not that smart. And I also get lost in people’s kind eyes, in their amazing dress, their pitch-black hair and the fact that – for once – someone is shorter than I am. In the midst of the brawling, teenage pregnancy, polyester culture of Leicester, I’d finally found something that held my curiosity willingly captive.

And now it’s time for a little confession. Remember how I moaned about getting totally lost on my way to my first dance class a few posts back? All of that was completely true but… I also got lost because my dance studio is on Belgrave Road – the nevralgic center of the local Indian community. All of those incredible sari-ed mannequins wiggling at me from their store fronts saying “come try me on”… the wafting perfume from the piles of sweets in the pastry shops whispering “come give me a nibble”… the sheer abundance of filigreed gold from the spot-lit jewelry stores – how was I not to get disoriented, when I’m such a silly, silly girl?

I’ve weaved my way through the Belgrave Road shops quite a few times since then – there was Diwali, there was my sari safari, there was my recent Bollywood class – and yet, they still feel a bit impenetrable to me. I am often at a loss to make sense of what I am looking at. Partially, it’s a question of not being able to read what is written on lots of the packages (when was the last time that happened to you, reader?), but sometimes even being able to do that leaves me none the wiser. I don’t get what those powders, plastic gods and brass ornaments with swastikas are all about, despite my efforts. The sheer bombardment of the senses can also be daunting – the layers of spices and incense hanging in the air, the delicate musicality of people’s names, the fast paced gibberish flying about, the food staples I simply would not know what to do with, the intensely colored fabric everywhere – the world presents itself in a palette of temperatures that pleasantly collides with the freezing air sweeping through the streets outside. It’s wonderful!

For Diwali, I had the privilege of a cultural translator. My dear Indian friend came with us to see the fireworks, the dancing and the decorations. She also thankfully suggested our menu at the various places we sat down at for a nibble, although I’m not sure I can replicate what I ate and drank besides a mango lassi. There was something very interactive that required poking a hole and stuffing little hollow spheres – I liked that. And there was something that looked like crystals and fennel seeds that was pretty awesome too – very geological and refreshing.

Since I’m confessing all sorts of things today, I’ll just put out there that I may also have accidentally inflated a few male egos with my very indiscreet stares – those traditional tunicky thingies (no point in getting technical here) are just so amazing. Especially for the ones that remembered to leave their little pot bellies at home. Très chic!

I had the opportunity to check out the female traditional dress on my sari safari – it’s like fabric origami, I tell you. I get the top and petticoat well enough, but how on earth those ladies manage to tuck-in and secure that many yards of fabric without a pin in sight is just anti-gravitational to me. On the other hand, my sister did make an entire wooden bed without nails once, and that seemed to have worked out OK. So this may just be one more of those cases of my not being very smart. One thing is certain though – the final effect of all that bright draping fabric is incredibly beautiful. Je veux!

On a final note, belly turned into bolly last week, when my belly-dancing class was unexpectedly cancelled. Big, small, older, younger – the energy level in that dance studio was challengingly high and I had to give it my all to avoid getting Bhangra pivoted into a corner. I´ll have to eventually forgive myself  for not getting on this bandwagon sooner – the fast music, the impossibly rowdy banter, the universally painted toenails – very spicy indeed! The only thing that actually managed to shush everyone during that 2-hour class was when I admitted I’d never seen a Bollywood movie before – apparently, that initiation will take place next week.

After class, something magical happened that I have to share despite the length of this post. I walked past one of the other rehearsal rooms and, finding the door ajar, peaked in distractedly. But I wasn’t distracted for long. Inside was a tall slender guy dancing again in one of those tunicky things that I love. It was a combination of contemporary dance and traditional Indian dance (kathak) and his movement was breath taking – so powerful and elegant and masculine. Anand, my Bollywood teacher, gave me a name with the suggestion that I check him out on Youtube as well. The guy’s name is Aakash Odedra – he is a big deal, so consider this tip my little Christmas gift to everyone.

And now I’ve got to go. Somewhere in Leicester at this very moment my husband is celebrating the last assessment for this module of the FIFA Master. I’ve got to catch up and show off my new dance moves!

And here is a little kiss from Aakash:


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