Ganesh Chaturthi of My Childhood: How I Learnt the Art of Pandal-Hopping

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Ganesh Chaturthi of My Childhood: How I Learnt the Art of Pandal-Hopping

Illustration: Robin Chakraborty

There is a solid reason Indians are pros at bar-hopping. Wonder why? Because we’ve been training for it since childhood. Long before bar-hopping became a trend, there was pandal-hopping.

The sight of blue tarpaulin-covered pandals cropping up across the city days ahead of Ganeshotsav got my friends and I as excited as Bollywood journalists get each time they watch Priyanka Chopra and Nick Jonas holding hands. Because pandal hopping was the only all-nighter we were allowed as children.

The bigger the pandal, the more excited we’d get, thinking of the size of the idol inside. Mind you, this was the era before Instagram and “Lalbaugh cha Raja first look” forwards on WhatsApp. Social media didn’t have the power to play party pooper then. The only way to get a Ganesh darshan was to stand in long queues, get your toes trampled upon, and then find yourself pushed in front of the stage where the idol stood tall.

My friends and I would take stock of all the pandals in the area and then make an elaborate plan to visit each one of them – a plan more foolproof than the PM’s to visit every country in the world. We’d solicit opinions of other groups of children, screaming across the road, “Sector 5 ka Ganpati dekha kya? Mast hai? Raat ko lighting show hota hai?” And with some of the daan peti money left, we’d treat ourselves to candy floss or the roadside Mewad Prem ice cream.

With adulthood, the pandal-hopping tradition started to die a slow death.

We’d try to convince our parents that it would be impossible to cover every pandal in one night, hoping to get permission for a two-night outing. With my mom, getting permission to play cricket in a different locality would be a task, but when in came to Ganpati darshan, she’d give permission faster than an NGO gets in India in 2018. So I’d lead the initiative to go from home to home, pestering other mothers and fathers. “Aunty, Bunty ko aane deejeye naa, please. Hum log time pe wapas aa jayenge.” “Uncle, I will make sure Pinky does not get lost in the crowd like last time.” Once the permissions were sought, the party would begin.

The entire gang would gather outside the building gate and together we’d begin pandal-hopping. Every year would be full of surprises. We’d make guesses looking at the pandal decor what avatar Ganesh ji would take that year. I’ve seen Bappa in a cricketer and a bodybuilder avatar. Sometimes he’d be a magician, sometimes a dancer, standing on one foot. Once Ganpati was sitting on top of a huge purple mountain, and one year he was riding a bicycle. My favourite to date was a Ganesh made out of chocolate. My friends and I were in awe, much like Charlie after entering the Chocolate Factory.   

As we hopped from one pandal to another, we’d begin ranking them. This would involve a scrutiny of the decor – the little details like a smiling mouse, or the aeroplanes dangling from the ceiling, or the skyscrapers in the background mattered. Pandals with some activity like following an animated toy train or going through a cave would get more points. And of course, the ones that gave candies and chocolates as prasad were visited more than once. Even Ganesh ji is not spared from the Sharma ji ka beta syndrome. “Sector 8 Ganpati was much better than Sector 6, but prasad was best in Shanti Nagar.”

With adulthood, the pandal-hopping tradition started to die a slow death. Suddenly, the queues were too long and the loudspeakers too loud. Today Ganeshotsav, for many of us, is about visiting that one distant relative who keeps Ganpati, having one-fourth of a modak, and posting a picture on Instagram.

The childhood fascination of celebrating the God of Goodies is gone, but there is always that odd satisfying moment when a kid in the building walks up to you with that awestruck expression on his face that you had after seeing the chocolate idol and asks, “Uncle, aapne Sector 5 ke Ganpati dekha? He is a superhero!”

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