Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Lord Ganesha Has Left The Building

The noise of the drums makes it impossible for me to concentrate on “Maximum City” – Suketu Mehta’s book about Mumbai, which I was trying to read in our short-term lease apartment in Mumbai. It is past 9.30pm on a Thursday night, and I am getting angrier about these noise-makers who didn’t give a hoot about noise pollution. What if someone wanted to study for exams, or had a headache? The din is getting louder by the minute.

It then occurs to me that while I am trying to read about the city in the book, the real Mumbai is unfolding right below me. I know that the sounds are a part of the Ganesh festival which our apartment community is celebrating. I decide to go down to take a quick look. I would see what the commotion was about and be right back.

When I walk out and cross two buildings to where all the action is, I see that it is sheer bedlam. Scores of people are dancing in spasms. Behind these merrymakers, men are beating numerous drums the size of half barrels. It is a procession, and there is a truck in the back, bringing up the rear for the whole frenzied mass in front. Every few minutes some shouts “Ganpathi Bappa” and the crowd shouts back “Moriyaa” in chorus.

I had often heard about how passionately the Mumbaikars celebrated Ganesh Puja. But this is my first time in the city when the festival was going on.

The truck at the rear is a brown Eicher truck with a tarp cover. It is swaddled with banners that have pictures of Ganesha and says “Vasant Oscar Ganeshotsav.” The back is open and in it is our colony’s peach- and pink-colored Ganesha idol, over five foot tall and with four hands. There is a priest sitting next to the idol, doling out tiny white spheres of sugar as prasad to all. Tonight’s procession will end with the truck driving to some nearby body of water and a few men dropping off the idol for visarjan.

As I continue watching, I see that is an underlying logic behind this bedlam. There are a few men looking at their watches, whispering to the driver, motion the drummers to keep moving. There are 12 buildings in our complex, and there seems to be an allotted time in front of each building. The route has been pre-planned to cover all buildings and there is a time-table to be adhered to.

I go close to the drummers, who are all young men sweating profusely as they work their fat drum sticks. They are enjoying themselves, trying to show off to each other. When I get real close to them, I feel the air physically reverberate to their frenzied beat.

I get close to the dancers, and see that it isn’t the chaos I had taken it to be. Boys and girls and men and women are all dancing in separate groups. Even in the frenzy, they take care not to touch each other. I every group, there are natural dance leaders. Each time a new song comes on, they dance out move or two. Their steps and the way they move their hands looks ridiculous when they do it alone. But when a dozen others join in, it is quite pleasant to watch. Many of the dancers are dancing to the audience that is walking along, laughing at their own boldness.

Women of a certain age are the only ones who are dancing with utter abandon. They aren’t out to impress anyone. Older men aren’t dancing at all, they are walking along holding the hands of very young children.

In between two buildings, a man brings out what looks like a cake box from the truck. The drumming and the music stops. From the box, he rolls out a red chain of firecrackers. I pick up the discarded box and it says that it is 1000-wala, made in Sivakasi and the MRP is 450 Rupees. He makes sure that he has everyone’s attention and he lights it with a match. Each cracker in the chain goes off making a loud racket and lightning flashes. It is several feet long, but it lasts for all of fifteen seconds. 10 US Dollars in a quarter of a minute, or 30 Rupees for each second.

The music resumes. The next song is a tune commonly associated with snake charmers. Indians can easily recognize the tune. I see one young woman mime a flute with her two hands, thumbs and pinky fingers stretched. She sways like a snake charmer. Four other young women immediately fall to their knees, and bring their hands to their heads and make a fan. They become the hooded cobras, writhing to the snake charmers’ music. This is a dance move I haven’t seen before.

I get curious about where the other music is coming from. The percussion instruments are impossible to miss, but I just cannot figure out where the tune is coming from. I peer into the truck driver’s cabin and see just the driver and another guy sitting next to him with a bored expression.

And only when I practically put my head into the passenger side window do I see that he is the one playing the music. This man is belting out all the tunes on his electronic synthesizer. He is using a Casio keyboard (the label said SA-21) that is connected to the loudspeakers strung on front of the truck.

He plays one song after another, and when the crowd recognizes each one there is a roar of approval. Most of the songs sound familiar, but I can’t identify them because they are beyond my limited Hindi songs repertoire. The man plays the keyboards with one hand, the other hand resting on the window. He isn’t glancing at the keyboards at all. I can’t ever remember seeing anyone play with such nonchalance.

Many of the men bring out currency notes, which they then circle over the heads of a drummer and then hand it to them. At one point, a man lays a 100 Rupee note on the road and makes a come-and-get-it motion to the lead drummer. The drummer is up to the challenge. Without missing his beat, he walks up and down and measures steps. Then he comes running, places his huge drum on the ground, lies over it and lets the drum roll towards the note. At the right moment, he swoops down. When he rolls back, the 100 Rupee note is sticking to his sweaty cheek. He’s picked it up without using his hands, and the audience roars its approval.

The procession moves steadily from one building to the next. Those who have been dancing are sweating and thirsty and in front of each building they ask for water. The people in the buildings rush to bring them chilled bottles of water, eager to accumulate karma points by doing good.

Out of each building I see people come and line up towards the back of the truck. All of them remove their footwear and pray to the smiling Ganesha with folded hands, heads bowed down. A few reach out to the idol, clasping and beseeching with real fervor, as if wanting to wrest all the blessings they can get before Ganesha goes away. I recall that there was a time when I used to think that prayers get answered in proportion to the fervor with which one prayed. Though I am unable to share in their faith, this display of total faith moves me as it always does.

As the truck moves past each building, I observe children, who look to be anywhere from 7 to 10 years old, pushing the Eicher truck from the back with all their might as it leaves from the front of their building. They are doing their part in helping their beloved Ganesha get to his destination, to his visarjan. It will be a year before he is back. Surely, these boys and girls know that it is a geared vehicle and that the driver is the one who moves it forward. But they push anyway.

Seeing the people praying and the kids pushing the truck, it occurs to me that I have grown far too cynical over the years. I decide to accompany the procession for a couple more buildings before I bid my good-bye to the five-foot Ganesha.


  1. small thing - it is 30 rupees for a minute :)

  2. sorry - 'is it' became 'it is', because generally the 1000 walas last for 15 minutes.

  3. @Snehil,

    Maybe I was saying 15 seconds for effect, but it definitely didn't last 15 minutes. One minute tops, I would say.