EDISON— JUST off Fieldcrest Avenue in the vast, anonymous patchwork of grass and asphalt of the Raritan Center industrial park is a huge tent that glows white in the night. At 11 P.M. on a Friday, the streams of cars and vans entering the parking lot haven’t yet congealed into a mini-jam, and the lines of people at the ticket windows inside are equally smooth.
A stage sits inside the tent, at the end of a long walk between vendors’ tables laden with steaming foods and shiny wares. Sandwiched between two banks of speakers is a 20-member band, with three drummers thwacking away and several singers taking turns tracing a rococo edge of sound. Spread out on several Astroturfed acres before them, thousands of richly clad dancers dip, reach and twirl in a giant circuit, like a skating rink in slow motion.
This is Navratri, the Hindu harvest festival, as it happens nowhere else: More disco-like and commercial than anywhere in India, and far more controversial, its brief local history littered with court battles.
If pressed to identify a single guiding will behind the persistence of this spectacle, most people say it belongs to Pradip (Peter) Kothari. That includes Mr. Kothari himself, native of Baroda in the Indian state of Gujarat. He says that as the president of the Indo-American Cultural Society he wants to help immigrants like himself pass on traditional cultures and values to the members of the next generation, who, like his own two daughters, were born here.
”I want them to learn the steps, and know the music,” he says in his bustling, cramped office at Quick Travel, the Iselin travel agency he owns. ”I want them to feel it. Now if I force them, they won’t come. But if we provide them, the way they like it!”
Some of the neighbors most emphatically don’t like it. Edison Township has been trying to restrict or close the festival since 1992, citing the loud music that throbs until 4 A.M. on Fridays and Saturdays, five weeks in a row. But the courts, noting that the tent is on a stretch of nonresidential land embraced by the Raritan River on two sides and by expressway spaghetti on the others, have repeatedly ruled against the township.
Most of the festival’s target audience — Indian immigrants — likes this Navratri a great deal, though there are religious leaders who find it far too commercial. Thousands of people come every year, from nearby townships and from faraway states. Indian dignitaries and movie stars drop in. Many of the dancers are teen-age girls, their clothes bright reds and yellows rippled with golden thread, their foreheads marked with a colorful dot called a bindi, bold earrings and necklaces in silver and gold twinkling as they turn. There are fewer teen-age boys, and many of them prefer hiphop chic — baggy pants, backward baseball caps — to traditional dress. They are slow to join the cosmic spin on the dance floor. And it is mainly for them that Mr. Kothari has a metal detector at the tent’s entrance.
”Some people say I am too strict, but they are not allowed to be loud or to bring weapons,” he said, with a sideways wag of the head for emphasis. ”No! They are not allowed.”
In some ways, the Kothari family seems to be the embodiment of Indian immigrant experience. His older sister came to the United States for medical school in the early 60’s, one of the few Asian immigrants before the 1965 Immigration Act, which opened America’s doors to non-Europeans. Mr. Kothari came in 1972, to study engineering. In 1976, he returned to India and his parents arranged his marriage. It was a daring match for its time, he said: his wife, Nandini, is of a higher caste.
They moved to New Jersey. By 1980, when their daughter, Payl, was born, Indians were settling in the Northeast by the tens of thousands, some as idealistic as ever, but some undocumented, some not as well-educated as their predecessors, and some more willing to engage in smuggling everything from betel nuts to heroin. Tensions began to grow as the numbers of immigrants swelled, both within the Indian community and between it and some neighboring white communities.
In the later 80’s, when Indians were repeatedly beaten in Jersey City in a rash of so-called ”dotbuster” attacks, Mr. Kothari began to organize. And in 1990, after his travel agency in Iselin was vandalized on its first day of business, he took action. ”There were many issues,” he said. ”At that time, primarily vandalism and the inefficiency of the law enforcement office.”
Within a few months, the Indo-American Cultural Society had been born, along with a business association, with seemingly nonstop efforts to smooth the way for immigrants. For instance, Mr. Kothari protested the hundreds of tickets that local police were giving out in Indian-dominated Iselin for jaywalking and garbage violations.
”He’s the Al Sharpton of his people, of the Asian Indian community,” said Officer Allen A. Sabo, of the Edison Police Department. ”He’s always fighting for his people, right or wrong. I admire him for that.”
Mr. Kothari has also clearly created for himself a position of some power. As he circulates in the big Navratri tent, assistants hover. He is greeted with universal deference. Staff members keep their eyes trained on him, ready to jump at the sign of his raised index finger.
At the same time, he seems uninterested in at least some of the trappings of power. His travel agency is a small concrete building; employees make their way to the bathroom through his office. A conversation with him there is interrupted every two or three minutes for incoming phone calls, conducted in urgent, musical Gujarati.
Mr. Kothari says that leadership has brought him the resentment of those who are more religious, less prosperous or less respected. ”Everybody can’t be a leader,” he says.
But he says foes don’t know how to solve their problems. ”They have a pain in their stomach, and they hit their head on the wall,” he said.
The antagonism between him and Paul Rajan, a lawyer who was the secretary of the cultural society until 1993, is well-known. Mr. Kothari says they had a dispute over how to handle the problems with Edison Township over ticketing and noise from Navratri. ”He likes to please the people,” Mr. Kothari said. ”He doesn’t want to fight with the authority, he doesn’t think that you can take them to court. He believes you should sit down and settle everything. That was a major stumbling block.”
Reached on the telephone, Mr. Rajan declined to discuss the issue.
The Kothari family lives in a house in Woodbridge, with three cars, none brand-new. Mrs. Kothari, who works both at the Quick Travel Agency and at Beth Israel Hospital in Newark, has a bachelor’s degree and has done postgraduate work. Between them, Mr. Kothari says, they make an annual income of ”$80,000 plus.”
The split between religion and secularism in India has been reborn in the United States, with religious and civic groups trying to preserve and pass on their own versions of Indian culture. Mr. Kothari falls determinedly on the secular side. Asked to explain the religious significance of Navratri, he begs off, saying that he is not certain.
But Praful Raja, the head of the B.S.S. temple in Edison, one of the largest Hindu branches in the United States, says that, while he would prefer a more religious celebration, there is no problem with Mr. Kothari. ”Whatever he believes, he will fight for,” Mr. Raja said. ”I have not asked for his help, but if I did, I am sure he would give it.”
Mr. Kothari says he is following the model of his parents, in both secularism and social involvement. He says proudly that his father, an ophthalmologist, has performed thousands of free eye operations to give poor villagers their sight, and that his mother worked equally hard to protect women, in a country ”where women do not get much respect.”
So dedicated to social involvement was he, he said, that before he married Mrs. Kothari, he felt compelled to put his cards on the table. ”I made her aware,” he said, ”so she could decide. My family, I give them very little time. It falls to her, and that is a burden for her.”
For now, Mr. Kothari, Navratri is worth the sacrifice, culturally, if not financially. ”We try to break even,” he says. ”But we usually lose.”
In 1992, when the festival was first held in an outdoor tent, he said, the cultural society lost close to $50,000. And last year, the festival only ran for three days before the tent was destroyed in storms.
The tent was insured, he said. ”But it’s a long time to settle. We have not been paid anything yet.”
How much should it be, he was asked.
”I hope I get a lot of money,” he answered, ”so I can do a better Navratri!”
GOOD VS. EVIL
In 9 Nights, Gods Win and Demons Lose
Navratri translates as Nine Nights, the length off time it is usually celebrated in the western state of Gujarat, India. It honors the triumph of good over evil, in the form of a nine-night battle between a goddess and a demon.
Legend has it that the demon, Hirnyakashyap, was so powerful that the gods were helpless against him. They implored Brahma, the creator of all things, to help. Brahma created Shakti (the name means power), an eight-armed goddess who sits astride a tiger. She challenged the demon. Their battle lasted for nine nights and ended with the demon’s destruction.
In Gujarat, where most of the 100,000 Indian immigrants in New Jersey come from, Shakti is known as Amba. A similar figure is known as Durga in Bengal.
There are two dances common at Navratri celebrations.
One is the dandiya raas, in which a loop of dancers holding sticks tap the stick of their opposing partners before turning and moving on to tap the stick of the next dancer in the loop. The pattern of stick-tapping and the method of turning to the next partner varies.
The other dance is the garba, in which the dancers make a huge, slow, twirling circles around an effigy of the goddess Shakti, or Amba.