That Ganpati-shaped hole in my heart
''Every new year, I would flip through the pages of the calendar to check my birthday, then Ganesh Chaturthi'' writes Sukhada Tatke from her Edinburgh home
One of my earliest memories is from when I was about five years old. I was sitting in bed writing numbers in a notebook and looking at the clock. I obviously had no notion of time then and I don’t think I knew how to read the clock either. But I was waiting for it to be time. Time to go out into the world and bring Ganpati home.
An event, they say, gets consolidated into a memory when it is emotionally charged. The thought of entering a shop and returning with God must have sounded miraculous to my young mind. And while I do not recollect doing such a thing, the excitement I felt on the eve of Ganesh Chaturthi stayed with me all the way into adulthood.
It would begin mid-monsoon every year, this excitement, when a typewritten postcard in Marathi arrived in our mailbox from Vijay Stores, a friendly shop in Vile Parle. My grandfather would gather us around him and gleefully read the contents of the letter aloud. The message was simple: ‘Come reserve your very own Ganpati from such and such date to so and so day’. And off we would go, a week or two later, my grandparents, my mother, and I on one of their laps, squeezed into an autorickshaw.
I cannot describe the flutter I felt in my heart as I entered the store year after year. Entire walls lined with idols — some shelves so high I couldn’t see the ones on top. I moved from one idol to the next, amazed by the colours of the dhotis, the shapes and sizes from the giant to the minuscule; some idols standing, others sitting on low seats; some reclined like Vishnu; others reminiscent of Krishna, blue and sporting peacock feathers. Not one bore the hint of a smile — yet I felt a kinship to this strange elephant faced-thing that was supposed to be God.
Every new year, I would flip through the pages of the calendar first to check my birthday, then Ganesh Chaturthi. My grandfather was the oldest of six siblings, so the family Ganpati was always installed in our home. I don’t know when the tradition started but those seven days towards the end of monsoon were, to me, the best days of the year.
A couple of weeks before Ganesh Chaturthi was when the flurry of activity started in our home. Aji sifted through the pooja items stashed away in a cupboard somewhere. Mamma went to the bank to get her jewellery from the locker. And I? I started a countdown with my cousins.
Bamboo sticks rose from the ground at various locations in the neighbourhood, only to be covered in scrims. Our Khar market was transformed into a fairyland of lights, flowers, and garlands. I almost burned a hole in my eyes staring into those lights each night!
“Hurry up, get ready, Bappa is waiting inside,” Mamma would say, kissing me awake on the morning of Ganesh Chaturthi. ‘Inside’ meant our kitchen, where our genial little friend sat ensconced in a small, decorated shrine. I would spring out of bed — to sunlight pouring in through our big windows, to the heady mix of fragrances, of mogra and chapha, the smoke of the incense spiralling up, the food on the stove. Looking back, I think my heart expanded on that day to fill itself with all that was joyous and happy, as if storing reserves that would last me the rest of the year.
Come mid-morning and the doorbell would start ringing. Cousins, uncles, granduncles, aunts, would stream in, filling our very small flat to the seams. Us kids, in our new shiny, silky, itchy clothes, were packed off on a chore we adored — to wade through the monsoon grass in the colony and pluck some as durvaa.
Back home with our booty, we made bundles of twenty-one grass strips with three blades each, and offered them to Ganpati, our biggest contribution of the day.
“Modak time!” an adult would holler from the kitchen, a cue for us to scurry in, apply oil lavishly on our palms and settle down around the table or on the floor, wherever there was space. Together, we made balls of rice dough, kneading each into a soft, slightly deep, saucer. We placed a small dollop of jaggery and coconut mixture at the centre and wrapped it close into neat petals that met as a pointed peak.
Throughout that week, we never left Ganpati alone at home. Neighbours, friends and relatives went in and out. There was always food, always chatter, always laughter, never any phone notifications to disrupt conversations. If I had to paint a picture a joy, it would be of my home during Ganpati time.
But with age came a less joyous perception of time. One day, my grandmother said she was too tired to continue this tradition and asked her son, my uncle, to take over. A few weeks later, she passed away. That year, Ganpati was subdued. Four years later, my grandfather passed away. Our favourite festive time would never be the same again.
By then, I had understood the toll festivals take on women, how exhausting the load can be. Having also learnt how deeply rooted in casteism religious festivals were and how weaponised by politicians, I waged a war against them. All the gods took a beating and Ganpati was no exception. I joined my hands in prayer more out of habit than belief.
The first time I felt a Ganpati-shaped hole in my heart was when I briefly moved to France as a newlywed. It was the last days of summer. The nights were longer and in the air was the certainty of a cold, dark period ahead. France was new to me, and I woke up on Ganesh Chaturthi with a deep longing for the familiar. On my phone screen, I watched Bombay light up. I lit a candle before my small idol, placed a chocolate, a 1-euro coin and some wild flowers as offerings, and recreated my cocoon of childhood.
Two years ago, when my husband and I had shifted to Edinburgh, I woke on Ganesh Chaturthi, shrouded by sadness. My favourite uncle had passed away two days earlier. I ached for home, for family, for that long gone time when our tiny flat swelled like Ganpati Bappa’s belly to accommodate everyone, many of whom had quietly exited the world.
That morning, when I came out of the shower, I was greeted by a sight: my husband had fashioned a cardboard holder for a birthday candle, and placed it, along with a matchbox, on a golden stand he had fished out from my things. Wordlessly, he had kept what I needed next to the Ganpati in our room.
I forced myself out of the house to buy flowers, which he pruned and placed in a vase that was really a box shaped like the classic red English phonebooth. No modak, no prasad, no agarbatti. My grandmother used to say, “If you do something with love, Ganpati minds nothing.” So there we were, my husband and I, doing what we wanted with love and Ganpati minded nothing.
This week, as I participated in family aartis over video calls, I thought of that day all those years ago when I sat writing numbers in my notebook, waiting for time to speed up. It was perhaps a day like any other because outside of that image—my mind latches onto nothing. Not the colour of the sky, not the voices ringing in the house, nothing.
My father had died a little more than a year ago. My mother and I had moved from Pune to Bombay to live with her parents. That was my first Ganpati in the house that would go on to be my home for more than two decades.
I am tempted to assign meaning to those intense moments of excitement. I want to say that I saw something. Perhaps a glimmer of hope that not everyone who leaves remains gone forever like my father; that there is an elephant-headed divinity who rises from the water and comes back for you, year after year after year.
The truth is, I was too young to make meaning of grief, to even understand that there is something called grief. That’s the realm of adults. But kids? Kids are happy with made-up truths. God is coming home.
Sukhada Tatke is a reporter and writer based in Edinburgh.