All through my childhood, my parents and I have had a tradition of spending the first day of Ganpati at my maternal grandparents’ home along with the entire extended maternal side of the family. So when my mami told me that this year is the fiftieth year of the family Ganpati and insisted that we travel to Bombay for the special celebrations to mark the occasion, it was with great regret that I had to tell her we couldn’t possibly come. Our conversation stayed with me for a long time after though, as I found myself reminiscing and reliving my memories of Ganpati festivities down the years.
My grandparents lived in Girgaum, an old predominantly Maharashtrian part of South Bombay where traditions are observed and festivals celebrated in the old way even today. The bylanes of this area are extremely narrow and most of the homes are set in chawls where doors are closed only at night and neighborhood children run in and out of each other’s houses as part of their games. Life in these parts is basically lived like a goldfish in a bowl, with the neighbors behaving like and demanding to be treated as a part of the family. (As an occasional visitor from the suburbs of Bombay where folks value their privacy a wee bit more, I found this aspect of Girgaum life fascinating and a whole lot more fun than life back home, but couldn’t imagine living that way on a regular basis even then.) Ganpati was thus celebrated not just with the extended family, many of the neighbors and their children joined in the fun too.
The excitement of Ganpati would begin on the earlier day itself. Many families brought their Ganpatis home a day in advance and engaged bandwallas to accompany the deity home. Since there were a couple of idol-makers just below my grandparents’ house, the deafening noise coming in from below set the right mood for the evening when we would start our own preparations to welcome the elephant god home the next day.
Unlike most families who erect a new makeshift thermacol or paper Ganpati pandal every year, our family had a beautiful wooden one, shaped like a small mandir with delicate engravings on all sides. This pandal was kept in storage throughout the year and taken out and assembled a day before Ganpati. My mamas would scout around the Girgaum market for fresh flowers all afternoon and after an early dinner all of us, young and old, would gather in the hall to assemble the pandal and decorate it. My mamas, younger mausi and their friends would do the actual decoration, while my mother, grandparents, and other elders sat around chatting and gossiping. Being the baby of the family and very fond of decorating, I would run around giving out instructions that were almost always ignored by everybody.
The next morning, my nani would wake us up at dawn and hurry us along to get ready in time for the pooja. At around eight, the male members of the family and a motley crowd of children would go down to bring the Ganpati idol home from the shop downstairs. My nana who would be carrying the Ganpati would be barefoot and dressed in a traditional blue silk dhoti, white cap and gold chain and rings. (On this and other festive days, my nani would take out his gold chain and rings from the cupboard and hand them to him, only to take them back from the poor man at the end of the day.)
At the idol shop, he would carefully place the Ganpati idol on a decorated wooden platform, reverently placing a gold chain and silk cloth around his neck. A cry of ‘Ganpati Bappa’ would be heard from one of my mamas and the rest of us would enthusiastically reply ‘Morya’, followed by the traditional chant of ‘Morya Re Bappa Morya Re’ to the accompaniment of tinkling sounds of the ‘jhaanjh’, a delightful musical instrument played by simply beating the metal ends together to keep time in bhajans.
The women resplendent in their shimmering new silk saris and jewelery, each trying to outdo the other, would be waiting at the doorstep to welcome us. They would wash the Ganpati’s feet in milk and perform the aarti before we were allowed to enter the house and install the Ganpati in his rightful place under the pandal. The priest would also be waiting to guide my nana for the ‘sthapana’ pooja under the watchful eye of my nani. The first aarti would immediately follow the pooja.
The aarti was one of the high points of the Ganpati festival for me. Performed twice a day, once in the morning and later in the evening, everybody in the family is expected to participate in this musical ritual. There is a large pool of aartis that can be sung and apart from a couple of mandatory ones, each family picks and chooses the ones it likes best. The Ganpati aartis are somewhat different from other traditional aartis in the sense that each has a specific melody and demands some ability to carry a tune from the singer.
When a large group of people engage in this activity the results can be frequently hilarious, unless it is a particularly musical family one is talking about. In our case, the aarti usually went off smoothly, although there were a few places where somebody stumbled leading to giggles among the younger crowd and frowns from the older. The aartis were always my favorite part of the festival. Even today, I can’t help humming along when I hear one of them. I derive a strange sense of strength and reassurance from these songs, apart from the whiff of childhood they bring back.
The menfolk lazed around after the aartis, their job temporarily done, while the women bustled about getting the afternoon meal ready. The high note of the Ganpati meal is traditionally the ‘modak’, a sweet dish Lord Ganesha is said to be incredibly partial to. (Unfortunately, only devotees with a sweet tooth end up savoring this delicacy in the name of the Lord these days.) A group of eight to ten ladies would gather in a large circle to prepare the modaks. There would be a lot of goodnatured gossiping and teasing going on and elderly ladies would frequently call upon us youngsters to sit and learn the art of making a perfect round modak. (A casual onlooker might dismiss it as a simple enough task, but I defy anyone to turn out a good modak at first try. I know I struggled for years trying to make one but always gave up after the first unsuccessful attempt. Note to self – try one in the privacy of the home this year.)
It was always a mystery to me how so many people gathered together for the Ganpati in my grandparents’ home every year. There would usually be more than fifty people for the afternoon meal alone. Granted we were a big family, but why did the entire extended family choose to have a common Ganpati at my grandparents’ home instead of starting one in their own homes? Many Maharashtrian families these days have a Ganpati in each nuclear branch of the family, while some have a rotating Ganpati tradition where different sections of the family take turns hosting the festival each year.
Why were things different in our family then? I suspect it was because of my nani. My nana was the one everybody praised, the genial generous man with a heart of gold, but wasn’t it my nani who worked tirelessly behind the scenes to support his generous nature? Wasn’t she the one welcoming everybody home, giving out refreshments and making small talk, making sure the food was to everyone’s liking and that everybody had eaten well? And wasn’t she the one soothing ruffled feathers when some obnoxious person took offence despite her best efforts?
My nani died a couple of years ago. She would have been overjoyed to be a part of this year’s fiftieth Ganpati celebrations in her home. I did some calculations. Our family must have started the Ganpati tradition in 1957. My mother was born in 1958 and she is the second child. Given the frequency with which women had children in those days, I assume my nani must have been married a couple of years before 1957. So she was a newly married bride, perhaps with the first child dangling from her waist when the first Ganpati came home. Her mother-in-law would have been in charge then, but as the eldest daughter-in-law, my nani would have been expected to play a major role too.
What a broad spectrum of experiences she had had from 1957 to 2005! She had given birth to three daughters and finally the much-awaited and prayed-for son. She had seen her children grow up and do well in life. As part of a business family, she had watched her husband withstand the pain of losing loved ones over bitter business battles. She had bid her three daughters a fond farewell and welcomed a daughter-in-law home. She was also unfortunate enough to outlive her husband and be forced to single-handedly endure the terrible sorrow of losing a daughter as well as the sad ignominy of being ignored in her own home.
Yet, she also had the satisfaction of playing with her grandsons (sons of a son, hence all the more beloved in her twisted outlook) and attended a grand-daughter’s marriage just a couple of months before her death. All the while, the one constant thread running through the different chapters of her life remained the Ganpati, coming home year after year to bless her family. I think I can now understand the rush of emotions on her face when she welcomed him home every year.