This year, for the first time, my family celebrated the Ganesh festival at home. Honestly, my heart wasn’t entirely in it. We had just moved into a new house, exhausted from weeks of planning and packing; we were still adjusting to the routine of the new school year and I found out that the startup I was working with, had run out of funding and I had lost a job I loved.
But my husband Ashwin and I had been talking about celebrating this festival at home for a couple of years now. In the past, we went to the temple. My older son participated in dances at community events. But there was something about celebrating at home that would give our kids a rich, cultural experience. So, a couple of days before September 19th when the festival began, I suggested to my husband that we celebrate, even though we weren’t prepared.
In Zambia, where I grew up, I celebrated Ganesh festival as part of a community. An idol of Ganesh was brought all the way from India and placed on a stage in the temple. We attended pujas over the ten days that the festival took place. Oil lamps were lit, hymns or artis were sung and decadent sweet treats were offered to Ganesh, the God of wisdom and the remover of obstacles. Then, on the eleventh day, we took the clay idol of Ganesh and submerged it in a lake where it would disintegrate, to acknowledge the impermanent nature of life.
Because Ashwin grew up in India, his experience was different. Weeks before the festival, the markets would come alive with idols of the elephant-headed God. In Ashwin’s neighborhood, people from all faiths – Christians, Muslims, Sikhs – came together to decorate the platform on which they displayed their Ganesh. Ashwin and his family visited Lalbaug, moving through a crush of devotees to catch a glimpse of the infamous, 12-feet-tall Lalbaughcha Raja. At his uncle’s home, cooks prepared meals from noon until night for the many relatives that gathered.
On the night before the festival, I rummaged through our boxes and found a string of lights my sister had given us as a gift. I placed the Ganesh idol we bought on our last trip to India, on the silver-painted, four-legged chaurang or stool we got in our wedding. To be environmentally conscious, we used a betel nut (often used to symbolize Ganesh) to submerge in water, rather than the idol. We decided to celebrate for one day, rather than ten.
On the day of the festival, we performed a short puja in the morning and made a prasad, an offering, of my boys’ favorite cashew candy, kaju barfi. For the evening prasad, we served a simple dinner on a silver platter. At bedtime, my boys and I read stories from The Broken Tusk: Stories of the Hindu God Ganesha.
Looking at my Facebook feed and WhatsApp messages on that day, I was envious. Friends and family had created entire backdrops of silk. Some had made modak, the coconut-filled dumplings that are said to be Lord Ganesh’s favorite. Some had created scenes for their Ganesh, mounting him on a statue of an elephant, adorned with garlands of fresh flowers. I quickly went down the twisted path of guilt and self-reproach.
But then, I thought back to the moment I switched on the lights and our Ganesh idol glowed. I delighted in the fact that my boys gobbled up the barfi and took turns ringing the puja bell while we sang the arti. I giggled with them as we read stories of Ganesh’s large belly and unyielding appetite and his joyful dance that calmed the angry Lord Brahma. I watched how their eyes grew wide when they read about how Ganesh swallowed a demon in one, gigantic gulp.
Sometimes, devotion can be quiet and contemplative and sometimes it can be bold and colorful. Sometimes you come to devotion with a heavy heart and sometimes you bring joy. Either way, there is always peace waiting for you on the other side. Always.