From selling fish to selling portraits of Ganpati, every year during Ganesh Chaturthi, Surekha Madale, 50, makes this dramatic shift in her business practices. For the duration of the festival, Lalbaug locals like Madale also trade in tedium for euphoria. "The festival business is more exciting — we stay up all day and all night. There is no feeling quite like what we experience in those ten days," she said.
Now squatting behind her mounds of fish, her eyes film over as she reflects on the Raja’s departure. "We all cry when he leaves. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if he were here throughout the year?"
As Lalbaug locals attempt to return to the rhythms of their routine lives, the mandal is itself in the throes of a wind-down. Two days after the visarjan, organisers are selling offerings of coconuts that local residents throng to buy. The loudspeakers have gone, though the festive lights are still in place. But for the residents, it’s like a plug has been pulled suddenly.
"It’s a drastic fall after the ten-day high,' said Bharat Bhandari, 26, who sells modak, coconuts and flowers during the festival at his store nearby. "We don’t know what to do now, life is dull."
As the crowds have gotten bigger and the festivities more lavish each year, the returning ‘raja’ has solidified Lalbaug’s identity as more than just a former mill belt. What started 76 years ago as a local celebration has now turned the area into the city’s most hallowed real estate.
"Earlier the local factory worker or the mill worker would have consumed the activities at the festival after a hard day’s work as recreational, but now with the hype around it you have people coming from all over entirely for wish fulfillment and prayer," said Narendra Panjwani, who teaches Film Studies at St Xavier’s College and whose doctoral thesis was on the city’s working class culture.
As the city’s festive nucleus, Lalbaug confers a sense of pride and belonging on its residents. "He is the all-India raja," said Shobha Mane, daughter of a former mill worker who now works in the fish market. "I feel so lucky and blessed that I can live here."
But such sentiments borne of enjoying the annual Ganesha-enabled spotlight belie the nitty-gritties of daily life in the area. A new flyover is under construction and towering buildings have usurped the spaces that chawls occupied. Lalbaug’s original inhabitants are no longer the mill workers of yore.
"Many people have left and many shops have shut, but the city has to develop and evolve with the changing times," said Nilesh Kade, 48, a flower seller who has been living in Lalbaug for 35 years.
For the owners of the chivda shop nearby, the arrival of the festival heralds a stretch of bountiful business days, but the changing clientele has meant that business during the rest of the year is erratic. "I can do one year’s worth of sales during these ten days," said Gopi Arjun Phalke, 36, a shop owner. "But on an everyday basis the people who live around here prefer to shop at malls."
The arrival of the tall buildings and the new kind of residents in them has spelt changing demands. "We are trying to adjust, but with richer people moving into the high rise residential complexes they want quality, not quantity," said Rajesh Singh, 37, who runs a general store in Lalbaug. "How will an old-style shop like mine manage?"