The sea of humanity surges around you just as you turn down the road near the Lalbaug Income Tax office. Devotees and revellers too, who are looking for a day imbued with fun, rather than religious fervour, clog the streets heading out towards the gates of Lalbaugcha Raja.
The infrastructure for the impending monorail looms above, bringing promise of the days when one would glide into this area, rather than push, shove or jostle. Yet that may be several months away, for now, you would be well served with a good pair of footwear, a bag securely closed thanks to the huge crowds and a sense of humour (when that elbow digs into your ribs, thank the Lord God Ganesh it was not your eye) to negotiate the swarm of people milling around.
There’s a mix of modaks and Manchurian first off, as you hit the trail. Sino-India relations, with their ups and downs on the international stage, find strange peace here. Sweet stalls, replete with the ubiquitous modaks, stand next to stalls lined with fiery, red Manchurian squares. The menu on tiny slates hanging from these stalls announce: Chinese bhel and Manchurian curry, Manchurian rice and the noodles writhe around being tossed in pans, hissing smoke and emitting flavour.
One needs to make up one’s mind quickly about whether to dig into modak or Manchurian. Dawdlers are in distinct danger of being run over by the human locomotive. Sunil Gupta, who runs a sweet stall, says, “Sweets are very profitable. Devotees want prasad (blessed sweets) before and after the darshan. Modaks sell the most, but also kadak laddoos and some savoury chips are a hit. It is nice to able to serve people but I hate it when people bargain. In these ten days, I will earn only Rs 10,000. I sell my sweets at such a low price, yet people bargain. During the night, the crowd swells and so does the impatience of the people. Everyone wants to be served first. No one adjusts and understands our situation as well.”
Maybe Gupta is making a mountainous modak out of a molehill. Talking about mountainous modaks, at the famous Ladoo Samrat, the cashier’s face seemed dwarfed by enormous modaks on the counter. He seemed unruffled as he spoke on the phone and people dug into the legendary batata wadas, standing outside the store.
The food and the feasting aside, this is really about faith, you suddenly remember. So, says Sunita Kude, Kurla resident for who the festival is a perfect example of faith. She says, “My son loves this festival more than Diwali or Christmas. He likes the markets, the crowds and the chaos. We came here at 10am and after six hours in the queue; we finally got Bappa’s darshan (glance). We don’t mind waiting. The arrangements are good. There are many devotees but after waiting for six hours, we are not allowed to stand and pray in front of Lord Ganesh for more than five minutes! Don’t allow the parents, but at least let the kids finish praying.” Her husband Suresh (30) added, “We can do anything for Bappa and we hope that next year, my son can pray properly.”
Chetan Jadhav is with his family, including his nine-month-old son. He says, “It is not easy to come and wait in the queue for seven hours with a nine-month-old baby, for a five-minute darshan.” His wife Rita adds, “I wish there was a fast track line for people with toddlers and senior citizens. They provide us with food and water. But despite that, managing kids for so long, is tiring. I come to seek His blessings, but before you finally reach Lord Ganesha’s idol, you are exhausted being pushed around. In the end, instead of absorbing the blessings that you have just received, you are focused upon reviving your strength to walk out.”
It takes strength of will and suppleness to negotiate potholes and skip nimble around people at various toy stalls. Lights flicker madly at hawkers peddling home decorations -- flower vases with lights twinkling on plastic flowers, fountains gurgling like happy children, gigantic stickers that seem to be quite the favourite of parents looking for something to thrill their kids with. There are stickers (R 60 approx) of cartoon figures like Mickey Mouse and Cinderella. For more desi tastes, there is the homegrown hero -- Chhota Bheem who kids adore, holding his strength potion of choice — kadak boondi laddoos.
One can only think how Indian comic book characters have come of age. Jughead had his burgers, Popeye had spinach, Obelix has his wild boars and now Chhota Bheem has boondi laddoos.
Some, though, even have apples. Like Malad resident Nisha Chellani (29) who visits Lalbaugcha Raja every year says, “I have a strong faith in Bappa. Once, I had come with my family, and an apple literally fell onto my lap. I felt so blessed that I don’t have words to describe it.”
There was an air-rifle stall, where a young man was trying to impress his girlfriend by aiming to puncture as many balloons as possible. May the divine Lord Ganesh help him in his amorous aims, one thought? Yet, the pasha of passion has flopped at the box office of the divine. At Ganesh Galli, one came across Sitaram Phadke’s DVD stall. He says, “We are selling original Yashraj movie CDs and DVDs. This is our first time but so far, the response is not very good. We thought it is the festive season, and after darshan, people may want to buy some movie CDs. But in spite of offering three movie CDs for only Rs 50, no one is willing to buy them. I guess next year, we will end up putting up a sweet stall. At least we will make some money.”
So much for wealth, health though seemed to be a big seller for a health checkup stall, which also sold Ganpati pictures. Owner Dimesh Devlekar says, “I own a photo booth. But I didn’t want to put up the usual photo stall. So I thought, why not a complete health check-up stall? We check the height, weight and BMI and so on for just Rs 50 and in just two minutes! (And one thought only Maggi noodles could be had in two minutes!) In a day I have around 50 customers.”
The past couple of days has been a whirr and blur for Anshul Shukla who runs a ring toss game. He says, “Being a part of the festivities is amazing. Everywhere I go it is always so colourful. It’s nice to see Mumbai all lit up. We have this game every year as it helps us earn a few bucks and at the same time, makes sure we are a part of the festivity. Surprisingly, the adults end up playing this game and they act like kids. Each game is for Rs 20 and in a day, I end up earning around Rs 2,000 to 3,000 a day.”
Opposite the iconic Bharat Mata cinema, volunteers helping steer crowds and control people are whistling madly, the sound threatening to pierce eardrums. Traffic has to stop in deference to devotees who claim the streets as their own, crossing by merely putting a hand out to stall the oncoming vehicles. In this impossibly crowded space, there is no place for road rage. The rains have been coming down steadily every evening, so drinks stalls and limb sharbat corners have seen slower sales than anticipated.
Just then, a group of men in navy blue t-shirts passes through. They make a political statement amidst all that piety. Their t-shirts have emblazoned some slogans against Godrej and injustice being done to workers. Before one can read all that text clearly they are gone, swallowed up by the throng and hopefully Ganeshji, with his benevolence, can come to their aid.
Another game called Total was attracting curious crowds. Ramesh Chouhan (28) who was managing the game at the stall says, “I have been coming to Ganesh Galli since the four years. We get all our prizes from Manish Market. Being here is simply amazing. Everyday we are so busy cursing each other; it is nice to see everyone getting along during this festival. Sometimes, we have so many playing this game, we hardly have time to eat or sleep. We are based in Thane and we usually take our shop from one fair to another.”
Meanwhile, people are snapping up yards of satiny cloth for something or the other. A shop selling white kurtas and jackets is doing brisk business. T-shirts with Ganeshji’s pictures are everywhere -- in shops and on pavements, pavements that would double up as a bed for many stall owners who mange to grab two-three hours of sleep on these days.
“I don’t even notice that I don’t have a bed here,” says Krishnamani Tripathi who was busy tying sacred threads on devotees’ wrists. He says, “Every year I come to Mumbai from Madhya Pradesh for Ganesh Utsav. I make my living tying threads and usually sleep in the temples in the city. I don’t come here to earn money but I come purely for the love of this festival. There is so much joy everywhere.”
For some unfathomable reason, it is more tress than stress for harried Mumbaikars if one went by the number of combs being sold. Pavements had hawkers selling large numbers of combs, maybe devotees wanted to look spiffy. Or avoid bad hair days. Or like Kareena Kapoor used to keep stating in that Karan Johar movie, Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham -- “woteva.”
Combs may be moving briskly but not everybody thought sales were brisk. Mahade Havaldar of Tasty Farsan, a popular sweet shop in Chivda Galli, says, “We have been selling modaks since the past 25 years. Now, people want variety so we sell kaju, pista, malai, strawberry, anjeer and even chocolate modaks. This year, I think, the number of people coming to Lalbaugcha Raja are fewer than before.”
In the end, as one moves on to find that elusive cab amidst a terrific cacophony of honking vehicles, it is difficult to picture that just in one day, the streets would be swept clean off the chaos and things return to ‘normal’ at impossibly lively Lalbaug. The King of Crowded Times would wind his way to Girgaum Chowpatty to his watery destination, the devotees go back to their earthly own, with considerably less fanfare.
Till next Anant Chaturdashi then, let that plastic fountain in your living room you bought off the streets, blinking madly, or on the blink, remind you of 10 days where the buzz of commerce and hope of worshippers made a memorable cocktail. More than anything, one needs to have oodles of patience, either as devotee or even just commuter or pedestrian, to negotiate this part of the city. Yet, the rewards of patience are sweet. And so are the modaks.
Inputs by Fatema Pittalwala