Saturday, September 18, 2010

High Five!

I don’t know which God to believe in. I am on the lookout for a religion to adopt. But that day was the wrong day to choose a religion.

Sure, there isn’t ever a newsflash for these kind of things- “Good morning. You’re watching Times Now and today is the day to choose that new religion you’ve been eyeing all week. All in five simple steps. More details after this break!” No, that doesn’t really happen.

But you see the signs, alright. Much like the stirring of leaves or the mysterious ringing of bells before a fight scene in a Hindi movie.

‘Madam, auspicious day today. Some money for sweets…?’ the milkman smiled diabetically.

‘This festive day gift yourself something new!’ screamed the newspaper.

‘Don’t forget to wear yellow today. It’s Saturday. You know what the astrologer said!’ my mother’s voice rang loud and clear while I showered.

Yes. It seemed like a day of reckoning. I was reckoning with a rapidly dwindling cash supply, an antidote for lonely souls and the fanaticism of a 50 year old woman. Like I said, I was reading the signs. Something big was going to happen today.

The clock hadn’t even struck seven. Oddly enough, I itched to get out of the house. Grabbed my camera and bounded out. With my yellow dupatta following suit. My mother had prevailed.

It was grey. Regretfully so. Somehow morose clouds hadn’t figured in my scheme of things. Oh well. Bought a newspaper and got onto the local.

‘High Five for Mumbai! The city celebrates five festivals this week...’ The train picked up speed as did my interest in the front page article. Five festivals in a week! Jeez! Democracy, shemocracy- talk about being spoiled for choice.

A tug at my sleeve. A street urchin. A girl of about 12, I surmised, with a ready smile.

‘Money?’ she said, eyeing my bag. I didn’t respond.


Mysterious ways these signs have of cropping up. I looked at her. ‘I’m getting off here. Going to eat. Want to come?’

She smiled. I smiled back. We got off at Mahim.

First things first. Dessert. Why leave the best for last when you can have it first? I bought us both two plates of golden hued sheera. Then attacked plates of egg and toast. More than satiated, we sauntered out of the roadside joint.

‘Hey stranger, where are these people going?’ she pointed out to a sea of men walking along the road, their wave breaking sporadically with moving traffic.

Muslims. I figured that much. Lithesome bodies, starchy white kurta-pyjamas complete with the round cap on their heads. I am a slave to stereotype. Against the grey of the rolling clouds above, white stood out in its stark beauty. There was a crackle in the air. The men were greeting each other.

We followed them. As did the lens of my camera. Right uptil a mosque on the next street.

‘Eid, Eid!’ The words fluttered across the landscape of my memory. One of the reasons to high five Mumbai this week.

‘It’s Eid! Today’s Eid,’ I told my companion while my camera worked away. Blankets had been laid outside the structure- scores of men from all around us gathered here. Eyes closed together, hands folded together, backs hunched together- Namaz began.

I suddenly felt like an intruder. ‘Common on,’ I nudged my friend along. I had taken enough photographs.

‘So quiet!’ she whispered, as though she were still at that gathering. ‘And so many people praying together!’

I looked at her queerly. ‘High five for Mumbai’ the newspaper article had read. This little kid will probably go to bed tonight missing out on a big reason to celebrate- five festivals in one city in the same week! I wanted to celebrate that reason and I wanted to celebrate with someone.

‘Say, be my friend for a day? We’ll walk around, eat good food, maybe go to Chowpatty? Want to do it?’

‘Will you pay me?’

So much for being a dreamer. Of course I’d pay her. I sighed. Would 200 bucks cut it?

‘Oh yes!’ She bobbed up and down. ‘Where to?!’

Back to the station. En route, I learned she stayed on the streets with her family in Byculla. She’d never been to school, worn new clothes or been to the movies. Why was I paying her, again?

‘I want company, ’ I replied simply.

10 minutes later, we were train bound to Grant Road. A short cab ride after that, my new found friend and I found ourselves outside the blue doors of Shaar Harahamin, the oldest synagogue in Mumbai.

‘J-o-o,’ I enunciated to my student.

‘Star!’ She was pointing to the front door. It seemed she liked the place already.

‘That’s the Star of David.’ We whipped our heads around. An old man approached. Said he was the caretaker. Would we care to come in?

Old wood furniture, solid benches, the waft of coconut oil and incense. I took out my camera. The old caretaker had found a companion in my little friend.

‘We celebrated our New Year two days ago. See this horn? I blew it a 100 times yesterday!’ he said, showing off the shofar.

‘A 100 times!’ her eyes grew wide. ‘Didn’t you get tired?’

The man’s eyes crinkled with mirth. ‘Would you like to eat a special sweet? Made especially for the New Year. ’ He winked and disappeared into an inner room.

‘Hey stranger!’ called out the girl. ‘Come share with me!’ She held out a plate with some slices of apple coated in honey.

‘Happy New Year,’ I said to the old man.

‘Happy New Year,’ echoed my friend. ‘Today’s Eid, you know. Another festival.’ She munched on her apple slice.

The caretaker looked at me. ‘I know. Eid Mubarak to you two!’

It was time for him to get back to business. We said our thanks and parted ways. Goosebumps tingled my skin. A Jew just wished two Hindus Eid Mubarak. High five Mumbai.

We left Samuel Street and headed towards Walkeshwar armed with two sticks of chicken kebab, courtesy Café Naaz. I knew there was a Jain temple nearby. I had never been there but had read that Jain Paryushan was to be celebrated the next day. Good reason to get a glimpse of a faith I knew little about.

Twenty minutes later, we alighted from a cab and found ourselves face to face with Babu Amichand Panalal Adishwarji Jain Temple.

‘This is a Jain temple. Tomorrow, Jains will also celebrate. They’ll celebrate the end of eight days of fasting,’ I told her.

‘Like Eid?’

‘Yes, like Eid. Except Muslims fast for a month before Eid.’

‘And this is where Jains celebrate?!’ My friend stood looking at the temple, awestruck.

‘Yes. This is where they celebrate.’ We walked in.

The building was simply breathtaking. A large dome painted in vivid colors, colorful mosaic on the floor, two stone elephants at the entrance and three black deities behind a screen.

A quick chat with the temple priest regarding my companion’s….er….attire and we were welcomed into a space where prayers were being offered. We sat in a corner.

‘Are they sick?’ she asked suddenly, pointing to two men in the group who had white cloth pieces covering their mouths.

‘No. Some people wear that because they don’t want to kill anything, even when they breathe. Some don’t even wear shoes, so that they don’t kill ants.’

‘Not even cockroaches?! I hate them!’

‘Nothing. Not any animal. Good thing we finished our kebabs. They’re all vegetarian here!’ I said conspiratorially.

Clickety click went my camera over her suppressed giggle. We sat there, basking in the calm of the temple’s interiors; me taking pictures, she tracking the priest’s movements.

‘I’ve never seen these people before. Or the Star people,’ she said as we walked out half an hour later.

‘Yes, you have,’ I said. ‘You just didn’t know it.’

‘They look like us.’

‘They are us.’

‘And they’re all celebrating something?’

‘Great, isn’t it?’

It was way past lunchtime. I decided to take my companion to Pizzeria- a western touch to an Indian day.

‘What are we celebrating?!’ she asked gleefully as the manager took in her appearance.

‘Food! I’m famished!’ I said loudly.

‘Food!’ she joined in.

An hour, a large pizza, garlic bread and two glasses of Coke later, my little friend was snoozing on my shoulder as we made our way to Juhu.

The clock had struck five. If crowds were any indication of the celebratory spirit, the gathering near Juhu Chowpatty implied the celebration of the year. Her sleep long broken by Hindi pop music blaring from roadside speakers, the girl scrambled out of the taxi and looked in wonder at the gigantic replica of Ganpati being slowly chugged along the street. Vermillion colored the air in splashes of red as revelers moved their hips, legs and arms to the beating of drums.

My friend was no stranger to this sight. Except for one fact. Ganpati wasn’t a standalone festival for her anymore. It was sharing the limelight with Eid, the Jewish New Year and the end of the Jain fasting period. And she said as much, along with….

‘You know, Ganpati is a day of giving.’ She suddenly reminded me of my milkman. And sure enough, there was her outstretched hand.

Thought To Self- which street smart kid wouldn’t indulge a slightly deranged young woman looking for company, especially when she appears as harmless as her purse appears full? All for a bizarre quest of sorts. I handed my fast friend a 100 rupee note.

‘Your mother taught you well,’ I mumbled.

‘Today is a good day,’ she answered back as she pocketed the windfall.

I had promised her Chowpatty and had to follow through. Despite being jostled by the crowd, she got a seat on the ferris wheel and the tiny carousal; we treated ourselves to golas soon after and finally at 7:30pm, caught a rickshaw to Bandra- my final destination.

Up, up, up. The rickshaw climbed Hill Road and stopped at Mount Mary Church. The sun was beginning to set.

The Bandra Fair wasn’t scheduled to start till the next day, but preparations here were in full swing.

We walked past fairy lights and little lamps that light the way right up to the courtyard of the Church. Festoons decorated roadside stalls and the earthy smell of roasted grams tickled the senses.

We entered the Church and walked down the aisle to the statue of Virgin Mary.

‘That’s Mary. It was her birthday a few days ago. But they celebrate it for a week! Tomorrow there will be music and rides and food…Just like you saw for Ganpati today,’ I said.

‘How lucky!’ she said wistfully. ‘Birthday for a week!’

We watched a few people kneel before the Mary’s statue.

‘Does this happen every year?’ She seemed puzzled. ‘Gods’ birthdays and festivals together?’

‘It does happen every year. But this year’s special. Because five festivals are celebrated in one week,’ I emphasized. I really wanted her to see the wonder in that fact. And it worked.

‘We saw all five!’ she said excitedly.

We walked out. She brushed my hand. Awkwardly. Like she wanted to hold it, then changed her mind. Too intimate perhaps. Across the street, kids and adults were lighting candles at an alter.

‘Can I light one too?’ She inquired. I bought two candles.

‘Happy birthday Mary,’ said the girl in tattered clothes. I had been to the Church before. I had never wished Mary.

I bought my friend a small doll and a string of beads. It was getting late and she looked tired as well. I took her to the station. It was still early for dinner, so I bought her a vada pav and Pepsi while we waited for her train.

‘Muslim, Jew, Jain, Hindu, Christian,’ I said suddenly. ‘Don’t forget today. It’s a reason to be happy.’

Her train approached. ‘I’ll tell my mother about it,’ she said. She hopped onto the train, the vada pav stuffed in her mouth.

‘Thanks for the money!’ Morsels of bread flew out. The train pulled away. I walked towards another platform to catch my ride home.

‘High five, my darling city!’ I said under my breath.

Like I said, it was the wrong day to choose a religion. It was too damn good a day to make a choice like that.