The festival season

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After the end of the monsoon till the beginning of winter, the time that would be called autumn in the north temperate part of the globe, is the time of festivals in India. In Mumbai the season opens with Ganapati. In most of the rest of the country it is Navaratri, or Durga Puja, which is the beginning of the series of festivals which end with Diwali.

I took the photo above in one of Mumbai’s famous Durga Pujas. It is organized every year by a family which is closely connected with movies. The Mukherjee clan was established by a film producer who started working with a famous director in the 1940s, before founding his own studio. His family remained in control of the studio he started. His grandchildren include one well-known star and an up-and-coming director. I thought that this place is popular because one can gawk at film stars and other people known for being known. But the person in the foreground is praying, his whole attention on the idol, and not on the celebrities.

Many farewells

gbIt is impossible to miss the Ganapati festival if you are in Mumbai. Apart from the household poojas which you might be invited to, there are public festivals at every other street corner. Everything about the festival is photogenic: from the artisanal workshops where the idols are constructed, to the final immersion. A couple of years ago I went to see the immersion again with a colleague who was visiting in India. In the thirty years between my two visits to see the immersion at the Girgaum chowpatty, the event had become highly organized. In the eighties the scene of the immersion was a chaotic sea of people, often bunching up into fearsome knots on the verge of becoming a crush. It is more crowded now, but well-marked lanes for seaward and landward movement make it much easier to visit this incredible Mumbai event as a tourist. There are even tour operators who offer to work it into your itinerary. That’s such a wonderful development!

I didn’t do that today. But on day of the full moon, Ananta Chaturdashi, you cannot be on the roads of Mumbai without passing the large idols starting off on their journey to the sea. Sometimes you see them in passing on deserted streets (photo above, Ballard estate), sometimes the truck with the idol is part of the traffic on narrow roads (photo below, Colaba market). The traffic management has become slicker over the decades. Our taxi breezed past dozens of these clumps of people without getting stuck. Traffic police were on the spot, making sure that no jams develop. Apparently every idol is given a time at which they should start the journey, and a deadline by which to reach the sea. An interesting development which I’d not noticed in previous years is the presence of an “FX truck” in front of the truck with the idol, whose purpose seems to be to light up proceedings.

gcThe Ganapati (aka, Ganesh) pooja was a household affair is many parts of western India before it became a public festival under the Peshwa kings of Pune in the 18th century. The public festival was converted to its present form by Bal Gangadhar Tilak, who used it as a vehicle to arouse public sentiment against British colonial rule in India. Household gods are immersed in the sea after one and half, three, five or seven days. Although the immersion of these smaller idols is not spectacular, I like to see the little knots of families reach the sea. If you watch carefully, you will notice many with a slightly lost look on their faces as they leave: it is the end of a festival, after all. The major immersions were done today, on the eleventh day. There is only one major idol left now in Mumbai, and that will be immersed on the fifteenth day. That’s definitely the end of the festival.

Slow days

creepingby

The days pass very slowly. We have to wait till November to get to the mountains. Six weeks before we get to 4000 meters above mean sea level. It seems to be the right time to dig out a photo of this slow invader: the giant african land snail, which seems to have invaded India.

Shantaram Tourism

When I saw this cab ahead of me on the road I did not make the connection. I figured out that Gregory David Roberts is Shantaram only after I googled. I bought the book some years back, and found it was a great story: an Australian on the lam comes to India, begins to live in a slum, blunders about before beginning to work for the Indian mafia. The story’s probably mostly made up, but it is wonderful stuff, worthy of three movies at least. It was interesting to find that tourists might want to follow a Shantaram circuit while in Mumbai. Of course, it would lend a cachet to the experience if you were driven by a friend of Shantaram.

The 6+1 probably means that the taxi can hold 6 people and the driver. It would be a bit of a tight fit, I think. The words below the wheel of Dharma (Dhammachakka) say "Jai Bhim", a slogan used by neo-buddhists in their rejection of caste.

I wish I knew what Bindra means. Is it Bandra mis-spelt? Is the driver a friend of reality TV star Dolly Bindra also? Or maybe of the first Indian Olympics gold winner, Abhinav Bindra?

Mumbai: all the cliches

mumbai

Sometimes you don’t need to travel. I stepped out for a short walk to clear my head, and saw a tourist’s Mumbai spread out before me. Beyond the haze of Backbay were the high rises on Malabar hill. In the foreground, children from the slums had walked out on to the stones exposed by the tide. There are no parks or public spaces for some people; they exist only on what the city cannot take. This is a view of Mumbai which the tourist cannot help but notice, but it is a view one can lose track of in the middle of the daily routine.

A week of slow attrition

You cannot be in three places at once. So which of these three should one choose to visit on the weekend of Independence day: Amritsar, Lucknow or Madurai? All of them look interesting. The only way to choose is by elimination.

In the last few days we managed to eliminate Amritsar. In the end the method was simple. I looked for flights from Mumbai to Amritsar. The only non-stop flights were by an airline in which we have, at least temporarily, lost confidence. A few months ago they had severe cash-flow problems and canceled many flights during vacations. They seem to have recovered partially, but are still on the edge. We would prefer not to take this airline. Moreover, the prices of tickets on these flights are sky-high!

One of the flights with one stop takes a little over 5 hours one way. Most of the others involve long layovers in Delhi. This will take a day off our vacation each way. So that’s out too.

The way most people do this, it seems, is to fly to Chandigarh and then take the road. The flight to Chandigarh takes two and a half hours. It looks like a 4 to 5 hours’ drive to Amritsar after that. The trip could well take 7 hours. This is no better than changing planes in Delhi.

This more or less eliminates Amritsar. Its now a straight race between Lucknow and Madurai.

Note added

Madurai is also out for the same reason. In principle it is possible to get from Mumbai to Madurai in about 5 hours, including time for a change of flights in Chennai. But its now too late to get such a flight. Now the only connections available are those which more or less eat up a full day. So Madurai is out too.

Half a month

Half the month of Ramazan is over. Those who fast now begin to look forward to the end, and the festival of Id. How do the rest of us know? The signs of the approaching festival are visible on the street. A season of shopping has begun. The night food market near the Minara Masjid in Mumbai is now surrounded by stalls selling clothes and shoes. The shops are so crowded that it is difficult to take photos. I got to take the photo above only because the police started clearing the crowd as I stood there.

attar

Then there are the specialty shops, the extreme end of which is this stall selling attar. The bottles are as much of a collector’s item as the perfume itself. Most of the items on display here are simpler flower extracts. One would have to buy only a small amount because they are highly concentrated. The main shop will have more exotic perfumes; I remember a subtle one extracted from a fungus. This stall was manned by two young boys who decided to play hide-and-seek with my camera. As you can see, I did manage to get one them eventually.

A monsoon Ramazan

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The Muslim calendar follows the moon, and therefore is 11 days shorter than the solar year. As a result, the month of Ramazan shifts over a person’s lifetime. In a couple of years it will have moved out of the monsoon into the heat of May. Then it will be almost 30 years before it coincides with the monsoon again.

For some Muslims, the month of Ramazan is a month of day-long. For those among the rest of us, who are fortunate enough to live in a city with a large Muslim population, this month can be quite the opposite: a month in which every night can be a special feast. The night market around Mumbai’s Minara Masjid is alive these days with "pop-up restaurants" serving wonderful spiced meats with a variety of breads and nans. Over the last decade the area has become more generally known, and a good fraction of Mumbai seems to have passed through the restaurants.

After a heavy meal of spicy meats and fried breads one can press through the crowds to the shops with their special sweets. Last year, while seeking shelter from a sudden shower, we discovered this little shop tucked away in a corner which sells amazing mawa jalebis. The shopkeeper has the look of a sweet-shop owner from a hundred books and movies – sour-tempered and with a waistline which is escaping control. This year we went back for more, even though it didn’t rain.