WHAT IS MUMBAI without its Ganpati festival? Weeks before the 10-day celebrations start, every street and gully is abuzz with neighbourhoods preparing for installation of their Ganesh murtis. Don’t ask how they got the figure—perhaps an army of Ganpati counters zoomed around on two-wheelers, or (the cheaper option) someone plucked a number from the air—it is said that on the main visarjan day, 1.5 lakh idols are immersed at the city’s many Chowpattys.
Unless you are a celebrant, you stay indoors on the main visarjan day, which is the 10th day. But you also stay home on Ganesh Chaturthi, which is the first day when murtis are brought in, on day 1.5 when many smaller family Ganpatis are immersed, and also on days 3,5 and 7, the other days for immersion. That’s a lot of staying indoors. For a majority of Mumbaikars, however, outdoors is where they want to be: for the daily aarti in community pandals where everyone is not just given prasad but a full meal, or to queue up for darshan at the big pandals of which there are many.
The biggest is the Lalbaugcha Raja, which can reach towering heights of 20-35 ft. Lakhs of people queue up to see it every single day and it takes hours before you get anywhere. There is a simple darshan line, when you get to within 30 ft of the idol—at peak hours, you could spend ten hours in this queue. But if you want to touch the idol’s feet, you join the Charansparsh line, and on a busy day, you could be waiting a daunting 15 hours. You need resilience, patience and stamina, but above all, indomitable faith.
It is estimated—again, don’t ask how—that 15 lakh people queue up at the big pandals for darshan every single day. It’s not just for worship, there is curiosity too about the murti itself and the tableau around it, which is elaborate and expansive, with a new theme each year. The Andhericha Raja, for example, has a massive replica of a different famous temple every year. The GSB Seva idol at King’s Circle, set up by people originally from Karnataka, draws crowds not for its size (fixed at 14 ft as prescribed by the scriptures, they claim), but because it is covered with gold, 60 kg of it. The Khetwadicha Raja is also covered with gold and real diamonds, but is known for its competition with the Lalbaug idol.
In the year 2000, it set the record for the tallest ever murti at a staggering 40 ft.
Immersion of these massive idols is an enormous exercise in organisation, logistics and crowd control. The journey of the Lalbaug Ganpati starts mid-morning of the tenth day and its progress through thronging crowds is so slow that it reaches the sea late at night. Last year, its immersion took place at 8 AM the next morning!
The murti has been made by generations of the Kambli family ever since the tradition of Lalbaugcha Raja began in 1935 when it was just five feet tall. The Kamblis get a copyright on the idols so it can’t be replicated, but they stopped changing the position of the murti’s legs when they found that devotees wanted to touch both feet.
What will the Kamblis do this year? The coronavirus is now the raja of all it surveys, so the government has banned largescale celebrations and decreed that murtis can only be four ft tall. What will the hundreds and thousands of people do who make large murti after murti, the tableaux, the decorations, the pandals and the festival’s cacophonous music?
Ganesh is the god who removes all obstacles. How very badly we need his powers this August!
THE EVENING NEWSPAPER Mid-Day (of which I was Editor in the last century, but I hasten to add, not a century ago), ran a truly scary story July 19th. Ignoring the overly optimistic projections of plateauing of the Covid-19 curve given by authorities in general, and political leaders in particular, its correspondent talked to James Wilson, a man who crunches data for breakfast. He says as on July 14th, India had conducted 1.2 crore tests for the coronavirus (1,20,92,503 to be exact). That sounds impressive, but it breaks down to 8.93 tests per 1,000 people. Comparable figures are: the US: 121.7, Russia: 159.61, Canada: 85.13 and Australia: 118.49. That perspective leads him to predict that India will have 15.5 lakh people infected on July 31st and the figures will only rise in August. Another researcher, Rukmini Shrinivasan, tells Mid-Day that our problem lies in poor contact tracing. We can find only six contacts per infected person, whereas South Korea’s success lies in the fact that it could trace 80 per cent of contacts.
If ever we needed Ganesh’s powers to remove obstacles, it is now.