Sakhubai almost tripped over it. She let out a small curse and looked down and at once she saw that it wasn’t a normal potato. It had a tiny protuberance the shape of a trunk. Turned neatly to the right. ”Ganpati Bappa Morya” she exclaimed loudly, hoped the lord hadn’t heard her cursing and rushed to her house all the while loudly exclaiming. The whole slum was within her house in minutes. A small pooja was immediately conducted to secure blessings and the shapely potato occupied centre stage in her modest hut, appropriately anointed with sandal, kumkum and strewn with flowers. A small trickle of people portly women were praying devoutly. The appearance of a Ganesha provided for a much needed break in Jag Jivan nagar. The nearest festival was months away, the heat had already begun to stifle. For most denizens of this slum in north Mumbai, highs on the cruel plot of life were such, and interspersed amidst a grim, penurious existence.
Jag Jivan nagar was divided into two halves by a large gutter with one bridge. It wasn’t always like that but after the riots in 1993, the police, the politicians and the mafia lords had felt it prudent to divide so that trouble could be contained. One half became Hindu with a temple and a saffron flag atop it. The other half obviously was Muslim. Mosque, prayers, minarets, Id. The dividing gutter was a stinky black morass of plastic bags, human excreta and sewage from the apartment complexes around. It was also only during holi that the gutter actually saw secularism, its blackness lost in a sea of gulal and shimmering silver pellets. Most areas of Mumbai are similar in hiding a dank slum behind the glamorous façade of sky scrapers. For every building sweeping cobwebs off the sky, a real cobweb of teeming enterprise and life existed. Vegetable vendors, domestic help, rickshawallahs and the mass of humans that made for the smooth running of suburban lives.
Fatima Bibi heard of the tuberous manifestation of God. It was time to pray Sakhubai a visit. She too worked as domestic help, as did most of the women in the slum. In a time polarized by religion Fatima was proof of blurring boundaries and mixing colours. Just to be safe though she would go in the night, in a saree. Just in case. With the elections in sight flare ups were common and deep down she felt the appearance of the potato wasn’t a mere accident. But Ganpati she prayed to. And she would go. It was dark when Fatima reached the other side. Slowly she crept up the lane and saw lengthy shadows outside. Shadows of Hindu caps and a trident even. She saw a typical profile and instantly slunk backwards. Saheb was visiting the Ganpati.
Saheb stood tall in his starched kurta, bowed down gently. He had heard of the miracle only some time ago, in his own land and one of his own people and had romptly rushed. A Ganpati with the trunk towards the right! As the evening shadows lengthened Saheb had arrived with his men all around. He looked grim, almost angry as he pushed his way through to Sakhubai’s hut. His wife, Tai was attired in all her Maharashtrian splendor and had an aarti plate with her. Husband wife made a great show of praying and devotion. At once led by his men a spirited rendition of the Ganpati aarti ensured. The spectacle of the Ganpati aarti in Maharashtra is not an ordinary one. The words and the tempo, along with cymbals clanging lend a spirit and a unique high. Ganpati ceases to be a pleasant benign God then, and at once becomes a terrifying avatar, a true destroyer of obstacles. A vanquisher of all evil. A beacon of hope from all dreariness and as suddenly after the crescendo, Sakhubai snapped out of the trance with the last few notes.
The next morning dawned muggy and pregnant. Sakhubai’s home no longer remained a home. It was thronging with people, Sahebs men. Why the Saheb himself had come to pay his respects. After the cursory aarti, he had even touched her feet. Asked for her blessings, she was destined for greatness one mentioned. Several praised her fates and cursed theirs. A right-trunked Ganpati is more demanding it was said. Mere poojas and aartis wouldn’t do many added. Sakhubai was mainly confused, scared and realized that the potato and God no longer figured in the scheme of things. Something greater was brewing.
to be continued…