By Nihal Bambulkar Sep. 23, 2018
I’ve been jostled in the crowd, groped by a stranger, covered in cheap gulaal, and sacrificed at the altar of the DJ wale babu. But no trauma compares to the ordeal of attempting visarjan from the deck of a ferry in the middle of a downpour.
Every year during Ganpati Visarjan in Mumbai, you realise two things — people who litter all year suddenly care about the environment, and jellyfish and stingray stings are Mother Nature’s way of taking revenge on people immersing idols. I have no desire to visit the beach during this time of year, because going head-to-head with nature’s fury while carrying the heaviest of Ganpati idols is not my idea of a good time.
You might be wondering why me, a person who’ll make a beeline for Goa every long weekend, avoids Chowpatty like the beach is lava. The reason is, I’ve had my fill of visarjans. I’ve been jostled in the crowd, groped by a stranger, covered in cheap gulaal, and sacrificed at the altar of the DJ babu. But no visarjan-induced trauma compares to the ordeal I underwent in 2010.
It was mid-September, and the streets were rife with revellers powered by the beats of Nashik dhol and seemingly magical modaks. Earlier that day, our neighbours, the Patils, had taken it upon themselves to inform the residents of the society about drunken louts that had taken over Malad beach to catcall and behave inappropriately with the women involved in the processions. This matter was of great concern to us, not only because finding tasers is extremely difficult, but also because the only remaining option was to head to the deadly Gorai beach in Borivali.
The crew for Mission Impossible: Visarjan was my mother, little sister, my 75-year-old grandfather, and me, carrying an idol that more than made up for all the excuses I made for not going to the gym. We found ourselves on a rain-swept jetty, listening to the ferry operator warn everyone that the downpour meant they would have stop the service soon. Having never visited Gorai beach, I failed to understand why we’d need a ferry to complete the visarjan. The farthest that we had ever gone was Juhu beach, where one could pay a lousy 100 bucks and stand in knee-deep water while watching an enterprising individual immerse your idol in the sea. But this was going to be far worse than knee-deep water.
I remember begging my mother to never take us back to the beach for visarjan as soon as we reached terra firma.
As the four of us slipped and skidded along the mossy jetty toward the ferry, revellers surrounded us, clapping cymbals and chanting “Ganpati Bappa Morya!” The smell of incense sticks mingled with the signature odour of the Arabian Sea around Mumbai — dead fish and human waste. The ferry itself did not inspire much hope. It looked likea poor man’s Titanic that had long been used to carry illegal immigrants across the seven seas.
When it comes to boarding ferries, there are two kinds of people in this world. The first, usually on the heavier side, are the ones who make a production of crossing the boarding plank, windmilling their arms and screeching at the possibility of falling in the smelly water. The others are the ones who probably have a circus performer somewhere in their family tree, and cross over the plank with the confidence of a trapeze artist from Rambo Circus.
The insides of the ferry reeked of sweat and hopelessness. There wasn’t much space to stand, move or breathe. The cloudy skies overhead meant that the boat’s interior was shrouded in pitch black darkness. Luckily we were surrounded by devout people chanting “Jai Ganesh Deva”, so hopefully the gods would be kind and refrain from capsizing our vessel. Meanwhile, I had become certain of two things — people that firmly believed in God didn’t mind drowning with their idols and that the captain had night-vision goggles.
The sea was choppy that day, and every few minutes the boat would tilt to the right at a frightening angle, before repeating the motion to the left. I hope nobody fell out of the boat that day because it was so crowded and dark, nobody would have noticed that they were gone. With each tilt, salty water would cascade across the deck, leading to an undersea army to invade our boat. A cast of crabs joined the passengers on the boat, and more was definitely not merrier as screams of fear began piercing the darkness as a crustacean attacked a chappal.
The water on the deck caused an additional problem — cockroaches hiding in cracks and crevices on the boat left their hiding holes and began stretching their wings. The sound of buzzing wings filled their air, leading to heightened panic among the passengers.
It was at this point, when the ruckus reached its peak, that the captain decided to abruptly stop the boat. People looked shocked when he dropped the anchor, and stared at him when he stepped out of his cabin. “Everyone, stand in line!” he ordered. Of course, nobody stood in line. The sea had decided this cursed voyage would go no further, and now the captain and his helper were going to help us immerse our idols off the side of the boat.
Poor captain, who expected a crowd of Mumbaikars to proceed in an orderly fashion. Idols were tossed across the deck like basketballs, while frightened devotees uttered the fastest prayer of their lives. It was clear from the captain’s expression that if we stayed on the water any longer, the idols would not be the only things being immersed that day.
Somehow, we made it back to shore in one piece. I remember begging my mother to never take us back to the beach for visarjan as soon as we reached terra firma. This memory is also why I tend to be the calmest of my friends during Ganpati season. Yeah, sure, the loudspeakers can ruin your afternoon nap, and processions might make you late for brunch, but thank your stars you don’t have crabs in your chappals and cockroaches in your hair.
Towards the end of our ride, a light drizzle of rain had begun which later turned into a full-blown storm once we had reached the shore. My mother, my 75-year-old grandfather and my lil sister had all returned to the shore in one piece.
I did realise two of many things after returning home that evening: One, people have no sense of forming a queue or standing in one should it be enforced. And two, that run-ins with creepy aquatic creatures during Ganpati visarjan can be truly life-threatening.
Nihal likes to believe that darkness is more beautiful than frightening. He likes to be called Bambi, a nickname, his friends gave him.