My childhood memories of Nagpur are marked only by festivals.
The onset of monsoon rains heralded Bhulabai, or little Goddess. It was the first festival to dawn on my consciousness, perhaps because it was the one reserved exclusively for girls.
Every household with a daughter installed an idol of little Goddess and every night for a fortnight, girls went door-to-door, singing prayers. Then came the mouthwatering ritual of guessing the prasad, or sweet offerings, to the Goddess. One night, we spent a good part of an hour, yet failed to hit upon the right answer, because my best friend Asha’s mother had brought with her some petha, or crystallized squash, from Agra, which we had never heard of.
Even though my parents were not religious, they let me participate in Bhulabai; I loved the melodious singing, the flower garlands adorning the Goddess, the lighting of holy lamps.
Other festivals followed in quick succession during the monsoon; there was Mahalakshmi, during which large life-size idols of Goddesses and their daughters were draped in gold-embroidered nine-yard silk saris and installed in the house of my uncle, who happened to be the keeper of our family Goddesses. I would ogle at the shiny fenis and karanjya and other sweetmeats hanging like chandeliers from the steel canopy over the statues, wondering when I would get a chance to eat them. At the end of the 10-day sojourn, the entire extended family would gather in our “old house,” where my uncles and aunts had once lived. We children would play hide-and-go-seek, up and down stone staircases, on to roofs and balconies, down the narrow alleyways, gingerly peering into dark, dingy depths of moss-covered wells that formed an essential feature of every courtyard then.
Monsoon was in fact the season of Goddesses because next came Durga Puja, in which we would worship the warrior Goddess. Unlike Bhulabai and Mahalakshmi, Durga Puja was a public festival, celebrated mostly in Northern India as well as Bengal, but its presence was unmistakable in Nagpur, perhaps because, located smack dab in the center of India, our town had a large population of Northerners.
My favorite festival was Ganesha Chaturthi, celebrated in honor of the elephant-headed God. As a little girl, I remember being taken by neighbors on a walking tour of all the publicly installed Ganeshas in the old city. We would go from the Empress Mill Ganesha, as tall as 20 feet, to the Model Mill Ganesha, to various other famous Ganeshas molded out of clay and painted so exquisitely that you could feel the satin pleats of the God’s saffron dhoti waving in the breeze. No Ganesha statue was complete without his charioteer, the mouse, of course, often carrying his master.
As a little girl, I had been so mesmerized by the statue of Ganesha that my father had made a concession in his otherwise atheistic lifestyle and installed our very own Ganesha idol in our house. Every year, I loved making fragrant garlands and singing the familiar prayer, “sukhakarta dukhakarta vata vighnachi.” Ganesha was the remover of calamity, the harbinger of good omen, the scribe, and the intellectual. But the best thing about Ganesha was his favorite sweet, modaka, fried pastry stuffed with fresh coconut and sugar.
As I grew older, my memories of Ganesha Chaturthi became more personal. I would get on the stage to dance the kathak and the garba, and later still, compete in debates, winning trophies. There would be moments of insight into a world beyond as I sat on the cold hard street until wee hours of the morning, soaking in the drizzle, watching a newsreel of the British Queen or of Soviets spaceships.
On the last day of the festival, the whole town would parade en masse to the banks of Lake Ambazari, chanting, “ganapati bappa moriya, pudhachya varshi lawkar ya” (“Farewell Ganesha, come early next year”). Then the clay statues would be immersed into the waters and we would return home, feeling sad, as if after a funeral.
Then came Dashahara, when we would go from house to house, offering leaves from the “gold” tree and eating sweetmeats at each stop. It was the Indian version of Halloween with its trick-o’-treats.
Kojagiri, or the harvest full moon, was the night we boiled milk in huge caldrons set up in the courtyard and drank it spiced with nutmeg and cardamom.
Divali, the festival of lights, was for many years for me steeped only in memories of firecrackers. The other singular characteristic of Divali was the ritual bathing before dawn on Narakachaturdashi; it was said that if you stayed in bed past daybreak on this holy day, you would surely end up in narak—hell—for your sins.
Then came the Hindu New Year, during which we would hang effigies made of sugar cookies in the window to dispel evil spirits.
The most irreverent festival was Holi in springtime, when, armed with brass water guns, we would spray each other with color. In the evening, huge bonfires were lit, and everyone gathered around to bask in the glow of the flames.
Thankfully, by the time summer was upon us festival madness would wane.
Only to be replaced, alas, by the annual spate of weddings.
I wonder sometimes what is more miraculous, the fact that I remember all these festivals or the fact that in spite of my immersion into such ritual and superstition, I remain, like my father, a skeptic.
Yet, as I travel down memory lane, I can’t help being gripped by the nostalgia of a true believer.
Sarita Sarvate writes commentaries for Pacific News Service and KQED. A collection of her writings can be found at www.saritasarvate.com.