Once Upon an India — reminiscence at Ganesh Chaturthi

…and then in the middle of the school year, just like that, it would be time for the festival of the Elephant-headed God!

A multitude of kids (we must have been not less than 50 in number) would start a collection drive to buy our very own Ganesha. The plan was simple: Come home from school, throw the school bag away, gather in the tiny little playground between two rows of houses, and make a rough plan about who would ask how much money from which house.

We seemed to know how much each uncle/aunty would give, which Anna (Bhaiyya) or Akka (Didi) needed a bit of pestering, which house had the most generous adult, and who was the kanjoos. And the cardinal rule: Never ask from your own house. Send your best friend. Your parents will want to make a good impression.

And then the drive would begin. Each day we would take stock to see if we had collected enough money for our very own bit of divinity. And soon a day would arrive when we had enough money.

This is where the adults would come in. Some indulgent uncle from the locality would offer to take one of us to buy the idol, while he was buying one for his own house. And off we would go -a whole bunch of us – one fine morning, all bathed and clean, giggling with excitement to get our very own Ganesha idol, which would be consecrated at the corner of the street for the next ten days or so.

Once the idol was bought (there was never enough money — what with us changing our minds so many times over which idol we wanted — that some parent or the other would chip in with the last few rupees) and properly consecrated at the street corner on a dais that some of the older kids had spent the previous night building out of benches, planks of wood, a study table borrowed on the sly from someone’s house (much to the chagrin of the parents in that house, who knew that their child had bid goodbye to schoolwork for the next 10 days or so), we would all bring out chairs from our own houses, place it before the dais and stare at the idol in a happy trance at a task well accomplished.

Soon, it would be evening and time for the evening pooja. An uncle mostly someone from the locality who was familiar with the rituals would perform the pooja, after which the goodies would be distributed. Often, some family or the other observing the festival would make a “little extra” for the “two-legged monkeys” or “baala illada kothigalu” (monkeys without a tail) (as children were referred to in those politically incorrect days) and somehow this ‘little extra’ was always enough for many of us to go to bed without eating dinner because we were just too full.

Between the evening pooja and bedtime came some of the most exciting evenings of my/our childhood where all rules were broken and curfew time was ignored because evening after evening was spent putting up cultural programmes before indulgent parents who also ignored their regular chores and sat there to watch their kids do mono-acting, mimicry and belt out songs from films.

The high point of each evening was a short play put up by different groups of kids.

Now, what did a bunch of convent-educated, English-speaking, random children know about religion? We just dug deep into the resources we had. The plays would come from fairy tales and comic books. Cinderella, Snow White, Hansel and Gretel rubbed shoulders with Jataka tales and stories from the Panchatantra, night after night after night for 10 nights. We used our own clothes, borrowed stuff from our parents, neighbours, ransacked wardrobes belonging to friends’ parents, and made pretty clothes to fit princesses, children lost in the woods, evil witches, wise kings, lions, bears, and trees.

And then came the day of the festival. And along with it the most-believed, the dearly held, non-negotiable superstition in the Kingdom of Children. “You see 100 Ganesha idols on Ganesh Chaturthi, you will score 100 marks in Mathematics.” No one knew when and where this belief emerged, but we held on to it for dear life. Who wanted to study when seeing 100 Ganeshas would do the trick?

Early bath, early breakfast, all ready by 9 am, a bunch of kids (again no less than 50) would gather on the street corner and plan out the routes to our 100 marks in Mathematics. The plan would involve dividing ourselves into smaller groups and knocking on random doors to find out if they had a Ganesha idol at home. If the answer was yes, we would barge into the house invited or not and go and take a good look at the idol before bidding goodbye and going to the next house.

That was all. As simple as that. Knock on a door. Ask: Ganesha Koodusiddhiraa? (Have you consecrated the Ganesha at home). And walk in, spend 30 seconds looking at the Elephant God and walk out, with the complete belief that you are one step closer to that elusive 100 percent in maths. If some rare family observing the festival found this either amusing or cute, we would given some sundal or laddoo or modak which we would happily munch as we went to the next house.

We would periodically assemble every two-three hours to take stock of how many Ganeshas we had seen and who was closest to acing the maths exam in the next term.

And then there was the day of the immersion. This was again where adult assistance and supervision was required. An adult would perform the necessary pooja and take the idol to the nearby lake (we had a little lake in the neighbourhood park) for immersion. The less than 10-minute walk would take close to an hour with an adult carrying the idol in his arms and a bunch of kids dancing on the streets like there was no tomorrow. No one would want the festivities to end and one child or the other would request the adult to take a detour and walk through this street or that, until a point when everyone would be tired enough to want to get to the lake. Once at the park, a quick ritual would be performed and the adult would walk into the knee-deep water to immerse the idol while the children stood on the edge a wee bit sad, a wee bit tired, a wee bit happy, and already making plans for the next year.

This was how it was, as far back as I can remember right up to the time I went to college.

And then there was a rath.

And a ride that slashed its way through the heart of India dividing us into religions we did not know, showing us differences we did not feel, breaking us into groups that we never understood, showing us fault lines, we never knew existed – And thereby replacing the India we knew with the India we would have rather not known.

An India we lost, so easily, so casually, so simply that we did not even realize it was gone before it was gone.

(Asma is a sometimes writer, a constant fighter, a disobedient dreamer)



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