Sunday, September 26, 2010

In the shadow of Lalbaugcha Raja

All is quiet tonight.  No drums to jerk me awake in the middle of the night with their strident call.  No people dancing in the streets, sloganeering spontaneously.  No firecrackers, bursting in the distance, sending a disquieting chill down my spine for a split second before I realize their ritualistic origin.  The sky stays stubbornly dark.  No breaking out into splashes of shimmering light, no shooting stars in reverse.  All is quiet tonight.  It is deafening.

The elephant lord Ganesha is the first to be invoked in every Hindu puja, the first to be remembered before starting any auspicious task.  It is a boon he received from his repentant father Lord Shiva who had decapitated him in a fit of anger, and whose soldiers in turn decapitated an elephant (the 'first sleeping living creature you find') thus creating this uniquely identifiable God, even by the standards of the gloriously creative pantheon of Hindu Gods.  Ganesha is also the first God in a meta sort of way.  As the festival season gets underway in India, Ganesh Chaturthi is the first one that really gets it all kicked off.  Yes, I do recognize that I had only recently blogged about Krishna Janmashthami which clearly preceded Ganesh Chaturthi by a few weeks.  I have no idea why that is, so I am going to completely ignore it.

Ganesh Chaturthi starts, somewhat oddly, on the fourth day of a lunar month, and ends ten days later on the 14th day of the month.  Why this odd choice of dates, I have asked myself.  It is as if all the round dates were taken and Ganesh had to settle for the middle seats in the seating chart of Hindu festivals.  Anyway, this past Wednesday was the 14th day.  The day when the Lord is sent ritually on his way back home to Kailash mountain.

These are ten days when Mumbai creates her most iconic imagery (and yes, this is a context where calling the city Bombay would be truly discordant).  Ganesh 'mandals' come up everywhere in the city.  Communities set up the Lord in the most extraordinary poses, deck him up in the most ornate ways.  By far the most popular, the most visited Ganesh mandal in the city is Lalbaugcha Raja.  For seventy five years (since 1934), Lalbaugcha Raja has presided over central Mumbai, with each year bringing in ever greater crowds of devotees.  For almost its entire history, the Raja has been in blue collar heartland of Mumbai, the land of the mill workers.  In these last few years though, things have changed.  Gone are the mill-lands.  Disappearing rapidly are the local blue collar and lower middle class workers who formed the soul of the Raja.  Much in this area is being replaced, rather rapidly, by newly constructed luxury residential complexes.  It is in one of these residential complexes, I am afraid to say, that I now live.

I first sensed Lalbaugcha Raja this year the same way I sense almost everything in this city - through the traffic patterns.  I usually take 40 minutes on my commute back home.  Almost all of it, I spend calling people as the driver solves grander puzzles like 'how to get there from here before the million other people who are all trying to do the same thing?'  Usually, I don't notice much outside the window at this time of the evening (yeah yeah, I know - I need to smell the roses.  Have them sent home please.)  One fine day, I realized one hour into the drive, that things were taking unusually long.  Wonderingly, I looked out the window.  And I never looked back.

To say that Lalbaugcha Raja is popular is like saying Bill Gates can afford to eat out a bit more.  It is like all of Mumbai is here for ten days.  The lines, winding and re-winding onto themselves, go on for kilometers.  There are thousands of people at all times.  The lights are dizzying.  The noise is deafening.  I want to visit some mandals this Ganapathi, I had mentioned to my driver some days ago.  I am wondering where to go.  Not caring for his life or limb, he turned all the way around and looked hard at me, foot continuing its love affair with the accelerator.  'Aap tho Parel me hai sahab', he says, 'Lalbaugcha Raja chodke kya dekhenge?'.  I had put it down then to some minor local celebrity I didn't know about.  But now, looking out the car window, I knew this was something else altogether.  This was the mandal to beat all mandals, the Ganesh to out-modak all Ganeshes.  This Raja truly ruled Mumbai these ten days.

'The lines are ten hours long', informed the driver, when I asked him how I could see the Ganesh.  He seems to enjoy my ignorance of most things Mumbai.  The shocked look on my face now makes him smile.  'Aap kya soche, aise hi dekh lenge?'  So that is what all those barricades are for!  And those long queues - they aren't exactly waiting for a concert.  I have got to find an off-peak hour, I tell myself.  It can't possibly be this crowded every day, at all times of the day.  And I live a short walk from here.  Surely, I have a positional advantage.

A few days into the festival, the family sets out at the stroke of midnight.  It will take us ten minutes to walk there, we figure.  At this late an hour, how many people are going to be waiting around?  The first thing I notice on getting out, is all the food.  Makeshift food stalls are everywhere.  Vada Pav.  Dabheli. Mirchi pakoda.  Tens of other small eats.  Here is the scary part - every one of these stalls is doing brisk business.  Then there are the little rides, the kids' play stalls.  Mini carousels, mock pony rides, toys.  It is a veritable fair out here.  I live a stone throw away, and had I not stepped out tonight, I wouldn't have know how much was going on righht under our noses.  With every passing step, the wife and I are both sure we aren't going to be seeing the Raja tonight.  Not if these crowds had anything to do with it.  There might well be an off-peak hour to see the king of the mandals, but this, quite clearly, wasn't it.

'Subah saat baje darshan hoga', the policeman informs us when we ask him.  Seven hours away!  I am desperate.  I have promised the daughter I am going to show her Lalbaugcha Raja tonight.  She is braving the crowds, ignoring the toys, ignoring the waves of sleep that must surely be coming ashore - all because she is going to see the Raja.  The wife and I exchange worried glances.  Here is the thing about being married for eight years - glances carry out conversations.  She nods, I nod in return.  She sets off purposefully, tugging the daughter along.  I follow resolutely with the infant son.  Off the family goes in a line.  In a direction exactly opposite to where Lalbaugcha Raja sits on his throne. 

We find a little side street, and we take it.  It is well lit, and has the telltale decorative lights.  It must lead to some Ganesh idol.  It has got to.  Every lane in Mumbai leads to a Ganesh this week.  Surely this one is no exception?  It isn't.  There he is - the great elephant god, standing on one leg in this particular idol.  With an outsize mouse idol at his feet, his ride.  There are barely ten people here, in this forlorn mandal living in the shadow of Lalbaugcha Raja.  We walk briskly to the stage.  The daughter is beyond herself with excitement.  She runs up to the idol, touches the feet, poses and smiles as her mother clicks pictures, points out the mouse, and the incongruity of such a tiny animal being the chariot of the elephant lord.  Fifteen minutes later, she is safely at home, all washed up and tucked into bed.  'Appa, you know what I saw today?'.  I stay diplomatically quiet.  She is smiling to herself as sleep drifts in.

It has been three days since the Visarjan - the immersion of the lord in water, symbolically sending him on his way home.  I saw two workers trying to pull out one of the bamboo poles that held up the makeshift pavilions.  They work distractedly, ineffectually.  Their heart doesn't seem to be in it.  They don't seem to want to believe it.  He is gone for the year.

Lalbaugcha Raja lived in my neighbourhood for ten days.  I never saw him, and now he is gone. Gone are the hour long rides home.  Gone are the food stalls selling Chinese Bhel, whatever that is.  Gone are the policemen, waving impotently at masses of people.  Gone are the drums - much too loud to be melodious.  Gone are the street hawkers selling pictures of the Raja for twenty bucks.  It is all gone. 

All is quiet tonight.  And it is deafening.  Next year ... I tell myself.  Ganapathi Bappa ...


  1. The thing about kids is that they seem to be satisfied with so much less (in our eyes). But at times I feel that they really capture the essence of the pursuit. In this case Misha was so satisfied with the less grand Ganesh darshan, which after all was the ultimate purpose for that trip.

  2. It was very brave of you to set off at midnight for darshan..rather shud I say, It was an intelligent decision as most of us would not think of finding a long queue for darshan at such wee hours..but 7 hours?? Thats something I would have never imagined..!!! Nice to know that you managed Ganpathi darshan atleast...will have to come up with a better idea and time for Lalbaugcha Raja darshan next year..!!