September brought the wonder of the Ganesh Festival, and with it, my first experience of a holiday in a foreign country. India doesn’t party often, but when they do, it’s for 30 hours at a time.
Ganesh, the remover of all obstacles, is the beloved, most-favorite god of Maharashtra and they celebrate his greatness with a 10-day festival. The city produces millions of Ganpatis — clay statues of the elephant-head god varying from pocket-sized miniatures to 12-ton giants. After ten days, families bring their Ganpatis to the river, to immerse the god in the water, letting the clay dissolve back into earth.
The celebrations began Wednesday, Sept. 18. Most of the city was closed, like on Christmas Eve, but not quite the commercial wasteland of Christmas Day. Most importantly, classes were cancelled. I followed my host family to Grandma Neela’s home. Neela also hosts a student, so I had the pleasure of spending the next 55 hours with senior Kylie Swall (a fellow Knoxian). Unfortunately for Kylie, this was when I had my first major bout of illness. I definitely blame Mumbai, but regardless, my poor bowels were throwing up for days. It was like a faucet; I could digest toast in a mere 45 minutes. It sucks being sick in someone’s else’s home, but it doesn’t compare to being sick in someone else’s mother’s house.
Tuesday night, I popped some Ibuprofen, packed my bags and sat in the backseat at grandmother’s house. In the “small hall,” Kylie and I helped set up a little temple for the three Ganpatis on an elephant-leg side table. Some dollar-store-quality Styrofoam decked out in gold and silver glitter served as a backdrop and side walls. We taped Christmas lights (called fairy lights in India) on the wall surrounding our devghar. The lights blinked in five different settings — from slow twinkling to spastic raving. Of course, our Indian family chose the seizure setting. We set our three little Ganpatis on the altar: one brightly colored, one classic iron and, in the middle, a little clay Ganpati (ah, the precious ornaments of a seven-year-old) that had already lost an ear.
During the next 10 days, we visited the Ganpatis of family, friends and acquaintances wishing to show off. Most families hosted simple gatherings — time for old friends and family to catch up over a cup of tea. A few were elaborate affairs with walls of flowers, a full buffet and women in elaborate saris. All households that host a Ganpati serve food to those who visit, including a yogurt-milk-sugar-honey mixture. This pasty liquid is spooned into your palm to be licked up, and the remainder is rubbed over your hair. All of them had their fairy lights set at the seizure-setting.
The festival ends with a procession of Ganpatis across the city, along the busiest roads, on a path to the river. This year, the parade lasted a total of 28 hours and 50 minutes. The entire time, the streets were packed with drummers, dancers, floats, Bollywood music, groping men and elephant-headed potbellied statues. Think Mardi Gras, with less booze and no boobs. Miraculously, only one worker was trampled by the parade. It was an amazing event, completely foreign and, like many things I’ve experienced in India, I’m happy to live through just once.