Having talked about it for many years it was around this time last year they had decided to do something about the feeling that life had gone and left them by the wayside. It was Ganpati festival time. In one of their usual long chats over the phone, Gadgil, a doctor in Austin, Texas, and his childhood friend, had symbolically narrowed it all down to the manner of celebrating Ganpati festival.
“I will be there, Joshi. We will do it again like we did as children,” Gadgil had said.
Their parents had sent them with much self sacrifice to good schools. There they had learnt to address friends with surnames.
The morning had broken if only barely. He had got up from a short sleep to go to the toilet and found that no more sleep was possible. Maybe because of long drinking last night, or maybe because of the disturbing scenes they had seen at the beach. He came to stand at the large windows. It was his son’s new flat.
The sea was at low tide, grey as the cloud laden skies, although rain was held back. The Bandra-Worli Sea-Link near the horizon was barely visible. Early morning stray traffic was slowly moving along its long road, looking like grey pellets or blobs of grey mercury moving along a thin capillary tube. All was silent, numb. He heard a voice. His friend Gadgil, looking very old, had joined him at the windows. Maybe he too had been unable to sleep. He was holding two glasses of Black Label, already made, for both of them. The two friends, people would now call them elderly, stood watching the grey unmoving world. Only things moving were some dim vehicles along the distant Sea-Link. Both had realized that their idea had failed. This morning was witness to that. They kept their eyes averted from the beach.
They had first known Ganpati while growing up in outer Sion area on the Central Line. It was an old chawl reconditioned with electricity and basic plumbing as a large tenement for the new white collared. Nehru had just died, the long gentrification of the city had stated. They were in school.
Starting with the onset of rains in June they were dimly aware of collection of chanda – contribution money – spread over two months for the single Ganpati to be ‘brought’. Each year Ganpati was installed in a different house, by rotation, although some houses didn’t do the hosting, which was vaguely odd – and was understood much later as an economic issue. Each day, after school, there was buzz and mounting excitement in everyone during the whole month leading upto the festival.
A smiling Ganpati was ceremoniously ‘brought’ and installed under a light bulb on a special platform, decorated with silk, tinsel and paper jewelry, and a string of little blinking lights was wound around him. Local trains passed close by all day, and the platform vibrated with each train. In their eyes, Ganapati, festooned and shining under coloured blinking lights, seemed very pleased, bouncing happily with each passing train.
There were weeks and weeks of rain, smells of eager new vegetation growing all around, and the nights of the whole city were full of echoing night- long drums and exploding crackers. School, friends, and all this. Life was dense, burbling, peopled. Later, Gadgil will muse, as the theoretician, that it did not seem odd that the universe had begun with a big bang.
For the festive ten days, the whole bunch sat together all day after school – girls in a separate cluster – chatting, giggling, eating puranpolis or laadus occasionally brought in by the neighbor aunties, year after year, growing up and living out really the core of one’s lifetime which mostly becomes downhill afterwards. Ganpati came, year after year, bounced with joy in bright, blinking lights, a participant.
Without warning growing up was suddenly over. Amitabh Bacchan was no longer angry and appeared mostly as the police commissioner. Indira Gandhi had been assassinated. Even Pink Floyd was a fading memory, let alone the Beatles. Computers had come. School and college were gone, and by way of jobs and marriages the society ate up its own childrens` childhood.
Gadgil became a doctor and married Shubhangi, who lived next door to Joshi. Joshi went on to become a college lecturer, married Yogita also of the tenement. Others too went away into the world in this sort of way. Some moved out altogether, their dwelling units were bought up by the remaining families – some new families moved in too. Mothers, fatherss, aunties, withered away, or died.
The number of Ganpatis increased and got privatised. Over a dozen families brought their own Ganpati by the time Gadgil left for America after his marriage. Chanda collection stopped. There was money with people. Ganpati’s were better lit and more decorated, but were left mostly alone with the womenfolk all day. Nobody gathered together; after college or office one or two old time neighbours dropped in for tea, if at all. No one knew whether Ganpatis bounced with the passing trains. Most neighbourhoods now had giant corporate Ganapatis , run as profit centers by rising party legislators profiteering giddily.
Then there were very few people left who knew one another. Joshi too moved to his cooperative housing society flat in Borivali with his wife and infant firstborn. The world had changed completely, for everyone.
Although each generation has to experience this thing afresh, the relativity of time soon asserted itself or the selfish gene articulated things around once again, and the old bunch from Sion, now scattered all over the world, were suddenly through with their productive phase, and were sidelined and muted by the seemingly more urgent needs of their grown up children. The new century was soon only a calendar event. Retirement, health matters, loneliness, loomed.
They still brought their private Ganpati every year to their flats but he looked bored under his painted smile. There were no trains nearby, no bouncing, no joy. They spoke to each other mostly over phone – except when gathered partially on marriages, births, and some deaths. Their children had taught them the use of Skype.
Apart from matters of illnesses and remedies, there was only one real topic: the strangeness of life having passed them by and as if making them tenants in their own home. It was so abrupt, so difficult to comprehend and accept. They bore it for long years, and talked and talked about it, without a solution or relief. After Gadgil had first mooted it from Texas, they mused over it for some years: life had sidelined them because they were now alone, not together. In a sense this was obvious and true. But, what was to be done? It was during last year’s chats preceding Ganpati festival that the idea was clinched. They would all meet and, using their new, lonely freedoms, celebrate it together once again.
The first thing he noticed in the refurbished flat were new paintings on the walls. His son Shripad had told him about the refurbishing they had done after his recent joining Boston Consultancy where his daughter inlaw Neha also worked. He recognized a reproduction of Braque. Neha was from Lucknow and she and Shripad had came together while doing their MBA there. This Braque was from the painter’s later phase, an alluring abstract. While doing college Joshi had tinkered with painting. He learnt and then liked abstract art but when he read that the CIA had promoted abstract art during the Cold War it had lost much standing in his eyes. This had figured in their Skype chats in which Prabhu, the banker, and another art person, had joined him and Gadgil. Prabhu had pointed out that not everything CIA did was sensible, probably even most things. That maybe so but how abstraction would fight spread of communism was hard to grasp, as Gadgil had said.
Prabhu and his school teacher wife would be coming on most of the days. The flat was on the 25th floor, in one of the new extra-highrise-building patch of Mumbai with a clear view of the sea. Gadgil and Shubhangi whose children were settled in America and Canada would stay in one of the two guest rooms. Joshi would be in the other. He had stayed on in his Borivali flat, alone, after his wife died of cancer three years back, despite Shripad and Neha urging him to move in with them. Godbole and his wife, both senior in advertising, Nimbalkar and his homeopath wife, Sudeshana and husband, retired from Merchant Navy; almost the whole gang of Sion. For the ten days till immersion they would be together like in the old days.
A small but glowing Ganpati made of probably polystyrene casting was brought on Chaturthi, the fourth day of the month. Shripad arranged it. It was a public holiday. The sky was clear, with only fluffy while clouds of the departing monsoons, and the height of the flat showed a serene blue Arabian Sea at far distance beyond the Sea-Link bridge. The beautiful Ganpati, on a battery operated ceremonial platform, was installed with full ritual. Gadgil’s wife, who had been showing Neha how to make puranpoli, knew the full brahminical ritual – although she did not celebrate the festival in America. One by one everyone came as the day unfolded. The flat was full, noisy, suffused with incense, happy.
Joshi’s mobile phone rang. It was Kanitkar from America, who was to land in Mumbai in the morning. But he was calling from Atlanta, saying he won`t make it, because his daughter after a fight with her sort of husband had taken an overdose of drugs and was having a miscarriage. Kanitkar was weeping. Joshi put down his phone and told everyone. In the silence came the memory of Joshi’s wife. He burst into tears, and others joined him. His 5 year old grandson who had never seen grownups weeping thought it was some new story or a game, and ran around the flat shrieking with delight till his mother took him to another room.
In the evening the doorbell rang and, unexpectedly, there stood Gonsalves, grinning at the door– the only Catholic of the Sion chawl, a wit, a music arranger and an atheist, looking frail, supported by his fat elder daughter and his special walking stick. He had divorced his wife after a bypass heart surgery, at the age of 55. Someone had told him of this meet. He was greeted with joyous whoops. He had brought mawa cake, eggless for these heathen Brahmins. He stayed for prasad in the evening. The day passed under the bemused gaze of Ganpati. Togetherness, memories, tears, laughter. Gadgil’s formula seemed to be working.
The next day was a working day. Joshi’s son and daughter inlaw went to office, and the grandson went to school. Different housemaids came and did their work, accepted the day’s prasad and went away. The gang members were caught up in various important things. They telephoned to say they will try to come in the evening. Gadgil’s wife went to visit some relatives in the city. Only Joshi and Gadgil were left alone with Ganpati. But there were many days left. It was okay.
Gonsalves surprised them again by turning up, again escorted by his daughter. He was a changed man now,they could see — jovial, loosened, released at last. They opened a Black Label and chatted all day. Gonsalves told them how his fortunes had changed after his heart attack and divorce. His broker slowly brought him deep into the stock market and for once in his life he made money, much money. His broker had asked him to keep a small photo of his wife at his working desk. But I am now divorced, Gonsalves had said in surprise, because the broker knew this very well. Doesn’t matter, the broker had told him; the gods of luck are perverse, nobody can understand them. He turned out to be right, Gonsalves said, today I am rich.
“What about that symphony you were to write?” Gadgil asked.
“Well, not symphony, not that …, yet” Gonsalves had laughed. “But I am composing small pieces now and then, and giving them free to a group – it is on TV shows!”
“Do you believe in gods now? In Ganpati?”
“Well, no, unfortunately, not yet…” Gonsalves had shrugged. “But I love Ganpati.”
The old friends drank, talked all day. Gadgil talked about living in America, Joshi talked about loneliness, Gonsalves talked about television and horse racing. Joshi’s grandson returned from school and shut himself in his room. Monsoon clouds were back and it rained on the distant wide sea. Ganpati kept smiling under varying, programmed beautiful lights. Nobody could come in the evening. Traffic in Mumbai was worse than they had imagined, and thousands of families with their small, one-day Ganpatis placed on pushcarts were moving on the heavily policed roads for immersion in the sea.
The next day started with a heavy, steady rain since morning. Joshi and Gadgil had woken up late and hungover when everyone had already left for work and school. Maids came and went. They waited.
Gadgil read out from Kolhatkar’s long poem ‘Jejuri’, their old favorite. Ganpati smiled and looked at the rain streaming down the large glass windows. Sea and sky were one and the long day wore on somewhere far away. Some phoned in to say exactly where they were caught up in the specific twists or turns in the lives of their children and grandchildren, and couldn’t come although they wanted to. Some didn’t bother to phone, assuming it was understood. In the economic model of social reproduction children completely absorbed and emptied the energies of parents, till death. We have not quite moved beyond the peasantry, Gadgil noted wrily.
In the evening the rain relented and they went out for a walk. The roads were full and wet, slick and slimy. Drenched family clusters, lesser than yesterday, were hurrying along with their lonely pushcarts of wet, 2-day Ganpatis. Buses and cars deferred to these, but indifferently, not with respect. Their slogans of Ganpati Bappa did not get echoes in response. There was an air of hurry, to get a chore done and over with. In unknown distances of the looming city there were amplified drums and synthesizer music, endlessly rolling in the lit up sky.
On an impulse they took a taxi and told the driver to take them to one of the Ganpati mandals where huge, public Ganpatis presided over teeming multitudes.
They were dropped off well away from the pandal amid a thick jostling crowd. The street of shops and houses was festooned with coloured streamers and silver foil ornaments. Amplified music had an old, tribal dance rhythm. It echoed in the packed street in uneven waves. The pandal was enormous, filled with incense smoke, and a giant Ganpati loomed well over 20 feet high, over a densely packed crowed clapping and dancing to aarti recitation over loudspeakers. They were jostled hard at every step and it was hard to keep together, till they reached the heaving mass and there was no more way ahead. The big, kind face of Ganpati glowed, gazing clear-eyed over the thousands of swaying heads.
“Sir! You here?”
Joshi vaguely remembered the sweating face of the grinning young man wearing several badges on his saffron kurta – an old student.
“Come with me,” he held Joshi’s arm and pushed his way through the mass. Gadgil held on to Joshi’s arm, trailing.
The student stopped at a spot some distance inside the crowd. “You can see better from here! Come, Sir”.
It looked no different from the earlier place. The student vanished into the throng, with much to do.
They had not bargained for this sudden overwhelming crush and noise and incense. Joshi felt suffocated and felt as though he might faint.
“Take deep breaths,” Gadgil told him, “through the nose.”
They stood holding each other, breathing hard, in a calamity.
“Hey! Hey, you want darshan?” A huge, sweating goon with curly hair, also with many badges of pandal management, was glaring at them. “Go and join the bloody queue!”
They were dumb founded, at his anger and aggression.
“But where is the queue,” Gadgil asked meekly.
The thug shoved Gadgil hard, and he would have fallen down had Joshi not held him up.
“Saala! Trying to be clever with me!” He shoved them hard again. “Go and join the queue, or I will throw you out!!”
Joshi fell down and was trampled upon by the crowd. There was a sharp pain in his right elbow. Joshi’s old student, materialized.
“They are with me! My old teachers.”
“Well,” the goon was barely quietened. “Put them in the queue, queue!”
Joshi was bent low to the ground, near the feet of the people, groping around. His spectacles had fallen off and were stamped upon and broken. He was trying to retrieve the broken part.
“Let it be,” Gadgil pulled him up. Joshi was shaken.
The student took them away some steps, pushing hard into the packed crowd.
“This is the best spot, Sir. Some think only of money! Don’t mind him,” he said and went away again.
Gadgil saw that Joshi was on the verge of collapsing.
“Which is the way out?” he asked.
They were completely surrounded by the mass. Gadgil saw blood on Joshi’s shirt, at the side and also at the back. He started blindly ramming into the people.
“Make way, make way,” he was shouting. “He is hurt, he is hurt.”
It took some time, pushing, stumbling and nearly falling, to get out of the pandal.
They were in a narrow back lane. They made their way through it, through washings, pushcarts, chicken coops, motorbikes, women doing cooking, motor repair shops and tuck-shops, mobile-phone shops. It had started raining again. The uneven ground was slick and slippery.
Joshi’s son and daughter inlaw were alarmed to see his state and the blood on his clothes.
“Why did you go out today, of all days?” they kept asking. “Didn’t your friends come at all?”
Joshi didn’t reply. Gadgil washed the wound on Joshi’s elbow, put a medicated gauze over it and taped it up tightly. He also gave him a tablet for good sleep. None of the gang had come while they were out to see a public Ganpati, the maid said.
The next day started like the previous day, with heavy rain and grey skies. The two friends were quiet and brooding, although Joshi had had a good sleep and his elbow had stopped smarting. His son was relieved and cheerful and checked father’s temperature for fever. After everyone had left for work and school they read newspapers which had large ads for giant Ganapati mandals like they had seen yesterday, with photos of film stars and politicians. Joshi phoned his optician in Borivali for new spectacles, who told him that although he will prepare the same lenses as before but Joshi must come for deciding on the new frame.
The doorbell rang and surprising them was an old gang member Deshpande with his wife, son and daughter inlaw and their two children, all dressed in top silks, carrying shiny parcels.
“We had to come,” said a beaming Deshpande, now potbellied and completely bald but nevertheless recognizable as the old, debonair, cricketer boy who would surely have made it into the Ranji team had he not been from over-competitive Mumbai. He had been a ladies` man and was therefore enviously dubbed “lady finger.” He was some sort of big shot in a finance company. His wife did an elaborate prayer to the amused Ganpati while everyone looked on. They had presents for Joshi and Gadgil too, and also distributed expensive modaks as prasad.
They had tea and chatted happily. Deshpande’s son Ajit was a biotechnologist in Philadelphia and his wife Suneeta was a health worker there. They had been in America for five years now and were expecting a Green Card soon. They talked of old days, but somehow came round to Ajit and Suneeta each time.
Deshpande’s wife went to the kitchen to make special masala tea. Ajit and Suneeta talked about their work, about the money they made, about the mortgage of the house they had bought in the outskirts of Philadelphia, about their children born in America.
Joshi’s mobile phone rang. It was Kanitkar from Atlanta, weeping again. His daughter was dead, although the baby had been delivered alive, a son. Who will look after him now?, Kanitkar was asking Joshi, who had nothing in reply but tears streaming down his face.
Joshi went to wash his face and came back composed. The talk started again, subdued. Deshpande said future was in only in god’s hands. His wife told the story of her cousin sister who had lost her legs in a road accident during her honeymoon and was divorced later. The talk returned to Philadelphia and to Ajit and Suneeta. Gadgil abruptly got up complaining of a headache and said he will lie down with a pill. Joshi was taken aback. Gadgil went to their bedroom. There was a silence. Then Deshpande told Joshi that they wanted Gadgil’s help in the Green Card process for Ajit and Suneeta.
“You press him on my behalf.” Deshpande told Joshi. “You were always closest to him.”
Reeling with the realisation that this had been the actual purpose of Deshpande’s elaborate and unexpected visit Joshi said he would do his best. Despande even hinted, while the family was leaving, that he would be appropriately grateful to him too.
“After all, what are friends for,” said Deshpande, who had not had any contact for thirty years.
Joshi sat stunned, after Deshpandes were gone. Gadgil must have sensed this earlier and had got his headache.
The Ganpati festival was not going the way they had imagined.
The rain had stopped and there was a hazy sunlight in the sky.
The afternoon brought another surprise. About half a dozen smart young men and women turned up. They were from Shripad’s office and they called Joshi uncle. Gadgil came out to join them. They had brought their own lunch packs from Macdonalds. The house was filled with laughter, and jokes and cheerful talk. After they left it was clear that Shripad had sent them on seeing that their old gang members were not turning up as planned.
They decided to move out, to Joshi’s flat in Borivali, leaving word with the daytime maid that they will return on the last day, the day of immersion.
The fourteenth day of the month, the day of immersion the whole city was preparing for was yesterday and the day had dawned clear of rain clouds. Joshi and Gadgil had returned to find Ganapati still lonely and smiling on his seat under twinkling lights. The maid told them that Shripad and Neha had taken half day off and would be coming home at lunch time for their own immersion ceremony; also that after their departure nobody from their Sion gang had visited or phoned. Gadgil’s wife was staying with her sister’s family; she now knew that the grand idea had failed.
The day Joshi and Gadgil had returned to the old Borivali flat had been a Sunday and after tidying the flat they had walked to the local market to select a frame for Joshi’s spectacles. There, a car full of a tourist family had asked the way to the Kanheri caves. There was no Ganpati in Joshi’s flat this year, for the first time in many decades. His wife had insisted on it every year and after her death Joshi continued to bring one too, although more to keep things as she had kept them than because he wanted to. He was feeling both free and tearful but strangely happy that there was no lonely Ganpati waiting in his house. On an impulse they too decided to visit the caves. They had last gone when they were in college.
They spent the whole day there, amused and calmed by the darkness and ancient atmosphere, and had eaten sandwiches with soft drinks like tourists, happily. After that day some force moved them and they went to the caves every day and sat there the whole day, not talking much, finding a new kind of rest, some type of peace they had not felt for a long time.
The maid gave them puranpoli Neha had prepared in the morning, for prasad, using Mrs. Gadgil’s recipe. The ate and looked at the serene, blue Arabian Sea far away, beyond the Sea-Link, and heard the whole city echoing with drums and crackers and music from all sides. It will be over today. Joshi had a flash of a vision: thousands of lonely Ganpatis eager to go and submerge themselves in the sea. He looked at Gadgil gazing at the beach, being readied for the day by the municipal authorities. May be he too had had the same vision.
Nobody came, caught up in their children’s Ganpati’s. They hadn’t expected anyone. Again unexpectedly, Gonsalves turned up, bearing sweets, gifts, and booze, this time helped by his younger daughter and her schoolboy son.
“The heathen didn’t turn up?” Gonsalves asked grinningly. “Knew they wouldn’t. You guys are emotional old fogeys; unreal.”
They had a drink, before the piety took over, for old times` sake.
Gonsalves kept smiling, shaking his head, unable to quite believe what life habitually keeps throwing up.
“You guys took Ganpati private, back in the chawl. So he had to go corporate. See the mandals? They do business in mega bucks, each season.”
“So?” asked Gadgil.
“So! Corporate world is virtual, free! Probably always has been. Makes new realities happen. Like horse racing.” Gonsalves laughed.
“Like my wife’s photo, after divorce; it has become an icon!”
They laughed and chatted, had another drink, and felt that they could still possess an autonomy in the face of an over whelming and changing world. Joshi had taken off the tape from his elbow. His wound had almost healed.
Joshi’s son and daughter in law returned and set about preparing for the immersion. Gonsalves left. Gadgil and Joshi went down the lift to see him off. While parting they were aware they might not meet again, and in their new, odd mood they were smiling at this awareness.
It was evening by the time they had got going. The roads were full of Ganpatis and people, but well organized by the police. Separate routes had been clearly and rationally marked out, alongwith separate immersion spots on the beach, for separate types of Ganpatis. Their own passage was of private Ganpatis, again of two types – car-borne and pushcart borne. They were only five, Shripad, Neha, their son and the two old men. Exactly like how he and his wife did the immersion for so many years, Joshi remembered. Only, they hired a pushcart; Shripad drove his Pajero.
They were in an endless procession moving slowly and halting on the roped in road, as the night fell. Detached, and still feeling autonomous, Gadgil and Joshi watched hundreds of small, smiling Ganpatis finally going home on cars and carts, small families clustered around each, dancing and shouting farewell slogans – each a bit forlorn. On parallel, unseen roads moved enormous corporate Ganpatis on high trucks, each cordoned off by escorting armed police, with fireworks exploding in the skies, with music loud enough to fill a football stadium each, with ministers, leaders and film stars, and with Coast Guard helicopters airborne to keep a lookout for terrorist attacks.
Joshi and Gadgil felt that the unseen earth-shaking drumming had surrounded them and filled up their hearts completely, and pushed out everything of their individual selves. At one spot on their route they saw, because of some passing glitch in traffic management, a cluster of over a dozen halted pushcarts huddled together – while the accompanying families danced around the central huddle of Ganpatis in separate clusters with separate music bands. They wanted to grin at the sight, but somehow couldn’t.
The immersion went smoothly at the designated beach. It was high tide but it had just started coming in. Joshi and Gadgil did not get into the water. By the time they returned home it was late. They bathed, and Neha put a spot of mud on everyone’s forehead, from a pellet they had collected from the sea, as the final blessing by the departed Ganpati. Neha had also made, by tradition, the rice kheer. Joshi’s wife used to do this every year.
They had turned in early; it was a working day tomorrow. Joshi and Gadgil had lingered at the window. From there they could see the whole mass of people busy with their Ganpatis at the beach, the entire night was given over for immersion. A phalanx of people, looking like Liliputians from this height, was jutting out waist-deep into the sea with their Ganpatis; some were on small boats; some were returning after immersion, splashing water in benediction; and some others were after the immersed Ganpatis` clothes and ornaments– and for dealing with these the authorities had trained powerful searchlights over the dark waters of the sea. Hundreds of bobbing Ganpatis, thousands of scrambling little people, preying spotlights arcing cinematically on the waves, crackers and music on the beach: it was unnerving, a surreal night.
Gadgil gently nudged Joshi with his glass of drink and pointed with his face towards the beach. The tide had now gone away completely. Hundreds of naked Ganpatis, big and small, were stranded, their limbs exposed in the uncertain light of dawn, their garments and ornaments taken away by the waves or more urgent hands: a small army of Ganpatis halted, finally together, fleeing from the city but betrayed and deserted by the treacherous sea.
One huge, smooth-limbed Ganpati, maybe cast in some sort of luminous white plastic, still sat on his throne but with his face resolutely turned away from the city. Another one, equally large, had fallen sideways, and his large, white, elephantine face was half submerged although still smiling, but also turned away towards the sea. One medium sized Ganpati was toppled topsy turvy, his head sunk into the mucky sands. Searchlights were now switched off. Crows and urchins were circling this immobilized tableau, while morning mists and grey clouds were trying to cover it all up as if like a shame, or worse, but were not succeeding.
Feeling completely undermined by this subterranean magic the two old men stood rooted at the high windows and coped. Joshi was slowly nodding as if noting down something for later understanding. Gadgil felt something sticking on his left arm and was surprised to find the small sticker still stuck there from when he had taken vaccine shots in Texas before coming to India. Along the mist laden Sea-Link far away into the sea an extra-long container-lorry, barely visible, was slowly inching along, bringing some large foreign cargo for the sleeping city.