As a boy growing up in a typically Puneri neighbourhood, Ganeshotsav for me was as big a deal as Diwali… perhaps bigger. And the vivid memories associated with it make the festival truly memorable.
It was the 1990s. As a teenager, I was truly, fully integrated into the chaos, madness and awesomeness that is the Sarvajanik Ganeshotsav. Back then, it was not nearly as commercialized and although the scale was small, the fervor was not. These were the pre housing complex days of living where small bungalows and two-storied buildings complemented each other to create beautiful and well-integrated colonies. In a way, these colonies were Pune’s true identity. Ours was no exception.
There were always two Ganeshotsavs we celebrated – one at home and the other in the colony. To be honest, the colony was an extension of home, in that it offered similar relations and complications, just at a bigger scale! Yes, I’m romanticizing, but it’s true!
Quite like in other organisations, one made his way up the ladder over time. You had to start at the bottom since you started young. As a foot soldier (someone between 10 and 13 years of age), the role typically assigned to you is of a runner. You are expected to be at the beck and call of the older guys and girls (say 18-21) who are running the show. Yes, these guys are also answerable, but to a committee comprising parents.
The usual rigmarole included collecting money (vargani) for putting up the pandal, the idol and entertainment shows. Committees were formed various activities – kids’ activities, entertainment, prizes and decoration. Being part of a specific committee came later on (say 12-plus) and if you headed a committee, you had truly arrived. The whole arrangement was a microcosm reflecting social and organizational structures. Extraordinary, really, when you consider that the actual structure came about in a couple of hours and over a few cups of chaha!
Back in the day, our colony had about 50 plots with bungalows and buildings for a total of about 150-odd families. Not everyone participated, but we tried our hardest to get them to pay up at least! In the early 1990s, Rs 50 was a great donation; those who gave Rs 100 or more suddenly enjoyed elevated status among us minions for whom a Rs 2 coin was the epitome of wealth!
Being a foot soldier meant your presence in all activities was taken for granted. You may not be important or necessary to any activity, but you made up the numbers and felt self-important. So we would be the ones at the back of a group asking for donations or the ones who would be standing at the gate of the bungalow ushering everyone in for a programme. Once the show began, we were insignificant. Of course, we had our moments in the spotlight when we went up on stage and did our bits in the Variety Entertainment night show, and if we won, awesome. If not, we returned to insignificance… until we got another shot at glory next year.
As time passed, the older generation (those who were 16 or 18 when we were 10 or 12), made way for us to take over the reins. And it was a glorious time! It’s perhaps the closest a boy from a middle class Maharashtrian family will ever come to knowing what it feels to run his own crew! And as is bound to happen, camps formed and rivalries were created. I’m not proud when I accept that some of those rivalries carried on long enough to perhaps permanently affect some individuals. But then, we now have the power of hindsight when we rue such facts!
I don’t want to sound old (or typically Puneri either), but in our days, Ganeshotsav was a more fun affair. I do see some of the same enthusiasm in a couple of the societies and colonies that I do have access to, but it doesn’t feel the same. Perhaps it is because I’ve outgrown the right age or I’ve outgrown the way the Sarvajanik festival is celebrated. I don’t know why. I shouldn’t have, but I think I have.
Perhaps this is the year I return to the festival.
Main Photo: Arka Mukhopadhyay