Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Ganesh Chaturthi

Happy Ganesh Chaturthi! Today Mumbaikers celebrate Ganesh’s birthday, and pink elephants are definitely on parade. The building sites are silent, the school-rooms are empty, everyone’s on holiday.

Time was, the goddess Parvati needed a guard for the door, because she wanted to have a bath. She made Ganesh out of what she had to hand - sandalwood paste, for her bath - and breathed life into him. When Shiva came home, Ganesh challenged him at the threshold, so Shiva lopped his head off. I imagine it didn’t take long, for Parvati to point out to her husband the error of his ways, but there could be no quick-fix, because the head was nowhere to be found. Shiva sent out his troops, to bring back the head of the first animal they came across facing north, the propitious direction. They came across an elephant, and the rest is Hindu history.

Bhavika-didi brings a small Ganesh to school, as a visual aid. Well, he is supposed to be the Supreme God of Wisdom, and the Remover of Obstacles, so it makes good sense. We are doing Ganesh, for our Caring Lesson. She's ready to begin, so I unwind my handbag from round Sadabh’s neck – he’s pretending to be me - and it occurs to me, not for the first time, that I am not so much an assistant, as a distraction, in the classroom. We face forwards. I love being read to.

The shops of Mumbai are bristling with statues, tiny hand-held ones for domestic use, to elephant-sized Ganeshes which need a flat-bed truck for transport. They have collections, within each community, to buy not only the statue (the big ones cost more than £200), but also the pandal, the temporary pavilion, set up for the shindig. Built of scaffolding and blue plastic sheeting, they’re swagged with organza inside, decked with garlands and strings of twinky lights to within a two-watt bulb of their lives, and they make Oxford Street at Christmas look subtly underlit.

The gods came to Shiva and Parvati, Bhavika says, to ask which among them was the chief god.
Whom do they ask?”
What do they ask him, who was chief.....”
” Bhavika’s brilliant at question-and-answer routines.

The Mankhurd children are fizzing with excitement – I’m feeling a bit giddy myself, and I don’t even know where the story’s going. They fidget, spilling out of their padmasan, then quickly scramble their limbs back into position. It could be genetic, or it could be my wonky knees, but my padmasan’s still a bit lop-sided, even after weeks of sitting on a concrete floor with only a rush mat for solace. Bhavika’s too discreet to mention it, but continues with the Ganesh-tale.
Shiva decrees that there will be a race. The gods have to go round the earth three times – or “thrice” as they are fond of saying here – and the first to report back to Shiva and Parvati will be declared the chief god. Ganesh is more than a little cheesed off, at this point, and who could blame him? His own parents, and they cut him no slack...
Ganesh Chaturthi is a moveable feast – like Easter - somewhere in the last week of August, and the first week of September. Hindus believe Ganesh bestows his presence on earth among his followers during the festival, and when he leaves again, he takes their troubles with him. No wonder they sing and dance in the streets.

Ganesh has which vahana?” asks Bhavika. Even I know the answer to this. - All Hindu gods have a vehicle, a vahana, which is unique to them. This bearer always takes the form of an animal – for example, Shiva is borne on a bull, and Parvati on a lion. Ganesh’s vahana is ............ a mouse. You can see why he might be a little put out, that the chief god is to be chosen by means of a race.

Does the mouse go fast or slow?”
“If he goes slow-slow, will Ganesh win the race, or lose?”
The situation's not looking great for Ganesh.
These birthday celebrations last ten days, and conclude with the immersion of the idols in a body of water, sea, lake or river. Ganesh is carried into the water, to send him on his way back to Mount Kailash, where his parents live in perpetual meditation. (Hindus and Buddhists make pilgrimages to Kailash, in the Tibetan Himalayas, although they are forbidden to set foot on its slopes. Out of deference to their beliefs, no other climber sets foot on the holy mountain, either.)
But, Ganesh isn’t the Remover of Obstacles for nothing. He leaps on his noble steed, the mouse, and runs rings round his Mum and Dad. Three rings, to be precise. He then says, his parents are the world, to him. Thus he fulfils the task. Shiva acknowledges not only his son’s filial devotion, but also his wisdom, and declares Ganesh the chief of the gods. The children cheer. I have tears in my eyes. (It’s like the infant school nativity: I have no defence against small people with tea-towels on their heads, nor against clever elephant-boys, it now appears.)
So, at the temple, Ganesh is always...?”

This year, having solicited the blessings of Ganesh for spiritual and material success in any auspicious undertaking, the big focus is on the environment. The Indian on the street is encouraged to enjoy an eco-friendly Ganesh Chaturthi, and the message is rammed home by politicians and soap-stars alike. Originally, when the festival was privately celebrated, at home, the models were made of clay, and would dissolve harmlessly in river or lake. For the last century, Ganesh Chaturthi has been a public event, thanks to Lokmanya Tilak, a social reformer, who wanted people of all castes to have a common meeting-place. Increased demand has meant the idols are now made of Plaster of Paris, which is slower to dissolve, and poisons the water with toxic elements. Fish die in their thousands, at the end of Ganesh Chaturthi. So, it’s go back to terra cotta, or introduce the recyclable Ganesh. The jury's still out.

Who did Ganesh show respect for?”
“We must respect our parents and elders! Whom do we respect?”
“Old men!”
says Kajal, cross-legged next to me. I think this is not going in any good direction, and, if you ask me, it’s high time Bhavika-didi got out the teaching-clock, for a bit of practice with our quarter tos and ten pasts.