September 15, 2008

The Last Journey of the Elephant-headed God

Two days ago I thought I would make my way to either Girgaum Chowpatty or Juhu on Anant Chaturdashi today, the last day of Ganeshotsav, usually the tenth or the eleventh day of the festival but this year it was the twelth day, to watch brightly painted Ganapatis converge on the beach by their hundreds, maybe by their thousands. No one has ever dared count how many. The numbers, like Mumbai, continue to swell each year.

Later that night images from two years ago reeled out in a slide show, transporting me amidst legions of devotees as they cried out hoarse, ‘Ganapati Bappa Moraya, Phudchya Varshi Lavkar Ya’, exhorting the elephant-headed god to return soon next year as they prepared to immerse him in the seas off Juhu in Andheri.

That monsoon day garlanded idols of the elephant-headed god in all conceivable sizes came from near and far, in auto-rickshaws, in cars, in tempos, in trucks, on bicycles, on hand carts, and on foot. Emotional at the send off families wiped their tears away as male members of the family waded into the sea to immerse the deity who having been given the pride of place in the house graced their lives for eleven days while festivities centered around him. Under overcast skies as competing cries of ‘Ganapati Bappa Moraya, Phudchya Varshi Lavkar Ya’ rent the air I found it difficult not to be overcome by emotion watching scores of families send off the deity into the seas off Juhu in 2006, and off Girgaum Chowpatty in 2005, the latter a sight without parallel for the sheer drama of the festive canvas.

It was at Girgaum that I first saw the Lalbaug cha Raja make his way to the beach late in the evening. I was in the thick of it those two years, hanging onto my camera as I jostled through dense crowds for vantage points. To be swallowed by the multitudes thronging the approach is to be released from the present for a foray into the future as chants rise with the breeze ‘Phudchya Varshi Lavkar Ya’ (Return Soon the Next Year).

The next year, 2007, I could not make it to the seas on the last day of the Ganesh Chaturthi celebrations much as I wanted to. The year came and went and I stayed home on Anant Chaturdashi, the day when offices close early to enable employees to reach their homes before festival crowds bring vehicular traffic to a standstill. There were urgent matters that needed sorting out in those uncertain days when I wondered if the overcast skies would ever part anytime soon to let some sunshine in. They did, coinciding with the end of the monsoons in late September.

This year was no different for I didn’t make it to the seas today either, the last day of Ganesh Chaturthi, to watch animated throngs of devotees as they wind down the approach to the beach in their hundreds and thousands, carrying idols of the elephant-headed god decked in flowers. It was pouring outside so I stayed back home.

However I’ve had my share of the atmosphere each day the past eleven days on my way to work and back, passing pandal after pandal at various street corners, home to the elephant-headed god. Put up by political parties these street-corner pandals are public affairs, more an expression of political presence than religious but they serve an additional purpose as well. Everyday folks with no access to private installations of the god and not having installed one themselves back home, step up to these Sarvajanik Ganapati pandals and pay obeisance at his feet for wisdom, good fortune, and prosperity.

Large hoardings plastered with faces of political functionaries graced street corners by the pandal. With street corners awash with hoardings of competing political parties no one was quite sure who had organized the street-corner installation of Ganapati. It mattered little to passing folks who paused for a quick prayer before going their way. Most street-corner installations last until Anant Chaturdashi, the last day of the festival, usually the eleventh day. However, this is not so with many private installations of Lord Ganesha.

Many families immerse the idol in nearby water bodies after one and half days. The duration varies between one and half, five, seven, ten, eleven, twelve, and “even twenty-two days,” a taxi driver informed me the other day as he bypassed an inside lane to avoid groups of festive revelers. “I avoid driving much during the festival week,” he said. “There’re too many traffic jams caused by revelers.”

Passing Matunga he pointed out a Ganapati pandal set back from the road and said, “That’s Nana Patekar’s,” before continuing, “flowers worth 5,000 – 6,000 rupees are delivered to the pandal each day for use in prayers and decorating the pandal.”

“Does he live here?” I asked him, curious to find out if the Bollywood star, known for the temperamental roles he’s essayed over the years, felt at home in the bustle of the street away from tinsel town.

“No, but during Ganesh Chaturthi he is said to come here for the duration of the festival to the Sarvajanik Ganesh pandal he organises, after all this is where he used to live before he became a star,” the taxi driver replied.

I’ve fond memories of the festival growing up in Goa. Schools broke for vacations on the eve of the festival, lasting the entire duration. It was a time to make merry, visiting as many Ganapatis as one could and accompanying an equal number on the days they were immersed in wells. We kept a count of the Ganapatis we saw. But it was in Mumbai that I saw the festival at a scale I had not previously imagined, down to an actual elephant making rounds of the town outside the local railway station this weekend.

Within moments it drew the attention of commuters, one of whom thought nothing of feeding it the lot of apples he must have purchased only a little while earlier.

Children gathered to watch the elephant bless those who sought its blessings, raising its trunk and touching them lightly on the head.

Still others offered the elephant coins which it expertly deposited into the hands of the mahout riding it. As I reached for my shirt pocket to see if I had some change it followed me with its trunk, knowing pockets to hold money. Alarmed as much by the unexpected proximity of the trunk as by its ‘understanding’ of where people carry money I drew the first note I could reach. It turned out to be ten rupees. No sooner had I drawn the note I deposited it in the offered trunk and watched as it expertly steadied the note before curving the trunk up and depositing it in the mahout's outstretched palm.

A Ganesh pandal lay only a few metres away, to one side of the entrance to the local railway station. The significance of the presence of the elephant during the festival celebrating the elephant-god was not lost on passers-by as they folded their hands in prayer to the pachyderm.

Public installations of the deity, also know as Sarvajanik Ganapati, are not restricted to street corners alone. They are also to be found in housing societies.

Members of individual housing societies in Mumbai and outlying suburbs usually come together and install Ganapati in their housing complex, holding collections within their housing society to finance the effort, with members contributing to it. Last week we chanced upon one such housing society on the second day of the festival.

We were in time for, within fifteen minutes of our paying obeisance to the deity, the society members distributed saffron bandanas to everyone in the backdrop of drummers at full tilt before carrying the idol of the deity from the platform where it was installed only a day before, to the back of a tempo carrier where women from the society had gathered to prepare the deity for immersion, having chosen to host the deity for one and half days. There after lighting lamps and placing offerings on either side of the deity society members broke into a celebratory dance to the beat of hired drummers attired in the uniform of their band, their names printed in bold letters to the back. The drummers were local Maharashtrian lads.

In the days leading up to the Ganesh festival this year it was not uncommon to find groups of local youths by railway tracks practicing drumming for the impending festival. I kept a watch for them as the train neared where they were usually to be found. They rarely missed a practice session. They were to be found on city roads as well, going their way. On one such ‘immersion day’ in Dadar, the fifth day of the festival if I recollect well, a taxi laden with drums ferrying drummers to their designated spot pulled up alongside at a traffic signal. I’m not aware of the price they charge to accompany the deity to where it is immersed.

Night had fallen by the time the tempo carrier inched its way forward. We followed behind to the sounds of firecrackers going off and youngsters from the housing society dancing merrily in the lights of the vehicle. The band of drummers would change their beat, speeding up as the dancers caught on to the rhythm, and slowing down to give the dancers some respite before upping the beats again. It would be some time in the night before they reached the spot where they would immerse the deity before returning home. A light drizzle fell outside.

Every now and then on the road outside cars made their way past us. Through the window we saw colourful idols of Ganapati resting in the arms of family members in the bucket seat. Others carried the deity in the open boot of the car, the door raised up. In the days that followed, Mumbai and the adjoining suburbs reverberated to festivities until today, the day of the last journey of the elephant-headed god.

As I sit at my desk keying in this post fairly late in the night, I can still hear the last lot of firecrackers marking the last journey of Mumbai’s favourite god while fervent devotees accompanying the deity chant ‘Phudchya Varshi Lavkar Ya’, exhorting him to ‘return soon the next year’.

September 07, 2008

Pulling for Bihar Flood Victims

Yesterday it rained heavily in Dadar. For a moment I wondered if I should return home rather than negotiate the stretch from the platform to the over-bridge and beyond.

Along the road bridge that passes by the station and flooded with rainwater is a narrow lane that exits in the direction of Lower Parel. It is squeezed between two rows of flower sellers, one with their backs to the bridge, squatting with flower baskets in front, and the other operating from tiny shops opposite where flowers stitched together hang from hooks in the ceilings.

One lot of passengers exit the station in the direction of Matunga, the other in the direction of Lower Parel, while the third disappear into the bustle of Dadar’s markets and beyond, maybe to Prabhadevi.

On rambling days rainwater can be fun. But on crowded weekdays flowing rainwater, after unsuccessfully seeking storm water drains, will have washed a hundred hurrying feet before washing mine, a service I would rather be spared of. Add to it rows of early morning customers bargaining over baskets of myriad colourful flowers squeezing the lane further, crowding the narrow passage so thick that I can barely see my own feet as I get nudged and pushed on my way out. I might’ve overlooked this as well if not for the mucky shade the rainwater takes in the lane littered with wasted flowers and leaves, turning the ground beneath my feet to a soggy carpet of squishy muck.

“It is Ganesh Chaturthi, the Municipal Corporation folks must be busy holidaying to turn up to clean this up,” I hear an elderly man say to another. Umbrellas are out. I hold mine firm as it is knocked around by other umbrellas held similarly.

“Fold your umbrella now,” a rotund gent chides me. I realize that I’m better off folding it than fight for umbrella space in a patch of sky barely visible under the rag-tag plastic shelters that the flower vendors have rigged up outside their shops along the length of the lane, narrowing it even further.

Getting off the train I had sprinted up the incline that joins a narrow corridor connecting to a large hallway. There I bumped into a large crowd of passengers sheltering in the open space that leads to the over-bridge. Having left their homes without umbrellas they stood watching the rain pour outside. Few expected it to rain today though most would’ve known that there is no knowing when clouds would open up during Ganesh Chaturthi.

“There’s no telling until the last day (11th) of the festival,” a fellow passenger had noted as we scrambled for cover from the rain the winds blew in through the door as the train slowed down approaching Dadar.

It was when I slowed down to pick my way through the crowd in the hallway that I saw a man holding a mike. A board seemingly materialized out of thin air in front of me. Curious passengers paused by the board to read the appeal written in hindi.

“Bihar pranth mey bhishan baadd ki tabahi mey juunj rahey logon ki madad mey aapna haath aagey badaye, madad karey, madad karey”.

(Extend your hand in help to the people in the state of Bihar coping with the devastation of floods, extend help, extend help).

Behind the black board four men sat by a table with receipt books. The National Railway Mazdoor Union was organizing a collection to provide financial relief to those affected in the devastating floods the likes of which Bihar had never seen in its history. Papers are reporting over 3 million displaced by the Kosi as it breached its embankment in Nepal, changing its course to what is said to be an old course it had abandoned a century ago. Not for nothing is the Kosi known as ‘The Sorrow of Bihar’!

A member of the National Railway Worker’s Union spoke into the mike calling on people to contribute generously towards the effort. They were accepting donations of Rs. 20, Rs. 50, and Rs. 100/-.

A curious crowd gathered behind the man with the mike. After one of the four men at the table issued me a receipt for my contribution and another a flyer listing the relief efforts the Union has undertaken over the years since its inception in 1954, the man holding the mike spoke to me in chaste Marathi.

“We’re the Dadar branch of the National Railway Workers Union. At other major stations respective branches are organizing the same effort.”

Yesterday was their first day of the collection. “We’ll be holding it for five days,” he said. I could barely hear him over another announcer to the other side calling on people to donate blood. The blood donation drive has been on for several months now, unconnected with the flood relief effort. Cubicles line the wall where volunteers donate blood.

Behind the man with the mike a second board lay propped up against a support, announcing the objective of the collection drive and appealing for donations to help the flood affected.

A loudspeaker partially obscured the letters NATIONAL RAILWAY MAZDOOR UNION.

In yellow and blue chalk the following message in hindi appealed to passengers.

“Baadd pidith jano ki madad karey. Bihar mein aayi bhishan baadd se pidith jano ke liye madad karey. Iss satkarye mein bhag lekar unkey jaan bachaney mein aagey baddhey.”

(Help the flood affected. Help the victims of the devastating floods in Bihar. Participate in this good work and help in saving their lives.)

If you are traveling through Mumbai and were to happen upon any relief effort being organized to help the Bihar flood victims please step up and help out. Everything counts.

Note: In the flyer one of the members of The National Railway Mazdoor Union passed me were listed the following relief efforts the National Railway Mazdoor (Workers) Union has undertaken since its inception in 1954 –

(1) Flood Relief in Raigad District – Rs. 1,52,000/-, (2) Flood Relief in Beed District – Rs. 50,000 in the year 1989-90, (3) Floods in Andhra Pradesh – Rs. 50,000/-, (4) To Kargil Martyrs – Rs. 1,20,000/-, (5) For rehabilitation of Latur earthquake victims – Rs. 1 lakh on 30-9-93, (6) Rehabilitation of Narmada Bachao Andolan – Rs. 10,000/- on 4-9-2001, (7) Orissa Cyclone Victims – Rs. 15 lakhs, (8) Rehabilitation of earthquake – affected of Gujrat – Rs. 15/- Lakh – 26-1-2001, (9) To help riot victims of Gujrat – Rs. 10 Lakh, (10) Assistance to Adivasi Children – Rs. 9 Lakh for Bore wells & Ambulance at Nandurbar, (11) To Tsunami Victims – Rs. 5 lakh to Prime Minister’s Relief Fund, Rs. 6 Lakh for rehabilitation of Kameshwaram Village, and (12) Towards relief & rehabilitation of 26th July 2005 Flood Victims in Mumbai & Konkan – Rs. 50 Lakh.