It is interesting that the festival dedicated to sisters and brothers opens the festival season on the Indian calendar. It is almost as if you want to placate the sisters, even things out before the season really begins.
You see it start a month before, with newspapers full of teej offers and Melas. Fine craftsmen hired by women entrepreneurs come together for charity and profit. Women gather in hidden corners of the city to buy and barter and plan ahead. The pickles are ready, baked by the hot sun. The larders full, and the extra ration of sugar negotiated.
The evening before is of course devoted to preparation, often sending out the men to buy more sweets, and the girls to the ‘parlour’ to get fresh cool mehandi in incredible patterns. Middle aged men and women trudge the streets, carrying bags of shopping – snacks, sweets and gifts. Parking is impossible, and the traffic police cannot afford to be kind – sparkly lights, rain spattered windshields, a quick dash into a crowded shop, the gentle (or not) edging to the front of a horizontal queue, holding the hastily shouted and paid for receipt aloft. The guys at the counter recognise a regular, they get courtesy too. The rest, swift service.
Of course, the stress has begun to bubble up since late afternoon. Wives and sisters – both know that this is about holding it all together and having fun as a family. But this is the day, the various chains are in play. There is of course, the logistical chain. Most wives are sisters too – and must host before they go to their brother’s house to tie the sacred thread. These negotiations start weeks ahead, often dictated by precedence in the power chain (here’s the second chain!). The one who has the most power gets to choose the time. For those not in the know, the sisters remain hungry till they tie the rakhi, fraying tempers further. Of course, once the first sister arrives, she can stay as long as she likes, holding up the entire chain of sisters who happen to be wives. So, if sister one says she will arrive at 8 a.m., and toddles in at 11 a.m., there is nothing that her host can do other than wait. Now, they would have promised their brother and his wife that they’d be there by eleven – so that his wife can at least reach her brother’s house by lunch. You get the drift. Let us remind ourselves that these are women who are ‘sacrificing’ their food and time with their own family for the husband and ‘his’ sister.
Each year, you just know that this is going to happen. And you know you want it your way. So you renegotiate. And wait. And simmer. Each year you know you will simmer. And have to smile and laugh. Tyohaar hai bhai, a time for food and fun! Perfect.
Then, as happens all over the world when families gather – they have opinions. On what is being worn, what is being served and what is being gifted. Much joy and aggravation are shared, many eyes are rolled. Many a retort is bit back, many others uttered – such are the triggers for grand battles that create family history. Most of course are forgotten – blood is thicker than water, and all battles really are so alike that one can’t tell one from the other. Brothers and sisters have been fighting since they were children, it is all par for the course. Its good to let off steam, and we all make up and eat together (or get fed by the wives who are still fasting till they can get to their brother’s place). All smiles, lovely pictures, happy families 🙂
The ceremony itself is really simple, and till a few decades ago, it wasn’t even a holiday. Many offices still work, people coming in with their arms full of gaudy, shiny, happy
rakhis. It almost becomes a badge of honour. Traditionally, the word rakhi is the colloquial for ‘raksha’ which means defense or protection. The thread was tied to kings, brothers, husbands – anybody who promises to protect and is thus tied to the promise. And of course, the first rakhi to the presiding deity of the family. A fairly casual festival, each family makes up its own rules. In ours, both brothers and sisters get rakhis – even if they don’t, everybody gets gifts.
While this supposedly simple homely tradition binds brothers and sisters together, let us not forget the tradition of rakhi-brother, two words that strike fear deep into the hearts of potential romeos. The rakhi is a useful tool in dealing with unwanted attention – one turns a potential or hopeful romantic relationship into a determinedly platonic one, in the process gaining the right to claim favours. A lady I know has rakhi brothers in various government departments and public sector banks – she never has to queue up for anything. In repressive societies, the rakhi brother is the only category that can safely talk to his ‘sisters’. The segregation of men and women is often taken quite seriously even as they occupy the same roads, buses and colleges. The sanctity of the relationship – read a promise to be purely platonic – is the only thing that can bridge that chasm.
One cannot write about rakhi and leave out the commerce – Rakhi is big business and encourages small entreprenuers and businesses. Billions of rupees are transacted in the actual rakhi, the simple accompanying thread, clothes, gifts and preparatory services.
There is no single vision of rakhi – it is a collage of so many things. Bollywood and its staple songs glorifying the day – played incessantly on loop on radio channels. Women dressed in their summery shiny best accompanied by their brood with their hair slicked back crowded into buses, free of charge for women for the day. Cars on roads, with at least four people in most, the driver sporting a dozen rakhis. And packets. Packets that accompany people everywhere – the gifts and sweets that are exchanged. Packets with the contents swapped over, for extra cousins discovered. The constant renegotiation. The warm welcome, the sense of comfort and plenty. The simple food (in north India it is traditional to make chana dal khichdi) and the long conversations that go on through the afternoons, till the next chai, the next journey and the next festival.