Reclaiming an old and pleasant concept

  • Renuka Narayanan, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
  • Updated: Sep 13, 2015 13:46 IST
GANESH CHATURTHI: May the remover of obstacles bring you luck, and a modak.

We know enough now about the human race to wonder if the 'supreme being' has given up on homo sapiens and turned away to some other species as worthier of its attention. But every now and then, when our hearts are flooded with gratitude for things that have gone right in our topsy-turvy world, to whom do we address ourselves? Even this longing is driven by our primitive fear of things going wrong and of our fragile lives being further derailed.

We do have a very charming, low-maintenance deity to address our fears and thanks to. He has long held that position over vast tranches of India, with a 'birthday' that will fall this year on Thursday, September 17. It has been celebrated for centuries and is not a recent invention, as some say, though its restoration as a big, inclusive festival certainly happened under the disapproving noses of the British.

For those who could not romp comfortably in the public processions for Ganesh Chaturthi, there was an alternative, particularly for little girls.

As a child in Bombay I was told to save and smooth out toffee wrappers in jewel colours at least two months before the festival. We had to choose a small terracotta idol for the 10 days that Ganesha 'came to live' in our house and it was my duty to fashion his kodai, or royal umbrella.

A perfect circle had to be cut from the cover of an old notebook, a long, thin piece of wood was pierced and glued through its middle for the stem, the whole then covered with crepe paper and toffee wrappers and a nice fringe fixed.

I did my best, but was aware early in life that I lacked the artistic touch. Nevertheless, my crooked kodai was ceremonially presented to Ganesha and mountains of salt and sweet modak, called kozhakattai in Tamil, were made at home.

This bonded me to Ganesha forever, as did the prayer 'Vakratunda mahakaya'. The vivid iconography in the words made me actually 'see' a mountain of light. Another prayer, 'Gajananam bhutaganadi sevitam', made Ganesha come alive tumbling in play on Kailash with a troop of affectionate ghouls and goblins.

These were the cast-offs of humankind who found a place of respect and security with Lord Shivam, as did the snakes despised and feared by men and so given a place of honour on the lord's own neck, after which they began to be 'worshipped' by the very men who drove them away.

These memories come wistfully back to me when I see the real and present cacophony and commercialisation of this sweet old festival to the sweetest deity of my acquaintance, who always seemed to ensure that I got a modak on his birthday wherever I went in the world.

If this sounds unbearably schmaltzy, I'd like to say, I wish I could take everyone back to the good, clean, apolitical, uncomplicated fun of Ganesha's birthday, and I pray he should make it better for us all. And certainly that he should send us a modak each.

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