Saturday, 3 September 2011

The Elephant in the Room Marches onto the Road

I have always loved Hindu mythology with its varied exuberant gods and goddesses, winsome demi-gods and demi-goddesses and malevolent yet colourful demons; where every aspect of nature and every species in the animal kingdom is worshipped, even snakes and tigers! But the most revered amongst them is the elephant-headed god, the one worshipped before the start of all ceremonies and rituals or any event for that matter, the purveyor of all good, the remover of obstacles, the god of wisdom, a patron of arts and sciences, and the god of what not, the one who is worshipped by not only Hindus, but Jains and Buddhists alike, the one and only Ganesh or Ganpati. The masses' adoration for him is unparalleled and probably causes the other gods in the Hindu pantheon to go green with envy.

[The Lalbaugcha Raja (meaning King of Lalbaug) - The most visited Ganesh Pandal in Bombay.]
He is worshipped round the year, but for ten to twelve days during the festival of Ganeshotsav, he is welcomed in the homes of people and showered with love and affection, not to mention mouth-watering sweeets, especially his favourite Modaks and Laddus. The festival starts on Ganesh Chaturthi, the fourth day of the Shukl Paksh of Bhaadrapad (that is the fourth day of the waxing moon period) and ends on Anant Chaturdashi, the fourteenth day of the Shukl Paksh of Bhaadrapad (that is the fourteenth day of the waxing moon period); though the actual number of days may vary from ten to twelve as the Hindu calendar is a lunisolar calendar and may have additional days. Ganeshotsav is a period for gaiety and celebration throughout India and even abroad and across all races and  cultures.

Why is it with most festivals in India that they are cause for celebration for a few and cause a lot of trouble and annoyance to a larger class of poeple, whether it's Navratri, Diwali, Holi or Ganeshotsav. And the noise-levels during these, arghh!! A deaf person would go deaf again, if there's such a thing. And it just seems to get worse with each passing year. Sound levels average around 80 decibels, ranging from 60 decibels to as high as 120 decibels, as against the recommendatory limit of 40 set by the World Health Organisation. Rules are flouted even in the designated Silence Zones. And the flabby lazy cops, more like bystanders, but watch on, as crazy mad-men like drummers drum ferociously, not relenting a bit. And Ganeshotsav celebrations are the craziest in Maharashtra, particularly Bombay. I guess it's my misfortune that I live here, and more so because one of the immersion spots is Powai Lake, right next to where I live.

Traffic snarls go for miles. It seems as if the cars form a long unbroken chain from the outskirts of Bombay, right up to Fort, even on highways, which even on normal days never do look like highways, for they're often more crowded than other roads. Just the other day, on the 1st of September, the first day of Ganeshotsav, we took two and a half hours to go 4 kilometres and had to eventually turn back; waiting for a legal U-turn took forever! And again on the 2nd, when many households immerse their idols, it took me hours to get home, not to forget that I had to walk half the way home in formal attire on dirty wet roads, riddled with potholes and puddles.

[Huge crowds gathered for immersion of idols.]
Ganesh Pandals (sort of like tents) are constructed on the roads, many of them digging holes in the roads so that the bamboos supporting the pandals can be stuck in and then we question as to why there are so many potholes! And what kind of a government allows roads meant for all people to be occupied by a select few, just in the name of religion! There have been numerous cases of people breathing their last in ambulances or women birthing in cabs because they could not reach the hospital (and of course many other instances of babies being conceived in cars, just out of boredom.). We are anyway running short of road space and for that very reason never have demarcated or dedicated lanes, and to allow half of the road to be occupied, just doesn't make sense.

[A Ganesh idol rotting atop a pile of dirt at Powai Lake, nine months after its immersion. Nine months, hmmm... maybe it was just born.]
And the biggest loss caused by festivities - the immersion of thousands of idols, most of them made of Plaster of Paris with toxic paint and hundreds or adornments, into seas, rivers, lakes, ponds or any water body that one can find. The idols are literally dumped into these water bodies; That's what He gets for being the most loved god? You should go to the beach just a day after the immersions and you'll see dismembered bodies, hands shortened, trunks truncated, stomachs strewn about and feet somewhere else, and of course people walking all over them, trying to avoid it, but failing miserably owing to the bulk of mess lying and also dogs trampling them and doing their daily business on them. Just last year at Girgaum Chowpaatty, one of the chief immersion sites, the MCGM (Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai) sweeped up 50 truckloads of just flowers and fruits and other decomposable materials each hour! These idols and their toxic materials pollute the sea unlike anything else, worse than oil spills, and result in schools of fish dead. And the remainder, not having been to school, are not just uneducated but deformed and deadly, and often take the lives of those who dare to consume them. I have never seen clear waters at any Bombay beach, let alone blue waters and for that matter even my father has never, although the MCGM's efforts at sprucing up the beaches has lead to some positive change and is pretty evident. With immersions happening every alternate day, traffic jams are becoming unavoidable, for you can't sit at home all through that period.

[A Ganesh idol a day after immersion, lying among rubbish and refuse.]
Why can't people use clay idols or idols made of other environmentally friendly materials like jute or bagasse or better still have idols made of metal and have mock-immersions and use the idol year after year? There can be common idols between many households. It is becoming increasingly trendy to get home idols, but people do not lend a thought to the fact that every additional idol adds to the municipality's woes. We really need to protect our environment and not compromise our future and that of the coming generations.

[The clean up process after the Ganeshotsav immersions.]
Also, managing these immersion spots is a big hassle. Imagine the police forces deployed to ensure that the whole process goes about smoothly and no fights break out, as a large number of people tend to consume desi-daaru or country liquor in unrestrained quantities. Each year about ten million people are out on the streets in Bombay alone, making Ganeshotsav a very likely terrorist target.

[Green Ganesh.]
However, there have been some positive changes since the past couple of years. The One Village One Idol programme was started to reduce the number of idols per household, with an entire village having just one idol. Pandals have been alloted specific times for immersions to ease over-crowding at one point of time and ease traffic woes. The administration has created temporary ponds, specifically for immersion, and the idols from these are taken out every hour and crushed to be later used in landfills. I am an atheist, but were I not, I would be hurt that my beloved god is being crushed to pieces. But then, it is a Frankenstein's monster in the disguise of a god. We ourselves created it and when it goes out of control, we ourselves need to destroy it. However, not many like to talk about it. The elephant-headed clearly is the elephant in the room, but when it marches onto the road and blocks them, we have a serious problem. Even the Supreme Court quashed a Public Interest Litigation, which was filed to question the immersion of idols in water bodies as it caused environment degradation, on the grounds that the Indian Constitution guarantees each person the Right to Freedom of Religion under Articles 25 to 28. Anything goes in India in the name of religion. Hope people understand the environmental impact of their activities before blindly following something. Religion does not prescribe making idols of such materials that did not exist when such practices were started nor does it prescribe destruction of nature to please a god, which is embodied through nature. Oh sweet irony!

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