Ajji. That’s who she was, my grandmother, a petite woman with round silver rimmed spectacles framing a pair of gentle sagacious eyes, set in an oval face aged with fine lines that told countless stories. Stories of mythology, of people, of places and of adages that never ever failed to get my little being into rapt attention. She always sat with her back propped against the wall, clad in a muted colored sari, legs outstretched with her two feet peeking out, crossed against each other. The sunlight that streaked in through the skylight over the tall ceiling hugged her equally with the warm sunshine she so loved.
That she was Ajji to family, friends, neighbors, visitors and what seemed the whole world did not least matter to me because I thought she was mine while my younger siblings openly squabbled over their sole ownership. I adored her with all the fierce and possessive love that a little child ever could. I asked for stories, all the time and the one that never failed to get my rapt attention comes back to me every year this time of the year: that of Ganesh.
Hindu mythology depicts three Gods of the universe – Brahma the creator, Vishnu the preserver and Shiva the destroyer. Shiva is on his way back from his duties elsewhere to his home Mt. Kailash, and his wife Parvati, the universal female power “Shakti”, decides to take a bath before his arrival. Cognizant of safety, she prepares an idol of a young man from a paste of turmeric and breathing life into him, places him at the doorway of her home, instructing him to not allow anyone inside while she is bathing, under any circumstances. Shiva, in the meanwhile arrives only to be blocked entry into his own abode. Not tolerating the insubordination, by a stranger no less, he severs off the young man’s head and enters the home. An irate Parvati, upon learning that her conception has been destroyed, vows to annihilate the entire universe. Fully conscious of the extent of her power, Shiva pleads forgiveness and asks her what he can do to rectify the impending calamity. Parvati, as a first asks that her son be brought back to life. Furthermore, she demands that he be celebrated all over the universe every year on a particular day.
Shiva sends his troops to find a head to affix to the slain body, supine and lifeless at the door. Nowhere can such a head of a young man be found under the specific conditions laid down by Shiva, except for an elephant. The elephant’s head hence is dutifully brought back to Shiva whereupon the young man is breathed back into life. Ganpati also known as Ganesh, a young man with an elephant head is hence born, accepted as the son of Shiva and Parvati.
Ajji ‘s stories never seemed to end and if they did, with a smile and a witty quip. Ganesh grows up with his brother Subramanya, webbed in the customary sibling rivalry. Once, the brothers present their dispute of who is older and wiser to their parents. The parents duly set a contest to their children to go around the world three times, with whomever finishing first would be proclaimed the winner. While Subramanya hops on his vehicle and sets off on his journey around the globe, Ganesh outwits him by simply circling his seated parents regarding them as none other than the universe. Ajji unfailingly pointed to the eternal triumph of wisdom over skill, after every single narration of this story.
Yet another time, Ganesh challenges the Sage Vyasa that he is willing to serve as scribe for the great epic Mahabharata only if it was uninterrupted during his dictation. The Sage, responds to Ganesh that he shall write only after understanding the full meaning of the verses. The Sage intersperses complex verses to provide himself moments of rest, while Ganesh takes the time to ponder over them: the two minds surmount the mutual conditions to complete the legendary epic. That the story of Ganesh, is beguiling in both realistic and metaphorical forms does not diminish the attributes Ajji always emphasized, that of loyalty, duty, love, humility, fun, intelligence and wit.
Ganesh Chaturthi, a time when fun and festivities meld into my day of celebration. A day when I adorn all the Ganpatis that I have lovingly collected over time – from a little alley in Venice, the noisy floating market in Bangkok, an artsy gallery in Paris, a remote village near Delhi, handed down from my mother and many gifted from my dear friends. Watching mesmerized, the gently waving little plumes of lights, I pray with all my heart to bring good and remove evil to all my near and dear ones. As the laddoos and delicacies sweeten my own palate with those of my family and friends, I wish the day would never end while I silently look forward for Ganpati the next year.
But most of all, it is always a day when I want to be an 8-year old again, running back exhausted after a full day of school and game after game with neighborhood kids, to rest my head on her lap feeling the wispiness of her softest cotton sari that feels like clouds and say, “tell me a story, Ajji”, and drift off to the magical land of her stories. A day I fondly think of my Ajji, a spiritual being who I remember seldom visited temples, but brought back all the Gods into her own soul and mine.