Festivals: A Fond Memory

India thrives on festivals. A time to rejoice, festivals are supposed to bind different people together. There are some common festivals celebrated all over the country and there are some which are specific to a region, community or religion. Alas when any festival is celebrated, noise and pollution become an integral part of the festivity. It was so when I was growing up and it is so today also.

The difference is that today, even with so much awareness generated on the TV and internet about the harm we are causing to our atmosphere, water bodies and even to humans, we persist in carrying on with the same traditions, refusing to change anything. With the increase in population, there is an explosion in idols immersed in rivers and seas. The atmospheric pollution peaks during the festive season, when crackers are burst. The noise pollution caused by the bursting bombs and loud music insistently being played with microphones on at full blast or loud drums when processions are taken out goes beyond tolerance or permissible limits. There is a complete disregard to other people’s rights and no civic responsibility whatsoever. Courts have had to intervene to see that the rights of law-abiding citizens are not trampled on since the government or the police are either too indifferent to bother or displease any section of the vote bank.

There was a lot of excitement as Christmas approached. Our Club organized a party with lots of games, many prizes to be won and Santa giving away gifts to all the children. We all looked forward to it. We told Dolly aunty who was in charge of organizing this event that we would like to put up a play. She readily agreed and we got busy with selecting a play and practicing every evening. Tina, being the eldest took charge and allotted different tasks to us. The play had a party scene and to make it authentic, we decided to have real drinks and snacks. 2 from among us got the chore of making lime drink, the others had to get biscuits or sweets or any snack. The girls picked up a vessel without informing the parents and made ‘nimbu pani’ to be ingested later during the enactment of the play. The play went off well and we were praised for putting up a good show without any adult help. After about half an hour, 2 of my friends started vomiting. Alarm bells went off when the whole lot of us who had taken part in the play started feeling sick. The whole sorry lot was rushed to the doctor. After a lot of grilling, the culprit was nailed. The lime water was made in a copper vessel in the afternoon and all of us had it late evening during the play. The lime had reacted with the copper vessel, making the nimbu pani poisonous. This was our first lesson in chemistry. We also learnt painfully that 10 year-olds do not have the wisdom that age and experience bestows. As I grew older and went to college, there were countless other Christmas parties I attended with music and dancing and traditional Christmas goodies. But that Christmas party long ago became a part of my long term memory, for the play which we had so proudly put up without any adult help, the panic of our parents when one by one all of us fell sick and the misery of food poisoning which had spoilt the party for us.

In Bombay the Ganesh and Divali festivals were celebrated with a lot of gusto and noise. Our Colony was in the midst of the biggest Ganesh pandals. We had the “Lalbaug cha Rajaa”, the Ganesh gully pandal or “Mumbai cha Raja” and V. Shantaram’s Ganesh installation, all within walking distance. Mammoth crowds would be seen at all times trying to get into the pandals for a glimpse. Every year, we would form a huge group and visit all the pandals. Along with the Ganesh idol there would be a theme from mythology on display, with huge statues telling the stories. V. Shantaram’s installation was the tallest, well over 15 feet and every year we would stare at it in awe. The long serpentine queues, the cacophony of loud film or devotional music, jarring cymbals, whistles blown by children, shouts of people selling cheap jewelry and other odds and ends, heat and rains were an integral part of this annual event. No one seemed to mind and year after year, we too went along, standing out like sore thumbs in our dresses and jeans and tees, happily eating the Prasad, gawking at the life like mythological characters, and asking Lord Ganesha for good exam results or other secret wish which needed to be fulfilled.

Divali was full of lights and again lots of noise. One night before Divali, we had difficulty sleeping since deafening crackers went off all night long. Shops at Khodadad Circle, Dadar had their annual rangoli competition. Professional artists were appointed as the competition was keen and stiff. Huge rangolis some as big as 5/6 feet were on display and cordoned off to keep them safe from the huge crowds which thronged from all over

Bombay to see them. The art was magnificent and elicited admiration from all. Some would be made from traditional rangoli colors, some were done in petals of colorful flowers and leaves and some even used different colored grains. There were breathtaking designs either done in free hand or various geometric patterns; some would depict scenery, whilst a patriot few showed faces of freedom fighters and historical leaders like Shivaji, Gandhiji, Nehruji in their exact likeness. A very popular theme showed a benign Bharat Mata in long flowing hair and a crown on her head standing in a map of India. When I see ‘pavement art’ on the internet today and marvel at the 3-D effect, I remember those beautiful presentations during Divali that I was fortunate to witness during the 1960s. We also lit little diyas at home, made rangolis and decked our doors with flower torans. There was a typical Parsi custom of breaking eggs on kalichowdas, a day before divali, to ward off all the evil from our homes and lives. To this day I do not know how or when this custom originated.

Parsi New Year or Navroze was a very important festival for us. The days preceding Navroze are spent remembering the dear departed family members and in prayers and in atoning for any transgressions that one may have committed during the year. Navroze is a new day, a new beginning and the planning to celebrate that special day started way in advance. We planned the new outfits we would wear, what time we would go to the Fire Temple, where would be going to in the evening and various other festivities we would indulge in. The preparations were as exciting as the final day and we discussed all these ad nauseam.

Mum would wake me up early so that I would finish doing the elaborate rangoli, finish my bath and be ready to go to the Fire Temple with my friends. Typical Parsi songs like “sakhi suraj” and “hastu ramtu ….” would be heard on people’s gramophones to usher in the New Year. The “nankhatai” bands would also come to play the popular bollywood songs for a pittance. At the dot of 10, all the girls would gather, decked up in their finery and proceed to the Fire Temple, all the while chattering and passing comments on our new togs. It was a happy and gay procession that made its way to the Fire Temple, with innumerable stops on the way, being greeted and greeting in turn. After the customary obeisance, we went to our respective homes. Dhan dal and kolmi patio or fried fish would be the customary Navroze lunch accompanied by beer of course. Evenings were equally exciting since we all went for a play or an outing and dinner. Thus would end the first day of the Parsi New Year.

Bombay has a unique way of celebrating Janmashtami. If you were brave enough to get out on the streets, you would have balloons filled with water coming at you like little torpedoes. No amount of dodging helped since any moving person was a fair target for all those sitting in their balconies or terraces. But the very exciting dahi handi rituals were what we would wait for in anticipation and excitement. Handis or earthenware pots would be tied up high between two buildings. The pot was filled with yoghurt and other sweets. Teams of men would come, make a human pyramid and try to break the earthenware pots. There were good cash prizes to be won for the team who managed to break the pot. The ritual was a reenactment of scenes from Lord Krishna’s life and very popular in Bombay. The handi tied in Ganesh Gulley was very famous. It was difficult to break and carried a big prize. Through the day, countless teams came and tried but went away disappointed and empty handed. Every time we heard the sounds of drum and whistles we would rush out to see whether this particular team would be lucky enough to take the loot. After many trials, a team would at last emerge to reach a height of 25/30 feet and break the handi and take the prize money.

Holi was celebrated by the staff working in our colony near their quarters. They would burn a huge holi pyre and we would all go to witness that. Before that we played holi spraying each other with water. To respect the sensibilities of our parents, colours were taboo. When the holi pyre was lit, the pious old ladies reverentially bowed to the fire offering coconuts as Prasad. They had no idea nor did they care about the significance or the myth of holi. The burning fire was what they looked at and what mattered to them. The boys were all ready with long sticks tied with sharp steel rods at the end to pierce the coconuts or prise them out of the burning fire. The hot burnt coconut would be relished by us all youngsters. No amount of threats by our malis and sweepers or emotional blackmail by the devout elders had any effect. Year after year, we looked forward to holi and eating the burnt coconut and raw mangoes which would just be sprouting in that season.

To live in social harmony and peace with all communities has been a trait cultivated to a fine art over centuries by the Parsis since as refugees a long long time ago, it was necessary for our survival. Coupled with that any chance to celebrate, make merry and eat, received a “thumbs up” sign. So along with the other communities we have been celebrating practically all the major festivals of India.

Today, as I live in a more cosmopolitan setting, along with plates of savory during divali and fruit cake for Christmas, I get delicious sevai or biryani during Eid. It also reminds me that as mistrust and hatred are taking root and spreading like wildfire all over the world, celebrating festivals with neighbours is a small step that we take to keep our balance in life