A Million Goodbyes to the Elephant God!

It was Ganesh Chathurthi last Monday- the birthday of the most beloved God of Hindu mythology. That love is clearly exhibited with people creating or bringing home unbaked clay images of Ganesh and celebrating his existence with prayers and festivities.

On the 10th day, his idol is immersed in water and the clay dissolves. This is a way of bidding goodbye to Ganesha and waiting for him to return the following year. While festivities take place all over India, in Maharashtra- and in Mumbai in particular-this visarjan is a sight to behold!

Here is a piece written by my husband, that I thought I’d share with you.

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Last week I was in Andheri again.

“Don’t step out on Saturday,” they told me.

“It is a complete disaster,” they warned me.

“You will be on the roads for more than 12 hours if you make the stupid decision of venturing out,” they cautioned me.

“Please stay at home, and watch TV,” they cajoled me.

I planned on heeding all this unsolicited advice. Being new to Mumbai, and being extremely cautious, even cowardly, I resolved that I would not take a single step outside the house on Saturday, 18th September. I stocked up on books, potato wafers, peanuts (masala and roasted), diverse aerated liquids, and four DVDs. I darkened the bedroom, forming a cocoon against the cruel world lapping at my door.

And then, at 4 PM, when I was just settling into my hedonistic routine, Abhimanyu came to me and tentatively broke the news.

“I need three books,” he said, his eyes seeking mine in the gloom, only sporadically offset by the flickering images of Rani Mukherjee meeting Saif Ali Khan for the third time in London.

“Wonderful,” I said. “And you will have them.”

I always try to sound enthusiastic and positive with the kids, even when they are intruding into the bond I was trying to form with Rani.

“I need them today,” he said, insistently. “I have a project to complete and submit on Monday. They are available at Book-Point, in Andheri.”

My connection with Rani shattered like so much china in the hands of Damini.

“What?” I pulled myself out of the warm and soft mound of pillows and quilts that had formed my machan through the day. “Andheri? Today? It will be impossible to reach Andheri. Use the internet!”

Having delivered this brilliant advice, I hunted around, found the bag of chips that had slipped to the side, and settled back to recapture what Rani and I had just lost.

“No, Dad,” he said, “I need specific books and have to quote certain paragraphs in the report. I am sorry to trouble you, but please can we get them now?” Abhimanyu is nothing if not persistent.

Conflict. This word has so many connotations. It is used so often, especially in today’s fragmented world. But, not between Iran and USA, not North Korea and USA, not China and USA, not Iraq and USA, none of these disagreements come even close to the degree of conflict that raged in my breast. On the one hand, there was Rani, potato chips, peace and Coke. On the other there was mayhem, mobs and my son’s stumbling quest for education.

It was close. Thoughts of setting up an annuity for him passed my mind. So what, I thought, if he doesn’t get a degree? He will manage. Hopefully, he will develop something in the garage.

But no, bitter conscience and those famed middle class values won. But not by much. Not by much at all.

And so, at 5.00 PM on 18th September, Abhimanyu and I left for Andheri. On the day that more than three million devotees leave their homes (at about the same time) to immerse and bid adieu to more than 230,000 large (many larger than life) idols of Ganesha. Which means 230,000 individual processions, about 200,000 trucks, 50,000 buses and 75,000 other vehicles on the roads of this beleaguered city. All the same time, and largely heading in the same direction. Towards the sea.

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Let me digress a little to give you an idea of Mumbai’s topography. Mumbai is an island – seven islands actually, but bound together now by bridges and land fills and reclamations to form a thin, long one. (I know all of you in the e-group know this, but there is this possibility that these literary gems that I produce are published to wide acclaim posthumously, and translated into 23 languages, and thus, in the interests of future readers from Kazakhstan, Wales and Ecuador, I need to describe this further.) The sea is on the West. So are the beaches. There is a breakwater (called a creek) to the East. There are no beaches in the East. Where we live, Powai, is bang in the middle. And Andheri is in the West. So, to reach Andheri, we needed to drive West, for about ten kilometers. And then, we have to locate the book shop, buy the books, and then, come back home. Sounds simple, doesn’t it? Except that the 230,000 processions, idols, trucks, buses, cars are all going West, to immerse the idols in the sea. What joy!

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When Abhi and I stepped out of the building, we were hit by a wall of noise. There were drums, cymbals, trumpets, horns, loudspeakers, people chanting, trucks revving. It was like standing in the middle of a particularly agitated thunderstorm. I thought of turning back, but all those years of encouraging Abhimanyu to indulge in physical activities such as football, karate, gymnastics, etc., had yielded a young man considerably stronger and more agile than an over the hill, office-bound manager, whose devotion to alcohol and tobacco is the stuff of legend. The desire to return home was strong, but that to avoid an undignified scuffle ruled. So, with dragging feet and an achin’, breakin’ heart, I walked into the maelstrom.

But, hark! Even though I use the word noise (you will remember that I had stepped out of a cozy cocoon), after the initial jarring impact, there seemed to, from all the din, form a melody. I agree that calling anything on the wrong side of 350 decibels cannot be remotely described as a melody, but there it was. A rhythmic chant, a metronome of beats, a surging and ebbing wave. It was as if all the disparate groups and their public address systems were somehow finding harmony. There were Hindi film songs, Marathi songs, Sanskrit Shlokas, Indipop, wannabe leaders haranguing the masses, professional bands, amateur bands, religious groups singing loudly. None of these even heard each other, probably. Yet, there was harmony. A strangely serene feeling began to steal over me.

We got into the car, and began our journey. I use the word journey figuratively. The word connotes visions of empty highways stretching into the distance, of the wind blowing through your hair, of the Eagles singing “Hotel California” and speedometers reading in the high nineties. Our outing, alas, was slightly different. As soon as we turned out of the building compound into the road, we were engulfed. It seemed that we had suddenly stepped into the evacuation of Dunkirk. There were people. There were hand carts. There were trucks and buses. There were cars and bullocks. There were pandals and palanquins. There were hawkers and priests and onlookers. There were policemen and firemen and the home guard. The speedometer read in the high zeroes. I reconciled my self to a long night in the car, and mentally kicked myself for not bringing along a book to read during long stretches of apathy.

Then I noticed something strange. With all these impediments, we kept moving. It was rare that we stopped. On first sight, the mass seemed impenetrable, much like the Red Sea must have seemed to Moses and the fleeing Israelis. But, somehow, it parted. (I do not, by the above allusion, mean to imply divine intervention.) Even the most fervent devotee or the most colorfully anointed priest willingly and smilingly gave way. The police worked overtime to ensure that jams were cleared quickly and painlessly. And we kept moving. We zigged past a truck which had a 10-foot high Ganesha precariously balanced on its flatbed, and then zagged past a group of people briskly wheeling a handcart with a 2-foot high one. We squeezed past a riotous crowd of youngsters dancing and throwing coloured powder and water at one other, and crawled between two buses filled with chanting devotees. And we kept moving. And as we moved, the sights around us filled our minds and eyes.

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Have you seen a “riot of colour”? Really seen one? I am not talking about your teenage daughter’s wardrobe. I am talking about 256,000 colours, high definition, in your face kind of riot. That’s what surrounded us. The idols in their bright pink, yellow and red; the people in greens, blues, reds, violets, pinks, mauves; the trucks and buses in colours that put the spectrum to shame, the pandals, the flowers, the coloured powders whisking through the air, the banners, the sweets and toys sold by the hawkers. Even the grey skies and the dilapidated buildings seemed to glow brighter and take on a lustre normally absent. The whole city seemed to be on the roads, in their festive best, and it was mindblowingly beautiful.

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The idols themselves were fantastic. There were standing Ganeshas, sitting Ganeshas, reclining Ganeshas, dancing Ganeshas, pink Ganeshas (Aryans), blue Ganeshas (Dravidians), artfully designed and executed Ganeshas, crudely constructed Ganeshas. There was a Ganesha leading people through floodwaters (shades of 26 July) and a Ganesha playing cricket (shades of Sachin). There was a Ganesha with Shivaji sitting by the side, there was one with Mr. Thackeray. There was even one with Manmohan Singh. And Sonia Gandhi. It was amazing to be in the midst of so much creativity, and sad knowing that in a few hours, all this will be returning to clay.

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And, so we moved steadily on, drinking in the amazing sights around us, our minds filling with syncopated rhythm. Conversation was difficult. The air conditioner hummed, adding its bit to the melody. Once in a while, we hit a dead end, and the police and the devotees, would, working together in an amazing piece of coordination, clear a bit of the road or find a new one altogether. And then, we would be waved on smilingly.

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We reached Book-Point at 6:20 PM. It had taken us just one hour and twenty minutes to vend our way through a million people. I could not believe this. I was expecting to reach by about 8:00 PM, and specifically asked the shop if it would be open then, before leaving home. On the way, we had not seen one angry face, or met with impatience or unhappiness of any sort. There was no force used, no fights, no quarrels. Instead, there was sharing (of drinking water, of sweets, of coloured powders and water balloons) and acceptance (of delays, of sudden showers of rain, of other’s need for haste). I wonder about what it took for a more than a million people to move and work together so harmoniously. If we could do it for a day, what about a week? Or was this occasion in some way different?

And thus, we bought the books, and found our way home. The return journey was more of the same, except that we were stuck at one point for about 20 minutes, because a large truck had broken down. We too, taking our cue from the thousands around us, sat comfortably in the car, and waited patiently.

By the time we reached home, the crowds had waned. Small groups, looking exhausted, yet serene, were walking along, presumably heading home. Children holding balloons and carrying plastic toys, were in turn, being carried by their mothers. Crisp saris had turned limp, faces were shiny with perspiration and colour. The street lamps cast their glow on darkening streets, and stray buntings and pieces of paper fluttered in the dying breeze. Puddles of water glistened, trying to mirror the myriad colours that had passed over them. Stray drummers rent the growing silence with their energy, and the faraway bleat of the odd trumpet sounded lonely and lost.

Mumbai is a city you can fall in love with very easily. I am in the first stages of infatuation.

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Venkatraman Sheshashayee
25 September 2005

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28 Comments Add yours

  1. Faith is hope and how people practice their Faith is fascinating.
    I had seen Ganesh Chathurthi festivities and throwing of colored powder on TV documentary. Your husband’s narrative is so vivid as if I was living it.
    Thank you for sharing his story with us. Happy Ganesh Chathurthi!

    1. radhika25 says:

      Thanks for your sweet comment, Fae!

  2. Wonderful writing by your husband! Talent obviously runs abundantly in the family! Heartiest congratulations to you for completing a year of colorful,interesting and mouthwatering posts! Great going Radhika! Keep going…

    1. radhika25 says:

      Hi Suja,

      Thank you for stopping by. And thanks for being the first person to sign up for my blog- not knowing what you were in for 🙂

  3. piu says:

    As I read I was transported back to the last Ganesh visarjan I was part of. My second kid was 45 days old and I had left him with my mother and gone out to see the sights and sounds of this glorious event. My son just left for college ,so glad to know that the warmth ,camaraderie is still going strong. Shesh’s words brought back the sights of this festival with a special poignancy .

    1. radhika25 says:

      Thank you for visiting Piu! Ganesh Visarjan is really a marvellous sight to see in Mumbai!

  4. J says:

    Besh Besh… Lovely evocative writeup! Brings the scene alive! What is he doing with oil rigs? A hidden Chetan Bhagat?

    1. radhika25 says:

      Thanks Jyotsna.
      You can ask him that yourself! Both father and son are in the wrong line.

  5. Srima says:

    Did Shesh miss his true calling?! He is such an interesting writer! I don’t go to Mumbai much and I have never been there during Ganesha Chathurthi but after reading such a vividly rendered description, I would like to. I just watched a talk by Devdutt Pattanaik on his website about Western minds that see India as chaos but which you can choose to see as patterns, possibilities and inclusiveness instead. Shesh’s narrative touches on it.
    Enjoyed it!

    1. radhika25 says:

      Thanks a million Srima 🙂

      Will track down that talk and watch it.

      R

  6. How amazing! Great writing, sounds incredible.

    1. radhika25 says:

      Come visit India sometime! It really is incredible!

  7. Gauri Bhaskar says:

    Awesome piece of writing!

    1. radhika25 says:

      Thank you Gauri! Greetings from Heraklion!

  8. Gauri Bhaskar says:

    Super piece of writing!

  9. Tahny Lowry says:

    Good read, your hubby is a good writer too!

  10. Roopa says:

    I really enjoyed reading the piece Radhika!!

    1. radhika25 says:

      Thank you Roopa 🙂
      Signing up for the new Study Group?
      R

  11. coconutcraze says:

    So colorful…so full of energy and beauty. I have not seen a procession like this and in such peaceful manner narrated. Lovely photos!

    1. radhika25 says:

      Thank you for reading through a very long piece of writing.. Mumbai is unique and amazing in its multiculturality ( is that even a word?)
      The pictures are from Boston.com

  12. Those photos are just stunning! And it was a great read too! :3

    1. radhika25 says:

      Hi Nell,
      Just saw your comment. Thank you! The pictures are from ‘Boston- the big picture’!

  13. Fig & Quince says:

    Wow, this was so wonderfully and engagingly written. Your husband is such a good writer. Talent runs in your family! I particularly enjoyed the “conflict” (ha ha, so nicely illustrated) and loved reading about and envisioning the riot of colors. I knew just a little about Ganesh from yoga classes and mantras and found this entirely fascinating to read. Thank you both for sharing!

    1. radhika25 says:

      Azita, great to see (hear from) you after ages! Welcome back! And thanks for your lovely comment.
      R

  14. nusrat2010 says:

    Incredible moments! Unbelievably great shots!
    Enjoyed your writing, as always I do, dear Radhika 🙂

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