Bringing home hope

Of all the Gods of my childhood Ganesha was the funniest and the friendliest. To begin with, there was his absurdly endearing appearance — a pot-bellied torso, topped with the head of an elephant. Then there were the animals he had gathered round him  — the lowly rat his vahana, a live snake bristling round his stomach to hold it in, and of course, he himself was part elephant. He was the eternal child, daring to do what every child dreams of doing — to eat and eat as much as you like and just what you want, and not get sick but leap beyond and gratifyingly, see your stomach burst!

When I grew older and outgrew my childhood need for instant gratification and entered the world of ideas and ideology, I was delighted to find Feminism right in my backyard — the Feminist twist to the creation of Ganesha was most satisfying. Here was Parvati indulging in the most homely of activities, having a bath, and she needed someone to guard the door to her inner chambers while she bathed. And who could be more trustworthy to perform this task than her own son. So, combining the resourcefulness and the literal mind of a housewife with the nonchalance of a Goddess, she brought forth a child from her own body. No natal complications here — she simply scraped off the dirt and the sweat and the pre-bath unguents she had plastered over herself, and fashioned a little boy as if out of plasticine. Then, she breathed life into him and set him by her door, asking him not to let anyone in till she was done. And the boy did just that, with a single mindedness and valour that would bring a secret gladness to every mother’s heart.

When Shiva arrived just then, after his many wanderings, (with the unerringly bad sense of timing that husbands have, even when they are Gods) and demanded to be let into his wife’s inner chambers, the boy said, Who are you? I recognise only my mother! But I am the Lord of the World, Shiva begged. Nobody says no to me. At which the boy reached for his weapons.

When Parvati emerged from her bath, she found the world a-tremble, her lord perspiring, stretched in battle, while her newly-born son lay beheaded on the ground. What have you done, she cried. Restore my son to life at once. At which Shiva, instead of saying — What son? Pray how did you come by an eight-year-old so suddenly — was immediately contrite and sent his assistants in haste to return with the first life form that crossed their path.

They came back with the head of an elephant (Shiva, of course, gave the elephant a new head, as my mother was always careful to tell me) which was fixed on the boy’s head, and there sprang to life Ganesha! But he looks so funny, people will laugh at my son, Parvati persisted, pushing her luck. Then I will make sure he is worshipped first, before all other Gods, Shiva, the good husband, said. And to make sure, he decreed that Ganesha would be Vighneshwara, the remover of obstacles, who would have to be propitiated first, before people ventured on anything.

My earliest memory of the Ganesha festival celebration is going with my grandfather — he carrying the modest Ganesha idol on a plate with flowers and a lighted lamp, and my cousins and I following him — ringing the bell that my grandmother had allowed out of the God room as a special favour to us. We would walk from my grandparents home in Basavanagudi to the tank next to Bugle Rock to immerse the idol. Just before setting off to immerse the idol, we would have visited scores of homes in the locality chanting, Ganesha koorsidira? and picked up as many packets of bura sakre and kobri as we could.

Those were less complicated times — there was still a tank next to Bugle Rock and there was no talk of lead paints and silting of tanks; Ganesha was a domestic creature and not the presiding idol of road-blocking, fund-extracting community pandals; we ate as much of kargadbu and obbattu as we wanted — oil and ghee were still our friends and yet to turn foes; and homes of strangers were PLOs (places like ours) and could be ventured into without a second thought.

Of course, one cannot turn the clock back and it is pointless to indulge in nostalgia. As the saying goes, we cannot step into the same river twice. But every time a festival is round the corner, it gives us cause to stop and think about what we are celebrating.
Are our celebrations becoming more a matter of habit, of custom and ritual no longer connected with their mainsprings? Other than being a personal act of thanksgiving how can a festival help us connect with the larger world, especially at a time like this when we are assailed on all sides, when getting through the day and emerging fairly intact at the end of it — without breathing in a newly-mutating deadly virus or losing your job or a loved one — is a challenge, and we can say this without being accused of being paranoid.

At a time like this, I have often thought, what prayer can we offer Vighneshwara, the remover of obstacles and what solace can He offer us in return? Perhaps, it would be to consciously recall the simplicity and the innocence of the earlier, less-complicated times; to recover the courageous immediacy in responding to the stimulus of life that Ganesha stands for; for us to respect each other’s space and still retain a spontaneity, a lightness of touch in our relationships; to capture afresh the magical spirit of the boy who ate to his fill (and more) of good food and casually picked up a passing serpent to support his sagging stomach, and who on a boyish impulse broke off his tusk and threw it at the moon who witnessed his discomfiture and dared to laugh at him.


(Usha K R’s novel ‘A Girl and a River’ was shortlisted for the Commonwealth
Writers’ Prize 2008)

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