When we were little, our dad would take us on a round of the city, come Vinayaka Chaturthi, to see how many Ganeshas we could drop in on; 108 was the target.
We never managed to make even 10, and these we usually saw at the homes of relatives, but that didn’t matter. It was fun. There was no tension, no hurry. We revelled in the day.
Our Ganapati bappa tour always commenced with a hello to the reliable fellow lodged in Sivaji Ganesan’s wall in T. Nagar; it ended on Government Estate where the elephant-shape growing out of a tree seemed to be getting more and more defined each year (a proper little temple has been built there now).
Driving down to work along the beach this Vinayaka Chaturthi, it was a shock to be confronted by hordes of young men, mostly sporting saffron bandanas, some of them wearing holi-like colours on their faces, packed into tempos and small lorries, each carrying their own larger-than-life Ganesha images. They went past in a blur of poses and brilliant colours: there was even a black and gold one, as well as a Siva idol.
But far from projecting the benign, affable nature of the god we all love to love, the mood seemed menacing as the parade rushed by for the ritual immersion. It was intimidating, it made me angry.
Anger made me wonder how many of the young men in the vehicles had ever sat down quietly with a book, not to pass an exam or ‘improve’ themselves, but just for the pleasure of reading.
Maybe this is unreasonable, even illogical, but I was reacting angrily. When the anger subsided, I wondered how many of them ever spent time reflecting – on the moment, the sea, life, their actions… Vinayaka Chaturthi was always an inward-looking celebration in the city; not for us the processions and sloganeering popular elsewhere in the country.
Yes, from a couple of days earlier, the markets would buzz with people selling the festival accoutrements of umbrellas and garlands and grass and wood apple. We would examine the beady-eyed clay figures to choose the best for our homes; one of our tricks was to closely examine the little red seed-eyes (called gundumani or gulaganji or gunj or rosary pea or Abrus precatorius – take your pick) to determine which one was the best looking! The painted figures are of far more recent vintage. But once Ganesha was installed at home, a sense of peace would prevail. Frenzy is not a word we associated with the festival.
When the day of immersion arrived, people would go to the beach to bid their goodbyes; those who disliked floating dried flowers and grass and clay in the sea would slow dissolve the idol in a bucket of water, and later tip the bucket into the garden. It was that simple. And environmentally friendly too. No poisonous paints, no polluting metals. Just earth to earth.