Why My Atheism Takes a Backseat Every Ganesh Chaturthi

First Person

Why My Atheism Takes a Backseat Every Ganesh Chaturthi

Illustration: Akshita Monga

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ast year, for the first time in 25 years, I missed Ganesh Chaturthi in Pune. Usually, I make it a point to spend the first couple of days in my home city before getting back to work in Mumbai, because those two days mean a lot to me. It’s not because I’m religious – in fact, I am as annoyingly atheist as they come, since my father’s death a few years back.

But Ganesh Chaturthi is one of the last family traditions that I try to follow. Last year, that was broken as well.

Pune transforms during Ganesh Chaturthi. The sarcastic scowls you see on everyone’s face for pretty much the rest of the year, are replaced by smiles – although temporary, it’s genuine. There’s an incredible warmth in the air, which I’d like to believe is simply because of how well-fed everyone is. Buying sweets becomes a gladiator-like sport: There’s banter moving in very fierce currents between customers and shopkeepers. Children line up with huge aluminum boxes, with precise instructions about how many modaks they’re supposed to come back with. There’s the ever-present fear that your family might just have to offer a meal to the Lord without a decent steamed modak, which I admit is very frightening. All this, combined with Pune’s perfect almost-autumn weather, makes this stretch of 10 days the most awaited time of the year, the countdown for which begins at the start of the year.

I was brought up in a religious household. Father was never “god-fearing”; he just doted on the idols he worshipped. He made a strong distinction between his faith and the influence of religion over his day-to-day morality. Which meant that there was no imposition for me to prove my faith – whatever I chanted in Sanskrit while praying, he’d always explain its meaning. I worshipped the gods because I enjoyed it. It brought me peace.

As a child, I had once placed pieces of egg near the Ganesh idol in our prayer room, thinking it would make for a nice prasad. Mother freaked out and I half expected father to lose it. Instead, he was really pleased. He said it was one of the most sincere forms of a prayer he had seen. From that day on, we offered whatever we cooked in the house – even meat – to the gods as prasad.

There’s an air of such sincerity and purity in every household in Pune. Every year, my mother would vow to keep things simple during the Ganesh festivities and every year, she’d outdo herself by adding at least two more items to the previous year’s spread: It’d all start with a simple puri bhaaji, and escalate to masale bhat, aalu vadi, and kheer.   

On Chaturthi morning I’d wake up to the smell of sandalwood. My father would be hard at work, complaining. “No one keeps things where they’re supposed to be.” “So, you’ve finally woken up, when are you going to grow up and help around a bit.” I’d rush out to buy durva (blades of grass offered to Bappa), pick the prettiest lotus from the flower vendor, and buy a box of sweets for guests in the evening.

After father passed away, I stopped praying. There was a part of me that was incredibly angry that a man so devout had to go without any warning. It was around this time that I started developing a disdain for Hinduism. I began to despise its outdated sense of morality in a world that had moved on.

I’d return and prepare a mix of the five elixirs to be offered to the idol – milk, honey, curd, ghee, and jaggery. After prayers, we’d settle for the seven courses mother had prepared, as her eyes searched for any signs of weakness from us. This, according to me, was the highlight of her day – watching us enjoy the meal. In the evening, the house would be teeming with guests and relatives. The evening aarti was like a little music party – we sang the aartis and played the taal (small cymbals). By night, with the kitchen cleared and the refrigerator groaning under the stress of mother’s amazing leftovers, we’d finally get to bed after a hectic day.

But here’s the thing, I would sleep in absolute peace.

After father passed away, I stopped praying. There was a part of me that was incredibly angry that a man so devout had to go without any warning. It was around this time that I started developing a disdain for Hinduism. I began to despise its outdated sense of morality in a world that had moved on.

There’s an air of such sincerity and purity in every household in Pune.
Image credit: Getty Images

Slowly and steadily, the prayer room developed cobwebs. The idols were cleaned not out of a sense of devotion, but like any other furniture in the house. Ganesh Chaturthi turned into a nostalgic day that brought back memories of my father. My mother and I would have a quiet meal together and spend the day like any other.

Many sombre Ganesh Chaturthis later, in my second year of college, I stepped into the streets with my camera, to shoot the festivities in Pune. It was overwhelming; it felt nice to be part of the celebrations once again – a sense of belonging that I haven’t felt outside Pune.

Each Ganesh Chaturthi as the festivities begin, I’m reminded of my strange relationship with the religion. Today, I identify as an atheist but I’ve seen myself transition from someone who was religious, to someone who hated every aspect of it to someone who is more accomodating today. I feel like if you keep the morality and legislation out of religion, there’s no harm seeking salvation with an idea of a creator. In hindsight, it’s the absolute submission in front of a deity that I’d despised, never the sense of belonging that one feels amid the festivities.

It’s been seven years since I’ve prayed. But I must confess, in these years, I haven’t slept as peacefully as I did after the Ganpati celebrations at home. In Mumbai now, as fever grips the city, I feel a sense of homesickness yet again. Last night, I decided to visit Dadar, a predominant Maharashtrian area, for a meal and though it is very different from home, there is the same slowness as Pune – there’s a sense of familiarity to it.  

On my way back home, I saw a boy carrying a Ganpati idol, his father by his side, reminding him to watch his step. He had a familiar glint in his eyes. For a split second, as the two walked together, it felt a little like home. Father might have passed, taking my sense of religious devotion with him, but the warmth of the memory of what I once felt… that will live on.

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