When I was a child, we went to my paternal grandparents’ home for Ganpati celebrations every year. My grandmother was in poor health since as far back as I can remember, and she used to feel weighed down with the additional responsibility of prepping for the elaborate festival. My mother, not exactly the religious sort, still believed that it was her duty to ensure that she did everything she possibly could. When I was very young, the only reason I looked forward to the festival was to eat Ukdiche modak. As I grew up, my aesthetic sensibilities grew with me and I got gradually interested in the preparations–envisioning the decorations, helping, and watching the colors appear.
A few days ahead of the celebrations, we would think about which silk backdrop should be draped behind the idol and go shopping for adornments. After a thorough cleaning of the alcove in my grandfather’s study full of fat, similar looking books on law, we used to set up the table and drape the backdrop. A wooden paat would be kept ready to serve as Ganpati’s seat for the next 10 days. Ajji used to ask me to polish the heirloom brass Gauri heads with Brasso and then paint their features on with poster paints. They would then be mounted on their hourglass shaped, slightly oversized iron bodies and cushioned hands would be attached. Amma would then drape them in beautiful sarees and put on tiny bangles, mangalsutra, and other jewellery. On the eve of Ganesh Chaturthi, my brother and I would accompany my father and grandfather to the workshop where an idol was ordered several weeks in advance, and bring home a draped Ganpati in our relatively very muted “Ganpati Bappa Morya!” chants as compared to the loud sloganeering by others on the road.
The next day, after a very elaborate pooja and aarti, we would finally sit down to eat a typically rich, indulgent meal of modaks and other regional delicacies. Everything was going smoothly when I suddenly hit puberty and my grandmother prohibited me from participating in the festival. I wasn’t allowed to go and pick up the idol one year, and there on, I lost interest in the festival. As I grew up, I got more and more annoyed at the commercial angle that the festival was gaining, the environmental implications of an irresponsible celebration, and most of all, the memories of the year that I was not allowed to celebrate Ganpati. With time, the Ganpati festivals in our household came to an end, and it became a vague memory of my childhood. I attended Ganpati celebrations at my husband’s relatives’ houses after I got married, and although emotionally distant from the ritual itself, I enjoyed the opportunity to be around extended family and participate in their happiness and faith.
A couple of weeks ago, a pop up stall selling Ganpati decorations appeared bang across the street from my house. Avanee saw the decorations and asked me why Ganpati won’t come to our house. I toyed with the idea of explaining omnipresence to her but decided she was too young for it. Then, I pointed to the small silver idol sitting quietly in my small shrine and told her, he’s there. She didn’t seem too convinced, but she didn’t ask me any more questions. That night, I wondered if we could do the celebrations in our home. Or should we wait for the impending arrival to join the family before we started something like this? Maybe I would have more energy to handle it all next year? MK, ever supportive, readily agreed that waiting didn’t make sense, and we should go right ahead this year if we feel like it. A friend helped me procure Shaadu clay, an eco-friendly material that dissolves easily in water and does no harm to the environment. I downloaded YouTube videos and using Avanee’s play clay, practiced how to sculpt the idols using no fancy equipment or moulds. One afternoon, a week before the festival, I announced to Avanee that Ganpati is coming over, but we have to “make” him ourselves. I showed her the videos, and we sculpted our idols together as a family–she made a small, 4-inch tall one using her play clay, and I used the wonderfully smooth, grey Shaadu clay. MK helped knead the hard clay with water to make it more pliable. Our idols were imperfect in more ways than one (I forgot to make tusks!) and we did not paint the idols. My mother and mother-in-law pitched in with information about the prayers, and we skimmed off what we didn’t feel was important. The idea was to not to make a ritual but to do something together as a family–something that we could do each year without feeling burdened by rules that we didn’t understand.
On the morning of Ganesh Chaturthi, I handed the board mounted with Avanee’s idol to her and her cousins–all girls–as they stood outside the main door to “bring” Ganpati home. MK carried the slightly bigger Shaadu idol I had made and the two Gampus finally came home as we sang Ganpati Bappa Morya! No priest came into my house to chant Sanskrit verses in a speed that made it difficult to decipher. No elaborate hoam/havan/yajna was performed. We didn’t have to “invoke” Ganpati to enter the idols we made of him–we knew he was already there. We did a simple pooja where my father and mother-in-law chanted a few mantras and explained their relevance. We offered flowers, some from my window garden, made and ate an elaborate meal together, sang whatever aartis we knew for the next day and a half, and the girls played their cymbals and rang the bells. The domestic helps joined in the singing with as much enthusiasm as the cleaning they helped with all week before Gampu’s arrival.
Today, after a day and a half of his stay with us, it was time for us to bid him goodbye. We filled a tub with water and the kids, MK, and his brother immersed the idols in them after one final aarti. I had a lump in my throat, and Avanee burst into tears, not fully understanding herself, the reason behind the sudden sadness. In minutes, the idol disintegrated, one tiny bubble at a time–Gampu returned to his abode of nothingness just as quickly as he came back into my life. It is barely a few hours since he’s gone, and he will be in each of my potted plants tomorrow morning, and I can’t make up my mind whether I am happy or sad, but I know I’ll do this again next year.