The quest for hidden sweet morsels

As a little girl growing up in Madras, I used to look forward to Vinayaka Chaturthi even more than Diwali. That was the day I got to eat kozhukattais prepared by generous aunties who invariably made some extra for me. These miniature sacks of steamed flour collapsed in the mouth yielding the deliciously sweet morsels hidden within them. It was part of a yearly celebration that happened in their homes not mine, where Diwali was the main event, and therefore it acquired an aura of great mystery.

All of a sudden, there was a special presence in those homes, a figure whose rotund belly and curved trunk no amount of freshly plucked flowers could hide. Often I would arrive there after the puja was done and the incense-laden smoke hovered over the benign God, making it seem as though an ethereal mist had accompanied him from the heavens.

In each home, Ganesha looked different for he took on the shades of light and decoration and atmosphere and piety apparent there. There was a glow on every face, the satisfaction of having honoured a guest in the right way at the right time. And to me, this guest was special indeed given that the only kozhukattais I got to taste were those made in his honour.

Approving completely of Ganesha’s love for these coconut and jaggery filled offerings, and loving him all the more for persuading people to make lots of them for him, it struck me one day that if he visited my home too, then there would be an additional stock of kozhukattais for him…and me. My mother readily agreed to my request.

Presiding over the unforeseen

The next Vinayaka Chaturthi, I walked past the rows of Ganeshas on display at the market, searching for the one we would make our own. Even though cast from the same mold, a lump of wet clay pressed into shape, the fan-eared images had minute variations that lent them a personality all their own. Just when my mother’s patience ebbed and I despaired of finding the perfect image, I saw him hidden behind some unformed clay, the seeds used for his eyes shining such that his gaze was lifelike, a smile radiating across his elephant-face.

Heart bursting with happiness, I carried him home. Soon, adorned with a necklace of purple buds and masses of flowers, a bundle of grass and a wood-apple beside him, ensconced beneath a multi-coloured canopy, he was welcomed with the lighting of lamps and the ringing of bells and a rich array of sweets. My eye skipped, confidently at first then frantically, over rounded shapes, silver coated diamond squares, thickened milk, even fruits, but did not find the much-anticipated translucent wrappings oozing a golden syrup. My mother did not know how to make kozhukattais!

Ganesha did not seem as disappointed as I was though. The steady flames cast a golden lustre upon his face and magically, a fragrant cloud surrounded him. He looked as though he were chuckling to himself. Perhaps this was because, just to be on the safe side, he had brought his own supply of his favourite sweet clutched in his right hand.

He taught me an important lesson the very first time he graced my home: That he presided over the unforeseen, the unknown, the factors that are beyond our control. In praying to him at the beginning of every undertaking, we acknowledge the existence of natural forces greater and far more powerful than us and seek alignment with them. Having sown a tiny seed of wisdom, Ganesha ensured that I did not miss out on kozhukattais — the doting aunties had, as usual, reserved a share for me — and I ate my fill of them.

While it would seem that there is uniformity in the fact that millions of families spend their resources and energy in festivities, actually in each of our homes the confluence of tradition and the particular make our efforts unique.

The first signs of an approaching festival appear in the market-place. Makeshift stalls are erected, heaps of flowers quickly threaded into garlands, images displayed, little boys pester one to buy the regal canopy from them, and thickets of banana fronds and pyramids of fruit appear by the side of the road. Jostled by the crowd, distracted by the cries of the vendors, this year as well I’ve spent time looking for the image that attracted me the most. New trends have led to brightly coloured, more elaborate forms of Ganesha but I still prefer the ordinary clay images.

From that public space I have ushered him into my home, knowing only too well that he will stay for only a few days. I still enjoy kozhukattais, only as a grown up I’ve learnt to make them myself. A circle completes itself when I give the ones I’ve made to some of those now elderly aunties, a tribute to their affection and generosity.

Of all the symbolism associated with this festival, perhaps, the most powerfully visual and yet persuasively subtle is the act of immersing the idol. A simple lump of clay acquires shape, devotees breathe life into the idol and worship what it stands for. Concentrating on his form, the very embodiment of the sacred Om, helps us remember that he stands at the threshold of our spiritual growth, that the obstacles life throws at us might in fact help us evolve into better human beings. Then, the form that helped us visualise the immense reality is relinquished voluntarily, and sadness is overcome by the consolation that he will indeed return the next year.

Having accepted our devotion on Vinayaka Chaturthi, Ganesha refuses to stay in our homes for long. One must internalise his presence for when he leaves he will dissolve into the waves, merging into a larger space, the formless universe. The spot he occupied these few days will seem bereft of all radiance, and it is in missing his presence that we recognise his importance in our lives.

(Tulsi Badrinath’s ‘Meeting Lives’ was longlisted for the Man Asia Literary
Prize 2007)

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