THIS year, Ahmedabad.com webcast the Navratri celebrations of the city live. Capturing the tempo of nine nights, the swirling skirts, the frenzied feet, the sponsorship spread, the pathbreaking effort apparently drew in 1.2 million hits from over 50 countries. But while Ahmedabad's garba had its name up in bright lights online, off it the revelry had a darker side.
The issue had already come under sharp focus just before the commencement of the Navratri celebrations. This, when Anandiben Patel, state education minister made a startling declaration. At a Gujarat State Social Welfare Board Advisory function, she expressed concern over the rise in the number of abortions two months after Navratri over the past few years.
A city that had prided itself on its strong sense of traditional values and witnessed the saffron brigade's own peculiar moral policing suddenly had its seamier underside exposed. The education minister's highlighting of the disturbing trend merely laid bare what the Amdavadis had begun suspecting for at least four years. That their closed-door culture had skeletons within.
"The facade of morality and repressiveness had to take its toll some way or the other," says Ila Pathak, secretary of the Ahmedabad Women's Action Group. "Throughout the year, there are restrictions on teenagers. Then you have Navratri, which allows you to stay out all night, blessed by social sanction. This was bound to happen."
For the modern manifestation of Navratri has all the trappings of temptation. While earlier Navratri was largely a sheri nu garbo, a congregation of the community where youngsters swayed to religious rhythms under the watchful eyes of their parents, today it moves to a different beat.
Party plots and club houses muscle in for a piece of the action and stakes get higher with corporate sponsorships. Except for the Centre for Environment Planning and Training where goddess Amba occupies centrestage and the purity of the dance is maintained, the nature of the celebrations elsewhere has metamorphosised. Expectedly, in huge party plots like Rajpath, Karnavati and ymca, the goddess has been relegated to the background and Hindi film songs like 'Dholi Taro Dhol Baaje' move upfront.
Appearances by scantily-clad celebrities, surreptitiously served spirits and songs guaranteed to send young blood rushing create an atmosphere for a copulation explosion. Attempts by the police to enforce the 1:30 am shutdown have little effect. "Some of these farmhouses are way beyond city limits and one can't do much about it. Besides, these aberrations are individual and we do not go looking for people in dark corners," says P.C. Pandey, Commissioner of Police.
So, every Navratri the entire stretch of highway between Ahmedabad and Jamnagar becomes a party zone with the clubhouse culture and the night providing great cover for those seeking to quench the fire inside. Says Earl Marks, a restaurateur in his 20s: "There are club houses which issue passes that cost anything between Rs 60 to Rs 100 per person. Some of them can accommodate up to 10,000 people. How can anyone monitor the movements of all the people all the time?"
Cultural aggression", is how Dr Pravin Togadia labels it. "Our youngsters are becoming more westernised. Last year, we distributed pamphlets warning teenagers of the pitfalls. We even helped the police round up couples - some from reputed families - indulging in indecent acts and handed them over to their parents. "
But the cultural clean-up act back then turned out to be just another way of questioning the religious credentials of couples. Says Sumukhi Shukla, a post-graduate student: "My boyfriend and I were stopped last year by vhp activists. They roughed up my boyfriend because he was a Catholic and threatened me. Violence and vandalism is no way to preserve our morality."
"What has morality to do with this?" asks another belligerent teenager. "Do you think people with morals don't have moments of madness? We're well-informed; we know our limits and it's deeply embarrassing when the education minister makes statements such as these. It gives the saffron brigade additional reasons to dictate our lives."
Typically, the real issues have gone unaddressed. For a society shackled by appearances of conservatism, the concern has confined itself to private discourse. In the public domain, it has not yet translated itself into an indepth sociological study. In fact, the minister herself admits: "My statement was not based on any available data but on reports conveyed to me by private medical practitioners. As a woman, an educationist and people's representative, I find it worrying."
Also worried are the parents. Says Bhupen Desai, father of teenaged children: "These reports have got us worried. We've tried to make our children understand the need to be home at a reasonable hour. But how can we stop them entirely when their friends are out there having fun?"
For though hard facts are difficult to come by, the signs are telling enough. The day-and-night Deepak Medical Store in the posh Navrangpura area registers approximately 20 customers per day for contraceptives. During Navratri, this number goes up to 60 with over half the buyers coming in between 8 pm and midnight. "Most of them are young boys, out to have a good time," says owner Dashrathbhai Patel knowingly.
Highly-placed sources at the city's civil hospital acknowledge that the number of admissions for abortions post-Navratri has steadily risen since the mid-'90s. Last year, Dr Joshi's Maternity and Gynae Hospital in the upmarket Ellis Bridge area, which carries out an average of four abortions a week, conducted 25 two months after Navratri. "This trend has become noticeable only in the past three-four years," says Dr Rajan Joshi. "The girls are approximately in the age group of 17-23 though last year my youngest patient was a 13-and-a-half year old girl. All of them are from middle-class and upper middle class families who've seen too little of life but want too much of it."
Dr Joshi attributes the lack of communication between parents and children and the abysmal standards of sex education in schools and colleges for the changing scenario in sexual interaction between teenagers. In fact, a sex education seminar to be held at Ankur High School had to be cancelled after parents and politicians protested. "Most parents don't tell their children about the facts of life," says Dr Joshi. "So they grow up on a diet of pulp passion-related fiction. For most, abortion is a method of contraception. If they were as vigilant about safe sex as they are when they discover that they could be pregnant, none of this would happen."
High on life, low on information, the festival of nine nights provides the perfect breeding ground for what one college-going student called "foetal attractions". "These are changing times," rationalises Subhash Bhrambhatt, principal, H.K. Arts College, "and parents are no longer in a position to deny their children the right to go out. Last year in fact, I was approached by several parents to help tackle the problems that arose after Navratri. "
As the government dithers over dealing with the problem squarely and parents and their offspring act coy, a new trend is on the upswing. "Teenagers are getting smarter," says Dr Joshi. "They know they have to protect themselves." This year, Dr Joshi's clinic answered 175 queries on contraception during the fortnight preceding Navratri. In the normal course of the year, they take three calls a week for the same. Ahmedabad's young ones are finding their own solutions. No more pregnant pauses for them.