It was almost midnight when I, wearied from the heat and dust of the day, switched on my television. Streaming LIVE on every national channel was Janmashtami celebrations from Mathura and Dwarka. Interspersed with bhajans and visuals of crowd thronging the Shri Krishna temple in Mathura, the birthplace of Hindus’ holiest divinity, were the anchors’ running commentary in shuddh Hindi, inflections, intonation, idioms – perfectly in sync with the given mood of joyous festivity. I was taken on a joyride back to my childhood.
Janmashtami and Jhulan festival or Jhulan Yatra celebrating the Radha-Krishna histoire d’amour would culminate with the night-long song and dance, worship, prayers, havans and finally, bhog. Held in the shravan month (July-August) it is one of the most important festivals for the Hindus. For us, kids, it would be an excuse to sleep late. A short trip with cousins around the neighbourhood would mean sneaking many a peeks into peoples’ porches, courtyards and balconies where, with meticulous precision, the entire scene from the Jhulan would be recreated complete with Radha-Krishna on a swing and real-life miniatures of cow herds, gopinis against a backdrop of the Govardhan parvat (made out of mud) with little springs and streams running through (oh, engineering marvel – connecting water hoses to the bathroom tap and discreetly camouflaging them against the mud mountain with the open end of the hose sprinkling water). Saw dust collected from the carpenters’ workshops would be coloured green and red with paint, laid out in the sun to dry and modelled into grass or red muddy roads to bedeck the fabulous scene. Decoration papers would be bought in bulk and with tiny deft fingers, they would be moulded into streamers, chains and other embellishments. Finally, with the help of choto mama (or choto kaka) or the benevolent family electrician (Bimal Babu in our case), dancing lights would be placed around the scene. Something akin to the nativity scene during Christmas. We never thought it as a Hindu tradition. For us, the joy lay in unleashing our artistry.
A month back, it was during Rath Yatra that I found dire lack of enthusiasm among young and old alike for keeping up these traditions. In my younger days, Rath Yatra would mean WAR! We would try and outdo each others’ raths. Ours was one of the tallest raths in the neighbourhood (three-storied), so we took pride in displaying the same in all its glory. Decked with marble paper or kite paper, the dhwaj would fly high (even though it was a wooden dhwaj!) The lower-most level of the Rath would be reserved for the prasad – nokul dana, gujiya and shaankh sandesh (from Mukherjee Sweets). In the middle story sat Jagannath, Balaram and Subhadra, garlanded. The top level was for the diya and flowers. This order needed to be maintained. The youngest sibling or cousin would be given the task of tugging the rath with strings attached to the wooden horse. The wooden wheel would scrape against asphalt. I would be banging on a steel plate with a stick – the U/A equivalent to cymbals. As the rath rolled, we would stop people on the road, ‘allow’ them to pull the rath (thereby channeling Lord Jagannath’s blessings into their hearts – and feel a kindly halo against our heads!), in exchange for 50 paisa coins. The ones with a heart of gold would tuck a five Rupee note in my palm. Bless them! Even a few years back, the clanging of the makeshift cymbals would be heard in neighbourhoods. I would run to my balcony and catch a glimpse of kids with the rath. Alas, they were only fleeting glimpses.
This year, I didn’t see a single rath. Gariahat sidewalks oozed with shoppers. Overweight families with overweight kids stepping into Monginis. Oh, sorry, Mio Amore. Bargaining with hawkers. Swatting flies. Gobbling phuchkas. Cribbing. Complaining. Buying their kids stuff. Toddlers playing with their dads’ iPads while the dad would watch forlornly mom loading up on shopping bags.
Similarly, Holi has become just an excuse to drink and pass out. These days, I can comfortably wear white and walk around the streets without fear of being splashed in hideous colours! Because most of these mischief-makers would by then have been inebriated into oblivion.
I just want to thank us, the ‘intellectual’ Bengalis. We have rationalized everything. Congratulations to us. I am no exception. So, let’s scan the calendar once again for another festival, another off-day, another excuse to party hard (Why not? We work hard, don’t we?)