Monday, September 27, 2010

Boon, Please!


Last week saw the culmination of one of the highlights of my year – Ganesh Chaturti, the 10 day period during which Ganesh, or Ganpati - son of Shiva and Parvati, brother of Kartikeya - is fêted, fawned over, appeased, beseeched, and eventually immersed.

Ganesh Chaturti, following close on the heels of Ramzan and Paryushan, heralds the beginning of an extended festive season. The city shrugs off the scars that are annually inflicted by the monsoons and puts on a brighter face. All manner of buntings and fairy lights are dusted off and displayed, loud and tuneless music emanates from every street corner, and crowds duly fall into orderly lines outside the main sites of worship.

Say what you will about the commercialization of this festival – pandals that seek sponsorship from construction companies and patronage from dubious politicians, cash donations worth hundreds of millions of rupees that bypass regulations, plaster-of-paris idols that grow larger every year and contaminate water bodies, Bollywood stars who capitalize on the occasion to drum up publicity for movies that aren’t worth watching, the almost complete departure of the celebrations from their community-centric roots – it is still a collective outpouring of devotion that has the power to take one’s breath away.

It is possible to argue that the millions who visit Ganesh pandals have misplaced their faith. After all, there is no way to establish that this idol (and not another ‘Raja’ a few hundred meters away) has the power to grant one’s heart’s desire. Any skeptic will assert that self-fulfilling prophecies, not divine intervention, are to be credited for the dreams that do come true. But these are arguments that would ring hollow when confronted by the sight of devotees at Lalbaug standing in queues that run kilometers long. They come from around the country, they come to seek blessings and give thanks, they even come from different faiths, they come because it would be inconceivable not to.

One may not understand it, but it is impossible to begrudge Ganesh the affection he commands. Shiva is majestic but frightening and temperamental, Rama is virtuous and admirable, Brahma is remote, but Ganesh is a god to love. He enjoys all of Krishna’s accessibility and popularity, without having to bear the burdens of wiliness, political astuteness, and a checkered romantic past. He is rotund, calm, beatific – slow to anger, quick to remove all obstacles to success. My community made a break with Hinduism centuries ago – but we have yet to renounce ‘Ganpati,’ who is invoked before beginning all journeys and business ventures.

I may not wait in line to see him, I do not ask him to intercede in matters on my behalf (well, maybe that one time), but I do make it a point to join the throng that bids Ganesh farewell every year. I do this because it is fun, because it is a childhood ritual that I am yet to tire of, because it is an excuse to eat junk food while standing in the middle of the street. Mostly, though, I do this because it is one of the few times that I truly share an experience with my fellow city-dwellers - we are all happy to welcome Ganpati, and we are all sad to see him go.  

I am not sure whether there is such as thing as a ‘spirit’ of this city. I do not believe that the 16 million of us are tied together by some kind of mystic, ineffable chord. Bombay is a city that needs shared spaces, but more importantly, a shared love affair. Who better than an elephant-headed, boon-granting, rodent-borne god, enshrined in pandals large and small, to create this meeting ground? 

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