I arrived in Ahmedabad at the perfect time.
Navratri, one of Gujarat’s most highly celebrated festivals, had begun four nights earlier. The festival is known as the nine nights of dance, which take place at different venues all over the city. The traditional dance, called Garba, is a sort of line dance performed in a circle that anyone is allowed to join.
My friends and I went out every night for the remainder of Navratri. Thankfully, Garba was easy to learn which kept my self-consciousness about dancing to a minimum.
Apart from those five nights, I have never seen so many beautifully dressed Indian women at the same time. Watching them was like following one constant whirl of colorful fabric over tanned skin. I learned that Navratri is a key time for parents trying to create marriage arrangements for their sons or daughters. With the stakes high, many women try hard to look their best.
Ladies buy special outfits for Navratri — one of the only occasions when showing more bare skin is acceptable in the otherwise conservative country. Long, flowing skirts are hand-embroidered with beads, sequins and colored thread to form intricate patterns. Tops are typically spaghetti-strapped, backless and rest above the navel. One end of a long, chiffon sash is pleated and tucked into the back of the skirt, while the other end is pinned over the shoulder.
I noticed a while back that there is a positive and negative side to almost everything in India. During Navratri, the harshness of extreme poverty countered the joyful elegance of the Garba dancers.
My dormitory is next to a large playfield that was used as a Garba venue during the festival. Right outside the entrance were flimsy, tent-like homes of the poor workers who set up, maintained and took down the venue.
Because there was not enough space inside the field, many workers and their families took over the sidewalk. Both sides of the entire street became a makeshift slum where they slept, ate, bathed and excreted. While those who could afford it were out dancing every night, these people took rest atop thin blankets in the open air to be seen by any passersby.
The people had dirty faces and wild, matted hair. Many children were naked, though whether or not it was by choice I’m not sure. Some women made brooms out of twig bundles to sell while their husbands worked at the field. Others sat and picked through trash all day, setting aside anything recyclable or reusable.
My German roommates, who arrived in the city two weeks before I did, said the streets were completely empty previous to Navratri. However, with festival season in full swing, the makeshift slum has remained though Navratri ended. The next celebration may bring a bit more sustenance for the poor nomads who travel from city to city in search of labor work.
Having lived in India for more than four months now, I’ve learned to accept the fact that in my current situation I am useless to help everyone. Still, I am reminded every day of my good fortune as I walk past these people, my neighbors, who make do with what little they have.