A Grimm’s Brothers fairy tale.
Last week we were let out of school half a day early so we could beat the traffic home in preparation for Ganpati Bappa. It was the last day of the Hindi Festival celebrating Ganesh. Families buy statues of Ganesh – the pudgy elephant-headed god – and worship them before parading them down the street and immersing them in water. The statues are made of (ideally) some dissolvable material, painted white and pink with neon clothes and decked out in carnations and sparkly things. They vary in size from small to immense.
Drums had been banging in our neighborhood and people had been out dancing for nights and nights and nights in advance of the last day. Small statues had been immersed regularly. On the last night, the big ones go in. The streets are packed with people playing drums and throwing red dye/dust in the air. Food and drink are given out. People Are On The Street.
I went out to Powai, a nice neighborhood with traffic laws and real streets and sidewalks (though there are still trees in the middle of the road) where a colleague lives. I went to a yoga class on a balcony overlooking the hills of Mumbai and Powai lake. The air wasn’t too hot, the light was calm and merciful, the yoga teacher had the bearing of a benevolent queen. She forced us into difficult poses, laughed and chided us, talked to us about unlocking our chakras and led us in a hummingbird chant.
After this, disguised in ‘hindi’ clothes – baggy linen pants and a covering kurta, my delightful partner in festivities and I set out to see the immersions. We went with a male colleague.
In the beginning of the journey we were walking toward the water without much aim. We walked out to an overlook park and passed some impressive Banyan trees and some young men posing in the grass for photographs. They looked hilariously dramatic and we couldn’t figure out why so many were posing in that particular patch of grass. Some had plastic swords. We saw a giant statue paddled out to the centre of the lake and not-so-gracefully pushed into the water. Splash.
As we walked, we attracted attention. We were two white ladies walking ahead of our male companion. He commented on how interesting it was to watch people watch us. People were smiling, they were cheering when we asked to take pictures. They posed and postured.
Then we got to the immersion point. Suddenly we weren’t sure where to go, what to do, and there was a massive crowd being shuffled by organizers/official people. The faces around us were all of strange men, looking at us. The smiles were gone. We were submerged in a crowd. The tide changed as quickly as a fairy tale princess swallows a potion. My colleague and I quickly removed ourselves from the crowd and demanded that our friend walk with us to somewhere less crowded. The moment was brief and scary and dark.
It was a moment of awareness. It was a moment of realizing otherness – White. Blonde. Female. It was a removal of personal space. It was confusion and not knowing what to do.
The walk back was hot and humid. It was followed by a quiet evening of conversation and Stress Relief Tea. These are experiences of India. These are my fairy tales.
Fairy tales are cautionary. They are dark and scary, with morality lessons. What did I learn? To be careful and be with good people. The minute I feel the mood shift, I will shift right out and go home.
Fairy tales are also beautiful. They are filled with magic and wonder and delight. I saw some beautiful things that night. Gorgeous babies (wearing eyeliner, but still), people being goofy and having fun celebrating, beautiful sunken gods, glorious trees and the moon. I experienced a yoga class that made my soul feel lighter.