Friday, September 5, 2008

Ganpati Bappa Morya!

Powai Lake’s lit like a Christmas tree. The approach road’s jammed, strings of headlights tailing off into the distance. Fireworks pepper the sky, and the night pulses with the beat of drums. Ganesh is going home.

One and a half days after Hindus welcome the figure of Ganesh into their homes, with special prayers and rituals, he’s carried out to be sent on his way again, by being symbolically immersed in a body of water. The enormous public Ganeshes, in communal pandals, remain in place until the end of Sarvajanik, after the full ten days’ celebrating. So, tonight is family night.

The family go to the idol-maker, to collect their Ganesh, and pay him in cash, wrapped in a mango leaf. The journey home’s precarious, because if the idol’s mishandled, and chipped or damaged in any way, the celebrations are over for the family, for that year. It’s with considerable relief, all round, then, that Ganesh is safely installed in the home, duly anointed with kumkum and presented with the traditional brass tray of fruit and vegetables, the PhalavaLi.

From our apartment, we walk round the block, into the centre of Powai, where it’s business as usual. People are shopping at D-Mart and Crossword, Papa John’s Pizza restaurant’s full, the paan-seller’s got his circle of punters, like every other night. It’s hard to find a pandal. “Rich people, no interested in Ganesh festival,” says Monu flatly. By the lake, where the labourers live in the no-lakh housing estate, there’s a pandal every hundred yards, so there seems some justification in Monu’s dismissive categorizing.

We leave the shops and restaurants, and walk down to the lakeside, following the sound of drums and singing. By the edge of the water, it’s like a funfair. Tuk-tuks pull up at the kerbside, and whole families spill out, in all their sequinned finery. Further along, in the lamplight, peering through a windscreen, we make out Ganesh sitting on Grandpa’s knee, in the passenger seat of the family car, Dad driving, and Mum, Grandma and the kids crammed in the back seat. The air’s electric with excitement and incense.

We’re a bit diffident about intruding – we’re not going anywhere unnoticed, not only do we have radio-actively pale faces, but we’re just about the only people not wearing orange – so we teeter diffidently at the entrance. Within a heartbeat, we’re hailed like long-lost relatives, with smiles and waves, and pulled inside. Within a minute, our hands are full of food.

Special dishes are prepared for this evening, and carried with the idol to the water’s edge, where final ceremonies are performed. Once food which has been offered to the deity, it’s considered to contain his blessing, and is distributed to share that blessing. Prasad. I have in my cupped hand sweets like tiny asteroids, shredded coconut, rice, shards of jaggery. Mr Roland, more conservative, accepts a green lemon.

Definitely spectators here, we’re longing to take photographs, but politeness stays our hands. After the fourth family take our photos, though – with or without the baby – we decide this can be a reciprocal arrangement, and Lord Lichfield gets the camera out.

Lining up by the water, a row of men - smooth-cheeked youths and grizzled elders alike - wearing orange or yellow t-shirts and loincloths. They stand, fidgeting on the uneven shingle in their bare feet, their chapals abandoned on the rocks. A family approaches, singing and chanting. “Ganpati Bappa...” shouts the man of the house. “Morya!” his family respond. “Mangal Moorti...” he calls. “Morya!” they finish. O Father Ganesh, come early again next year. It’s quite catching.

The Ganesh is handed over, on his plinth, to two of the bearers in the queue. Between them, they carry him to the lake, and one of them swims out, backwards, with the bobbing idol, so the family, on the shore, can watch their Ganesh enter the water. When the swimmer’s out of his depth, he lifts up the Ganesh, then plunges him underwater, then again, then again. When he immerges the idol for the last time, he puts a foot on him, to keep him submerged, until the lake seeps into the plaster. Ganesh, water-logged, is gone for good, thus safely on his way home to Kailash. The swimmer does a fast crawl back to shore, where he recovers the plinth, and deposits a symbolic nugget of river mud in its centre, before returning it to the family, who bear it off triumphantly.

The swimmers are paid, individually, by the family whose Ganesh they carry. They wait in patient line, but if a family tarries too long, chanting and waving and video-ing the departure of their Ganesh, the queue of porters gets restive, and encourages them to move on with unmistakable hand gestures and equally unequivocal unholy words.

We stand and watch, as family after family arrive, for the send-off. There’s no organised order of play, as far as we can determine, but the crowds seem to flow into order accidentally, like the Mumbai traffic at a crossroads.

An objective onlooker can’t help but see an element of competition, here, as neighbouring families strive to out-Ganesh one another, keeping up with the Kumars. It’s not a phenomenon exclusive to India, think of the flashing reindeer and inflatable snowmen which proliferate on English lawns in December. Not on the street where I live, obviously. Nor you.

On the way out again, we pass waves of new arrivals, and collect smiles and handshakes, as well as a palmful of fruit salad. Mr Roland declines, but I munch my way through chunks of apple and unpeeled lime, dotted with bright pippins of pomegranate. I have a furtive ball of modak, steamed rice dumpling, screwed into a tissue in my handbag, because I can’t swallow it, but I’m up for chopped fruit, any day.

At the entrance, there’s a right song and dance. A Ganesh has arrived, in a lorry, framed by fronds of palm, accompanied by a band of drummers and musicians, and an entire dynasty doing jigs and reels in its wake. Their painted statue is too beautiful – and surely too costly – to dissolve in the lake, but the belief is that Ganesh takes all your worries with him, so his loss is ultimately your gain. And there’s always next year, to look forward to.