August is a good month (like many other months in India) for holidays. There’s Independence day of course, and usually raksha bandhan and Ganesh Chathurthi both fall in August. Since school usually opened in June (after the summer break) and both June and July were bleak months (as far as holidays went), I would await August’s arrival with eager anticipation. Somehow, this fact, along with the fabulous treats, colorful decorations and a delightful Amar Chitra Katha made Ganesh chaturthi a favorite festival.
My parents would go out a couple of days before Ganesh chaturthi (the day before being Gowri puja) to the market to shop for the festival, and I would invariably tag along. The endless rows of fruit vendors with cartloads of fresh fruit, and the even longer rows of flower sellers, engulfed by the mesmerizing fragrance of flowers would be our first stop. After some haggling and bargaining, our shopping baskets would soon be much heavier. After buying fruit and flowers, the next stop would always be at one of the carts or stalls (that appeared overnight, only to stay for a week or two and disappear) selling clay and paper-mache Ganesha idols. I would gawk at the massive six or eight foot Ganeshas that glared down at me, while dozens of smaller ones (gradually decreasing in size) would be arranged pyramid like, in front of the giant ones. My father would usually buy a small one (six inches would be considered plenty), and for a child some eight years old, that seemed to be a rip-off. A few years later, they stopped buying the garishly painted clay idols completely. Amma would say that it seemed to be wasteful and polluting, buying them and then immersing them in a lake. I later learnt that the paint used is rather toxic (the traditional clay ones aren’t though), and also result in silting in many lakes.
The celebration at home itself would be a rather simple affair. Amma and appa would sit and complete their puja (I would usually sit with them too), and after that we would say our own short prayers. The temptation to actually pray would be irresistibly high, since the prayers were to one who could miraculously remove ALL obstacles (Vigneshwaram). So, for what ever it was worth, I would pray (to do well in my studies, or in my single-minded but futile attempts at cricketing excellence, or music, or any thing else). That accomplished, the rest of the day would be one big party. It was also the day of honor for that masterpiece of culinary creation, the kozhukattai. Filled with coconut fried in jaggery, with the soft, melting exterior of steamed rice flour, the very sight of them would make the salivary glands irrationally active. In my prime, a dozen of these would be easily consumed (though alas, age takes its toll, and consuming more than eight in a sitting these days requires a supreme effort). There would be an assortment of savories my mother would make as well, and some special sambhar (usually with baby onions) to boot. A day of gastronomic ecstasy, and post meal recovery!
Afternoons (post lunch-recovery) would usually be spent visiting the various Ganesha “pandals” that every street or colony would unfailingly erect. My father would tell me that visiting nine of them on that day (the number would vary and could be five, or seven, or just three) would result in great luck. My own incentive however was different. I would search for the most tastefully decorated or imaginatively decorated pandal. Decorations would range from the simple to the bizarre and exotic. The “big spenders” would decorate their Ganesha with cashew nut, almond and cardamom, while other more typical ones would stick to a colorful arrangement of myriad flowers. Colonies would compete for (unofficial) bragging rights, by hosting a Ganesha larger than any other in their own neighborhood, and by blaring devotional music (usually set to the tune of a popular movie hit, with the lyrics suitably altered to replace more risqué elements with the devotional) a little louder than the next pandal. Usually, the larger the Ganesha in the pandal, the more garish and ostentatious they would look to me, and my vote would go to the one or two simple clay Ganesha’s I would find that were not covered in golden paint, and which were tastefully decorated with a couple of lamps, and strategically placed floral arrangements.
But more importantly, I would visit pandals (often more than the recommended seven or nine) for the prasadam they would each offer. This could be a simple mixture of jaggery and dried coconut, or milk with apples and bananas, or Panchyagajjya , but sometimes the colony would go the whole nine yards, dishing out modakas or kuzhakattais or even Mysore Pak, made in the finest ghee. In my teenage years, I kept up this gluttonous habit, but figured that running around from pandal to pandal would take care of some of those extra calories. There seemed to be an uncanny co-relation with the style of the pandal and the quality of the prasadam, and the aforementioned “tasteful pandals” usually had the most tasty and homely treats to offer.
Ten days from the festival (or the next day itself, depending on convenience) crowds would gather again, for the immersion of the clay Ganeshas, the “Visarjan” festival. This day would usually end up depressing me a little bit, as I would be saddened to see the immersion (of Ganeshas painted with toxic paint) in lakes and tanks, accompanied by callous crowds who would convert the lakes into a dumping yard. Thankfully, awareness in present times have increased, and most temples have separate immersion tanks made just for this purpose, and this has done much to save the city’sdying lakes. This done, the crowds would finally melt away, and I would be left with the desire to recover from the eating (and ready myself for the next round) before Dusshera crept upon me silently in late September or early October.
Aah! Festivities. Until next year then, while I dream of more kuzhakattai’s.