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Day 6: A thread of faith in the Midlands

1997 September 2
by Paul Vallely

An odd phrase popped into my head. I had left behind the dull industrial landscape of South Wales and cut across the country, past the motorway swirl of Birmingham and Coventry, to half-timbered Northamptonshire. In the manicured market town of Wellingborough, as I wandered down the walled lane next to the town’s United Reformed Church, loud Indian music suddenly bounded out from the first floor windows of the church hall. “When you meet someone of another faith take off your shoes,” I recalled from somewhere, “you are entering on holy ground, for God has been here before you.” I went in.

Inside, two and three deep all around the hall, scores of Gujarati women sat in brightly coloured saris – not cheap ones bought in Leicester but heavily embroidered ones of silk and fine lawn obviously brought back from the sub-continent. Some of the younger women wore on their hands and feet elaborate henna drawings of leaves and flowers. In the centre of the floor a dozen people – the immediate family at the centre of the celebration – were dancing in a crocodile of diminishing age.

At their head was Vinu Sthanakiya, a wiry man who whirled and twirled with controlled abandon. It was joyful, exuberant, natural dancing but with something mysterious and elegant about it. It was a ritual of initiation, a yajnopavita in which a sacred thread is given to mark the passage of a Brahmin boy from childhood. Originally it marked the departure of a boy to study with a guru but many Hindus feel that, even in places where ashrams are thin on the ground, the tradition is an important component of their cultural identity. The dance complete, Vinu came across to welcome me, a perfect stranger, to his family celebration. “For some, religion may be about an internal spiritual journey,” he said, “but to me it is about keeping people together.” He was 42, and had been born in Uganda, where Indian immigrants had kept their traditions alive; it was important now that his son, Sunil, 11, should do the same. Vinu believes he will. On to the dance floor came a tiny child in a vivid silver and turquoise sari to perform, with snaking hands and immense seriousness, to a loud disco beat. Next came Vinu’s eldest daughter with a swaying, gliding dance which seemed to have a story, involving dramatic gestures of rejection and hurling herself on the floor. “That one is traditional,” said Vinu’s wife’s sister’s husband, Joshi, a coach driver from Leicester, “but the first one is our version of the Spice Girls – the little girl learnt it from a video.” Josh does not share Vinu’s optimism. “All this will fade away,” he said. His children hadn’t come. “My daughter is 17. She works part-time in Top Shop on Saturdays and said she was too tired to come. My son, who’s 15, wanted to play football.” As the evening progressed the music became an eclectic mix of loud traditional Hindi music, Bangra, and odder stuff – there was even a Bengali cover of World Wide Message Tribe’s “Jump in the House of God”. The generations combined as readily on the floor. Fuelled only by water and Virgin Cola – Brahmins are supposed to eschew alcohol as well as tobacco and meat – the atmosphere was exhilarated yet affectionate. Teenagers chatted with the grey-haired matriarchs who remained seated at the edge. Older children played patiently with much younger cousins. There was no sulking or bad behaviour. It seemed a cohesive community. But will it remain so, I wondered, as the web of tradition, language and religion weakens? Next day came the actual ceremony. It lasted six hours, but again it was more like a party than a formal religious service. On the stage, where the disco had been, a priest was setting up a makeshift altar with a large tapestry of the elephant god Ganesh surrounded by flowers, food, bowls of water and of fire and photographs of dead relatives. Here the rituals were conducted as the 200 guests milled around beneath, chatting and eating. Few, even of the older generation, comprehend the Sanskrit in which the prayers are made. “I don’t understand a lot of all this,” said Josh’s daughter, Niana, who had now turned up, with her hair in a bubbly perm above her lime green sari. Her vowels were pure Midlands. Her generation’s world is a hybrid. Her friend Aarti, 19, a classic sultry Indian beauty, wore contact lenses to make her eyes incongruously blue. On her forehead was the chandlo, the mark which traditionally denoted a married woman but which has become a fashion item among the young. They chatted about their cultural vortex. Of parents so strict that the girls are not allowed to talk to boys in the street. Of Asian schoolfriends who live double lives – demure at home and dangerous on the streets. Of the prominent Brahmin leader who had to resign when his unmarried daughter became pregnant “by an Afro-Caribbean”. Yet they would hope to marry Hindus, if not Brahmins. Aarti wanted to teach her children Gujarati, even though they would not have, as she did, a grandmother who could not speak English. Niana could never eat meat. “Yuk!” And though much of the religion she rejected as superstition – “like saying you can’t wash your hair on Wednesdays” – she did wonder about a holy woman whom she had heard was possessed by a goddess. On the stage young Sunil was holding the sacred thread above his head. Something inflammable was thrown on to the fire with a whoosh. A sheet was placed over the heads of the boy and the priest so that the holy man could impart in confidence the Gayatri verses from the Rig-Veda which are the secret mantra the child must now recite every morning. The thread was placed diagonally across the boy’s naked torso. “He’s a proper Brahmin now,” one matriarch muttered to herself. Sunil and his cousin, who had also been subjected to the rite of passage, were carried shoulder-high by their uncles across the room to the beat of a drum. The entire family milled around, bowing to touch the feet of their elders to obtain blessing. The women gave short, ritualised embraces. The mothers and grandmothers cried, as they do at such occasions in all cultures. Then the older women began to sing to the boys – a song to which the middle-aged women seemed not to know the words. Sunil and his cousin received it, looking slightly bewildered, for they are of the modern world which has no place for ritual. Would they be, I wondered, the last generation to hear it?


Tomorrow Day 7: Hawks and doves in the Lightning Club

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