Thursday, September 9, 2010

Religious fun and toothpaste

It is festival time. Dahi handi is over. There is a middle-class view and a ground level view of this festival. The middle-class view is that politicians who hang enormous amounts of money in gold-rimmed pots hung high against the sky, are like dog masters who make their pets jump for bones. They raise their hands higher and higher till the dogs can’t jump any more and flop down, exhausted.

The ground level view is of a physical challenge that costs no money to face. Two months of rigorous practice helps young men (and these days women too) to stretch their bodies and understand what team spirit means. Reaching the pot is not only about winning money or helping a politician to a sear. It is about a proud display of skills for the public at large, again free of charge. The money in the pot, if won, has its uses. It goes into the mandal’s kitty to fund its social work initiatives.

What makes the dahi handi problematic is its dangerousness. Spines can and do break, destroying young lives. But broken arms and legs, it would seem, are par for the course. The father of a nine-year-old who broke his arm, confessed to a newspaper reporter that he hadn’t known the child was practising for dahi handi, but felt extremely proud to see him at the top. Mind you, it was scary when he fell, “But it was all a lot of fun”.

Fun is what it is. Religious fun. And since the festival emulates the deeds of Lord Krishna, harassing women is a natural part of the fun.

It is generally conceded that people have a right to a bit of religious fun. People who organise this brand of fun expect authorities to understand that it comes with extraordinary rights attached. With Ganeshotsav up next on the religious fun calendar, Ganesh mandals are pressing for permission to make noise in silence zones. Man-made rules cannot be granted primacy over demands made in the name of god.

One wishes gods could speak. Ganesha needs to say to his “devotees”, “Look guys, you worship me as “sukhakarta”, giver of happiness and also as “dukhaharta”, assuager of pain. As sukhakarta, I allow you your booze and song and dance. As dukhaharta, I must look after the comfort of patients in hospitals.”

Fortunately the thinking public perseveres in speaking up. As a result, ecology has now been officially elevated to the status of “a public concern”. Some of the less hubris-driven Ganeshotsav mandals have rejected mine-is-bigger-than-yours plaster of paris idols in favour of the smaller ones made of clay. But there is not enough clay to go around.

One mandal is going to solve the problem by installing a fibre glass idol which will not be immersed in the usual way but symbolically. The shastras are full of escape routes for all contingencies. This mandal has found one for symbolic immersion. However, devotees cannot be denied a road show. So the fibre glass idol will be taken in procession up to the sea, brought back unimmersed, and put away in a locked room till the following year. That way, “Pudhchya varshi lavkar ya” will happen with the turn of a key and no expenditure.

Some members of the mandal did express reservations about the idea. Would this not show disrespect towards the god? Worse, would a year under lock and key not damage the idol? A solution has been found for these concerns too. It has been decided that the idol will be brought out every Tuesday, changed into a fresh pitamber and worshipped.

Ecce Ganapati, vighnaharta, remover of obstacles, now turned into an obstacle in the path of ecological well-being. The responsibility for this sad transformation lies entirely with the long-ago leader of men, Bal Gangadhar Tilak. Tilak exhorted people to celebrate Ganesh Chaturthi publicly to demonstrate the strength of our culture and our numbers to the alien ruler. Tilak’s purpose was served 63 years ago when the alien ruler finally left us to ourselves. So the question is, for whose benefit are we displaying the strength of our culture and numbers now?

In a recent letter to the editor of “Loksatta”, a man from Pune proposed that, Tilak’s purpose having been served, the public Ganapati should now be allowed to go private. Ganeshotsav is only a 60-year-old tradition. If we really love our traditions we should be happy to return to the original, non-political tradition of worshipping Ganapati exclusively in our homes.

Sure. Try telling that to the display-happy, money-worshipping, fun loving, self-above-all celebrants of Ganeshotsav mandals. They’ll use your head to crack their daily prasad coconuts on. No, we’re stuck with Tilak. The toothpaste is out of the tube and cannot be squeezed back in.


Anonymous said...

My five year old watched the Govindas in trucks with fascination. She worried for their heads when they form a pyramid, but was more curious about why their trucks were decorated with flags? "Why the flag on Krishna's birthday?"

I let the question slide by. She will have her own take soon.


shanta said...

That was a perceptive question for a five-year-old!