Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Govinda from a bubble

"Ap-pa-aa-aa-a", drawled my daughter in her newly acquired singsong accent that we have decided is a cross between American friends past and South Indian grandparents present, "Do you know whose birthday it is on Thursday?" 

Crap!  Did I forget the wife's big day?  Nah, that's still a few months away.  Parents, in-laws, brother? ... No, no, nope.  "Who?" I ask finally.  "I don't know, some little baby's", she says impatiently, brushing aside her own question as if were a needless distraction.  "The baby likes to eat a lot of cream.  So on Thursday, he is going to climb to the top, and break the pot and eat up all the cream.  Isn't that funny?"

Ah, that kind of birthday.  It is Krishna Janmashthami, beginning of the much anticipated 'festival season'.  Govinda Aala is everywhere in Bombay.  Every other street seems to have some Govinda related event scheduled.  There is a Sukhwinder show right near my neighbourhood I am told.  Wherever I look there are hoardings.  Advertising events, wishing people well (I might be able to write 'shubheccha' in Marathi myself).  But most of all, hoardings of local politicians - mammoth boards showing some supposed 'leader', inevitably clad in white, his plumpness contrasting nicely with the emaciation of people he supposedly leads, smiling ingratiatingly as he looks down upon the snarled traffic below with suspiciously bloodshot eyes.

I live in Parel, which is, I gather, close to being the Marathi heartland of Bombay.  Govinda celebrations being something of a Marathi working class tradition, I get to see a lot of action right under my nose.  It was late in the night as I was getting back home this past Sunday when we ran right into one of the 'mandals'.  One minute the car was cruising like you only can in the middle of the night in Bombay, and the next minute we had screeched to a near complete halt.  Tens, maybe hundreds of young men and women were walking about purposefully, carrying out godly duties at an ungodly hour.  The epicenter seemed to be a small by-lane which was already decked up in colorful lights, twinkling with an unsynchronized randomness that was positively dizzying.  Most of these people were on foot, but many were on motorbikes - two, three, four to a bike.  And no one was talking.  Everyone was shouting.  Not in anger or frustration, mind you.  Just excitement.  The energy, the adrenalin was everywhere.  Particularly with those on the poor, overloaded motorbikes.  A new surge of adrenalin seemed to charge up their bodies as soon as they were astride, as if the bike were a docking station sending power surges through the riders' rumps.  They would shout to each other, to random people they recognize across the street.  They would gesticulate, look wildly to and fro as if desperately seeking Krishna, and laugh for no apparent reason.

It was an upside down world.  Our car was a small dollop of milk, drifting slowly in a sea of saffron.  Saffron was in the flags, the clothes everyone was wearing, in the towels and shawls visible on most shoulders.  Some of these were plain.  Others had a Tiger painted on them.  Still others, a sketch of Balasaheb, yet others still a simple bow-and-arrow, the election symbol of the Sena.  A half truck passed by, one of those U-Haul variety.  It was open in the back.  And stuffed inside it were maybe a hundred more young men in various stages of delirium.  There was a row of men sitting on the truck bed, their legs hanging over the edge.  The rest were all standing stuffed worse than the 7:40 local.  And no one seemed to mind it one bit.  They were joshing each other, laughing, singing, and generally having a good time, even as they moved along in a fashion that wouldn't have been out of place at Auschwitz.  It was a frenzy, and just for a moment, I am ashamed to admit it, I felt scared.  Here was this crowd, energized by some power unseen, all acting in seeming randomness, but somehow connected to each other in a giant plan.  A surge of sheer energy, a tide of govindas, an ocean of bow-and-arrows, a sea of saffron.  An moving slowly through them - a half-pint, bespectacled, bookish, banker, tired to the bones, returning home with a wife and two sleeping children.  I reached out slowly in the dark and locked the car doors.  As I said, I am not proud of it.

Dahi Handi is what they call it here in Bombay.  The celebration of the birth of Lord Krishna by breaking a pot of buttermilk and cream.  In years past, the pot would be hung by the local organizers on a rope at about the height of a two storey building.  Groups of young men (the 'govindas') would form human pyramids with no other structural support, as one their troupe would attempt to climb to the top and break the handi.  Many groups of govindas would participate and the winner would take home a nice, though by no means princely, prize.  Of late of course, like much in India, the Dahi Handi tradition has gone to excess.  The handi is now hung, I am told, at about the height of an eight storey building.  Govindas practice for weeks and months before the D-day (where D here stands for ... you know.)  Insurance companies offer policies to govindas that might break their arms and legs in the process of climbing to such great heights.  The prize money has become enormous, sometime amounting to lakhs of rupees.  And the politicians have come into the act.  There are BJP organized events, and Shiv Sena organized events, and all sorts of variants. 

At the heart of it all, though, is the spirit of the people.  The working class of Bombay.  Having a whale of a time, while living in their cramped quarters.  Laughing as they paddle through waterlogged streets in makeshift boats during the monsoon.  Finding a way to smile through adversity.  Dahi Handi is their festival, and I can only watch it from my bubble, through the windows of my car.

Janmashthami is a much more sober affair in South Indian households.  My memories of it are mostly about the kolams that my mother would draw outside the house that evening.  She would draw tiny baby footsteps that would lead from the outside all the way to the puja room, representing the baby lord entering our home.  My brother and I would keep checking the size of our feet against baby Krishna's prints and wonder at how how small a baby would need to be to have such tiny feet.  My mother would make seedai and poli.  We would eat, pray and go to sleep.  Tame?  Sure.  But I never had to take out an insurance policy against seedai related injuries.

So for all those govindas out there, who would be traveling in crowded trucks later today to break dahi handis - Here is wishing you all the best!  May you break every handi and none of your limbs.  May the human pyramid hold up.  May you climb the eight stories, standing on the shoulders of your brothers.  May you taste the sweet buttermilk of success.  May the lord Krishna bless you all.

Govinda aala re aala, zara matki sambhal brij baala!


  1. Thought about writing a post on this topic meself. You beat me to it.

  2. It seems that Mumbai has much more zeal and enthusiasm in breaking the malai handi's more than anything else..!!

    Sure we used to do the same and make a human pyramid in our good ol' school days but surely it wasn't as high as any 8 storied building..but that was fun..!!

    There are plenty more festivals in the offing, so be prepared for plenty of such shocks...welcome to INDIA..!!

  3. I am starting to see the true meaning of 'festival season' Nishant. Ganapathi is on now, and is everywhere you look. And it is going to be one lord or the other for the next two months it looks like!