The Monsoon Festival

On the evening before every Vinayaka Chaviti, the monsoon festival, our family gathered in the living room and sat on the floor. My mother would bring rice flour-based dough and our job for the next few hours was to shape the dough into long and thin "snakes." She would boil them the following day and add jaggery to make "bellam taalikalu." It was not an easy task. If we applied too little pressure, the dough would disintegrate while boiling. If we put too much pressure, they would be hard to eat. If they were thick, the inner part would not get cooked; if they were too thin, the structural integrity was in question.

Most importantly, all of us had to be consistent in terms of thickness. Otherwise, boiling cannot consistently cook all of them simultaneously. As a control scientist, I now realize how difficult the task was. Though we complained a bit, my mother would never give us a choice to skip the chore. But after an hour or so, she would permit us to relax or sleep, and she would continue to complete the job for another couple of hours.

The following day, I would open my sketchbook and search for the best picture of Ganesha in the weekly magazines and copy it. The elephant-headed god with a human body makes the cutest subject any artist can hope for, especially when the pot-bellied god is expected to ride on a mouse. The shape of the trunk or the belly never posed a problem; instead, they forgive all the little errors. My biggest challenge was the palms and the feet. Over the years, I perfected them, and I was rather proud of myself for producing the best-looking palms, whether Ganesha or other humans.

My parents were not much into rituals, and any festival was about food and other fun. The day would start with kuDumulu or unDrALLu, a recipe made from boiling rice ravva and lentils and finally shaped into small spheres. For lunch, we enjoyed the fruits of our labor by relishing the bellam taalikalu. My mother would also cook "attesaru" and "pachchi pulusu". attesaru is boiled rice cooked with the exact amount of water needed. Therefore, all the modern pressure or rice cookers can only cook attesaru. The large families preferred a more robust recipe involving boiling a large amount of rice and more than sufficient water. This method has the advantage of adding more rice as and when needed though it requires draining of broth before eating. But my mother used the attesaru to mean kichidi or hot Pongal. We would eat attesaru with ghee and a piece of jaggery. It also goes well with pachchi pulusu, a soup made from water, onion, chilies, salt, crushed jaggery, and fire-roasted and crushed brinjal. These are the most straightforward possible recipes, but they are indeed most mouth-watering for those who acquired the taste.

I hope you observed that none of the recipes used deep frying or, for that matter even one drop of oil. My mother would generally put taalimpu (taDkaa or seasoning) in pachchi pulusu but avoided that on Vinayaka chaviti. The story behind this strict avoidance of oil for vinanyaka chaviti is as cute as the shape of Ganesha. Ganesha and his mother, Parvati, were at an uninvited function. The host literally kicked Ganesha out. But baby Ganesha fell into a large container of oily sweets (my mother used burelu in her story), and Ganesha ate all of the sweets resulting in a big pot belly. Therefore, Parvati decreed that no one offers Ganesha anything oily for his birthday, Vinayaka chaviti.

The story perfectly explains the tradition of avoiding oily foods on Vinayaka chaviti; I believed it for the first forty years of my life. Then one vinayaka chaviti day, my paternal grandmother walked around the room talking to herself. She was a bit deaf for a long time, and I used gestures to communicate with her. I suppose my gestures were not so precise, and she used to find them funny. Even at forty, she used to think I was playing with her, and I certainly was. Most of the time, she would talk to herself unless we could speak into her ear. That day she said that those were the days for neeLLa pappalu (water-based snacks), and the days for nUne pappalu (oily snacks) would soon follow.

If I were taking a bath at the time, I would have run out yelling Eureka just as Archimedes did a couple of thousand years ago. In the past, all houses had kitchens (and bathrooms) outside the main structure. After all, the roofs and, in many cases, even the walls were prone to fire accidents. Though they had stoves inside the main structure, they were only used for minimal cooking, mainly for cooking rice and boiling milk. Any serious cooking, including deep frying, was done on stoves outside the main house. However, the monsoons make the stoves outside entirely unusable. The stoves inside the house were still tricky to use, considering that the wood or other fuel would typically be damp. Hence, I imagine the abovementioned recipes were commonplace during the entire monsoon season, not just the Vinayaka chaviti celebration.

Vinayaka chaviti is celebrated on the fourth day of the Bhadrapada, the sixth month of the Telugu calendar. It is the second major festival after the year starts with Ugadi. The other major festivals, Dasara, Deepavali, and Sankranti, fall into the second half of the year in quick succession.

The months between Ugadi and Vinakaya Chaviti are either too hot or too wet for celebrations. The only events that happen in the coastal Andhra region are weddings. I always wondered why most weddings are scheduled during the hottest period of the year. I suppose the hottest period is when most people are free to focus on things like a wedding. Weddings are scheduled during the night to avoid the heat and humidity of the day. This would also allow working people to attend without having to skip work. Monsoon season follows the hot months, and everyone gets very busy. In a monsoon-dependent agrarian society, the timing of rains and timely actions during the rains is everything, whether it is plowing the land or seeding for the next crop. There is a superstition that it is bad for the mother-in-law if a new bride stays with her in-laws during the month of Ashadam (which coincides with heavy monsoon). Invariably, the newlyweds would be separated during Ashadam. My mother had her way of explaining this superstition. After the wedding, the newlyweds would get their privacy and break from the usual chores to get to know each other. But no house can survive if a healthy man stays away from work. Newlywed or not, everyone has to be available for work during the initial period of the monsoon. The tradition continues till day though its relevance has waned.

When Ganesha arrives for his annual visit, the plants and trees are healthy and bright green from the rains. Even the semi-arid region of Hyderabad looks beautiful, and the eastern ghats of Visakhapatnam compete with the heavens. On the day of Vinayaka chaviti, each house installs a small idol under something called palavelli. Palavelli is a square-shaped bamboo structure decorated with fruits, flowers, and leaves. The leaves part is called patri. The afternoon before the chaviti, the hunt for the patri was among the most exciting things for us as kids. Fortunately, I lived in a township with a large piece of empty land with a wide variety of plants. All the kids used to compete to find the most beautiful leaf or flower. The idol itself is either made of clay or even a tiny amount of turmeric. The idol is given all attention with an offering of boiled food and prayers twice daily. The celebration ends ten days after the start, and the idol is immersed in a body of water. The tradition of installing an idol and sending it away seems common across different cultures. Perhaps, it is not easy to have a permanent idol that requires constant caring. It is easier to allocate eleven days in a year.

The stories of Ganesha are as interesting as his shape, whether it is his brith and raise to the top, his conflict with the moon, or making a mouse his vehicle. The ideas are highly imaginative yet simplistic, and I believe these stories must have existed as folklore for thousands of years. I wish the current generation had an opportunity to get exposed to these stories as much as they do to anime or Marvel stories.

I imagine the Ganesha festival was celebrated within a family till about a hundred years ago. The great freedom fighter, Bal Gangadhar Tilak, changed all that. To bring people together from different castes and classes, Tilak popularized many festivals by initiating community-based celebrations. There were undoubtedly community-based celebrations, especially during Dasara. But it was all about community plays, songs, and dances, not so much about the public installation of idols and large processions.

The processions and idol sizes are so big that they significantly negatively impact the local waterbodies. With the worsening global climate, this is one more unwanted human activity. Though I do not understand it completely, a large amount of money is involved in these processions and auctions, and they attract the worst elements of society. Tilak also popularized Shivaji, and he has become a symbol of Marathi pride ever since. All these have made a difference during the freedom fight, but each of those has its long-term adverse effects. Shivaji is now portrayed as a symbol for one religion to discriminate against other religions. Mahatma Gandhi supported the Khilafat moment to unite different faiths in the freedom fight, resulting in the partition. William Jones and other scholars found connections between various languages only to be abused by Hitler to concoct a racial theory to justify the massacre of Jews. Einstein, Bohr, and other scientists discovered the mysteries of the atomic structure only to be abused by Americans in their fight against the Japanese, who still struggle with the ill effects even after 77 years.

May Lord Ganesha put some sense into people and fight against natural enemies such as the worsening climate.