Sunday, September 14, 2008

Anyone for Prasad?

If you’re wanting to give blood, or get your hearing tested in Mumbai, now’s the time. I don’t quite understand the link, myself, but the ten-day Ganesh Birthday Bash has community medicine among its many more openly festive traditions. Imagine celebrating Christmas by having your blood pressure checked (not a bad idea, now I come to think of it....), or popping into the clinic to get your personal plumbing MOT’d, before buying your Easter eggs . The roads here are strewn with mobile health units, which Monu has added seamlessly to his All-Mumbai Tour: “Madame, you know clinic?” He takes one hand off the wheel, to direct our attention to the right. “This eye clinic.” Sure enough, there’s the camper-van, with the hand-cranked ophthalmoscope and the reading-charts. They’re probably all in Hindi script, anyway, so I wouldn’t even be able to read the top line. It occurs to me, that I can’t read the top line in English, even when it’s always a “Y” - thus myopia gives me racial inclusion.

Day 10, and the community-Ganeshes are taken for a final triumphant procession, before the aquatic farewell. For the past week and a half, families have been taking their small domestic Ganpati to immerse in the lake – I say “small” – some of them are bigger than the oldest child in the family – but, for the grand finale, the municipal Ganeshes, from the local pandals, take centre stage. Day 11’s the send-off. Except, it’s pouring down.

In England, we do wellies and umbrellas; at a push, waders and sou’westers. Here, rain-evaision is an art-form, requiring much ingenuity and no expense. There’s the ever-popular chef’s hat carrier-bag on the head, which you would clip a four-year-old for trying. There’s the casual newspaper draped from ear to ear – Look, Mum! No hands! - Not for blondes, this one, unless you want yesterday’s headlines inked into your barnet for a week or so... A much-favoured resort is the ubiquitous orange cloth. As soon as you stop at traffic lights, someone appears at your window, flogging a pile of what look like tea-towels. For some reason, the orange ones are always on top. “Is cloth for car,” says Monu. Is also cloth for rainhat, as far as I can see. I ask, what they cost. “This man say, ten and fifteen rupee, and you say six and eight rupee, and he say, ok.” THAT’s how you barter. Well, you may do, not me. I just go, “Fifteen rupees, ok, here you are,” thereby ruining the whole system. They like taking your money, but they’re aggrieved at the lack of harangue, which is all part of the process. I’m not built for the east.

My far-and-away winner, in the rainwear category, is the bloke nipping in front of the simmering lanes of traffic, just as the lights turn green. Wearing a dhoti (like Gandhi) and a polyester shirt (not like Gandhi), he steps barefoot across the puddled tarmac, holding a banana-leaf over his head for an umbrella. I’m too busy applauding, to get the camera out. Sorry.

Armed with an umbrella a-piece, we stroll down to the lake, where all-Powai and his wife - and the kids, and grandma, supported by a string of nephews and neighbours - are singing Ganesh home. The air’s heady with incense, and the drums call to each other, from truck to truck. Everyone appears to be wearing orange, although there’s so much colour powder in the air, they may well have set out in white. The jasmine-and-rose-flavoured Tide’s going to have all on, getting this little lot clean, tomorrow. As we turn off the road onto the track leading to the water’s edge, a man dips his forefinger into his bag of powdered dye, and paints a red stripe on our foreheads, wishing us a happy Ganesh Chathurti. We feel very welcome and participative, if a little conspicuous with our pasty faces.

Ganeshes are arriving in tuk-tuks, in the family car, on the heads of believers, in horsedrawn Cinderella-carriages, strung with fairy-lights. Communities hire lorries to carry Ganesh – and themselves – to the waterside. We see statues as small as tea-cups, and others as large as grown elephants. Everywhere, lit trays of incense and spices. A man beckons, and shows us what to do: you take a pinch of spice, scatter it over the statue, pass your hand through the flame, and then over your face and hair. Excellent, have a piece of Prasad.

Tonight, even though four policemen are sitting on plastic chairs, having a bit of a picnic, there’s some evidence of crowd control. A rope cordons off one side of the thoroughfare, to separate arrivals and departures along the spit, and speed up the throughput. At home, there’d be a row of temporary posts in the ground, to hold the rope, but here the job’s done by a team of ladies in black and white saris, with yellow basketball caps. Unlike the policemen lining the route of royal processions, in England, who have to face the crowds and miss the fun, these ladies have prime viewing spots, for the parade of Ganeshes, making their final journey to the water. Parties start arriving as soon as it goes dark, at about seven, then there's an unbroken flow of celebrants, until the small hours. It’s a long night, for the rope-gang.

Another length of womanned rope holds back the crowds from the very edge of the lake. Only the families, whose Ganeshes are finally reaching the water, are allowed into the final pen. Before we reach the rope, we’re ushered in, even though we’re clearly Ganesh-less. Positive racism, I think.

This time, instead of the queue of swimmers, the boys in the orange t-shirts are crewing two rafts. The land-crew collect the Ganesh from the family, and carry it to the raft. Some need two porters, others, four. A huge Ganesh arrives, and no fewer than ten men shuffle it across the landing stage. We wonder whether the raft will capsize, but it doesn’t.

The raft is poled out a few yards offshore, and the statues are slipped into the water, one by one. The smaller ones are dunked in and out, one, two, three, by the kneeling porter, before being dropped into the lake. The boys lift a large Ganesh over the side of the raft, and he slips from their grasp, and plunges underwater, without ceremony, irrecuperably. The watching family are clearly disconcerted, and stop their chanting mid-morya. When the next hefty statue's shuffled overboard, two boys slide into the water to receive him, so that due dunking can be observed.

We duck under the cordon, to head for home. It takes us a while, to find the road again, because we have to stop to shake hands or say “Namaste!” every two paces. When we reach the shadow of our building, the heavens open, so we do need our umbrellas, after all.
At the lakeside, the festivities are clearly undampened. From our window, we can’t smell the incense, but the pipes and drums and firecrackers will be keeping sleep at bay, yet a while. Tomorrow, it’ll be business as usual, but for tonight, there’s still time for another round of Ganpati Bappa – Morya!