Yesterday marked the first time in twenty-five years I missed Ganesh Chaturthi in Pune. Usually, I make it a point to spend the first couple of days in Pune before getting back to work in Mumbai, because those two days mean a lot to me. It’s not because I’m religious, I’m as much of an annoying atheist as anyone can be. It’s been one of the last family traditions I have left I try to follow. Invariably this year, that’s broken as well.
Pune transforms during Ganesh Chaturthi. The sarcastic scowls that adorn everyone’s face in Pune for pretty much the rest of the entire year are replaced by a genuine temporary smile. There’s incredible warmth in the air, which I’d like to believe is simply because of how well fed everyone is. Buying sweets becomes a gladiator like sport; there’s banter moving in very fierce currents between customers and shopkeepers. Kids line up with huge aluminum boxes, with strict and precise instructions about how many modaks they’re supposed to come back with. There’s the ever present fear that one’s family might just have to present a meal to the Lord without a decent steamed modak, which I admit is very frightening. All this, combined with Pune’s perfect almost-autumn weather makes this stretch of ten days one of those annual stretches of time you start counting down from the beginning of the year.
I was brought up really religious, but never religious in the crazy ‘you have to do this because the gods will eat you in the afterlife’ way. Father was never god-fearing, he doted on the idols he worshipped. Besides that, he was a huge on science. Which was insane. Because he wouldn’t ever endorse the superstitious bullshit that usually accompanies religion. He made a strong distinction between his faith and the influence of religion over his day to day morality. Which meant that he made sure he never made me do things for the heck of it. He’d always explain the meaning of whatever I was saying in Sanskrit and it was never an imposition for me to prove my faith. I worshipped the gods because I enjoyed it. It brought me a sense of peace. When I was really small, I had once placed pieces of egg in the ancestral idol of Ganesh in our prayer room. Mother had freaked out when she saw it, and I half expected father to lose it. I had really meant it as prasad. Father had been really pleased. He said it was one of the most sincere forms of a prayer he had seen. From that day we offered meat (basically whatever we cooked) to the gods as prasad. It was a mark of respect, more than an actual offering to them.
I also grew up obsessed with Indian mythology. When we were in the second or third standard we had one of those typical mid-term assignments where we had to read out a story to the class from our favourite books. I had picked Bheeshma, from the Amar Chitra Kathas. Now to be fair, he won over Tintin and Timmy the dog from the Famous Five series, but I genuinely saw him as a hero in the same vein as a bunch of my friends saw Batman or Superman. I loved the Mahabharata, and it’s been a wish of mine to adapt it ever since I read it as a comic book series and saw it transform on screen on Zee TV’s Mahabharata (which was just awful in every way possible). I took a special liking to Karna and Bheem and for some strange reason Drona’s son, Ashwatthama, who I always felt was wrongly represented. Keeping the religion away from them was beautiful, because then they became like any other comic books, and their stories were just fantastic.
Ganesh Chaturthi was in itself, my favourite stretch of ten days in the year. There’s an air of such purity in every house in Pune. It’s a celebration of utter avarice. My mother would clarify for months before the day vowing to ‘keep things simple’ before demolishing her previous years’s spread by adding at least two more items. Our maids ate everyday at our home often making excuses to stay past their work time, which often made me wonder how badly the other households they worked at treated them. Mother was religious depending on her mood. About a day before Chaturthi, she would declare solemnly that owing to the sudden onset of her periods, she would be unable to pray or partake in the puja. Father and I would laugh this off because neither of us had any problem breaking the old fashioned rules that demand a woman’s withdrawal from publically showing her faith during her menstrual week. I figured that my mother never liked saying that she just didn’t care for the puja directly. She needed an excuse to back it. If that’s what made her comfortable, so be it. She would channel all her energy in cooking and we’d have a feast ready on Chaturthi.
I would always wake up on Chaturthi morning to the smell of sandalwood. My father, who would usually personify sloth would be hard at work muttering his choicest complaints like ‘no one keeps things where they’re supposed to be’ or ‘So! You’ve finally woken up, when are you going to grow up and help around a bit’. I would rush out to buy durva, the grass the elephant in Ganesh supposedly likes, the singular lotus flower meant to appease him and a collection of sweets for all the guests in the evening. I’d portion the five elixirs made as a basic offering to Ganesh – milk, honey, curd, ghee and jaggery. After the praying was done we’d eat through the seven courses mother had prepared while her eyes flashed at any signs of weakness from us. After the guests who came to pay homage to our idol left, after the evening prayers were done and the kitchen had (finally) been cleared and the refrigerator was groaning under the stress of mother’s amazing cooking we’d have a dreamless sleep. Here’s the thing though, I would sleep in absolute peace.
After father passed away, I stopped praying. There was a part of me that was incredibly pissed off that a man so utterly religious could have died without any warning. It was about the same time that I grew an absolute disdain for religion. Slowly and steadily, the prayer room started catching cobwebs. The gods were cleaned not out of a sense of devotion, but like any other furniture in the house. Ganesh Chaturthi became a day to celebrate nostalgia, more than anything else. My mother and I would have a quiet meal and spend the day like any other.
In my second year of college, I joined three of my juniors (who would later become my work partners) as we shot footage through ten days in the interiors of Pune, in the heart of the city. The sheer exuberance of the celebration there is unlike anything I’ve ever seen. We shot through the late hours of the night scaling the tallest buildings around hoping to get decent footage. It was magical. For the first time I saw Ganesh Chaturthi at its most magnificent. A bunch of my batchmates from college who had badgered their parents into buying them a DSLR were around. It felt nice to belong though, as someone who had been a part of this for two decades. That’s a sense of belonging that I haven’t felt outside of Pune, because the way Chaturthi is celebrated in Pune is a very pure memory in my head.
You know, I’ve had a very weird relationship with religion. I’m as absolute an atheist as I can be right now, but I’ve seen myself transition from someone who was extremely religious, to someone who hated every aspect of religion to someone more accepting now. I feel like if you keep the absolute morality and legislation out of religion, there’s no harm seeking salvation with an idea of a creator.
It’s so weird, but I’ve spent seven years since I haven’t bothered praying. I still haven’t had a day where I’ve felt the absolute sense of peace I’ve felt during my childhood during the festival. I went to Dadar,for a meal last night (a huge part of Mumbai’s Maharashtrian community lives there) to salvage some of the homesickness I had since morning and it felt nice.
I saw a kid carry an idol home on the streets last night. He had such a familiar looking glint in his eye while his father walked alongside, reminding him to be careful where he walked. It felt like home. Simpler times, way more heartfelt.