Oct 11 2012
I spent the end of September in the San Francisco Bay Area, there on self-imposed assignment, to cover the Fremont Hindu Temple’s Ganesha Chaturthi festival. Ganesha Chaturthi is an annual ten-day celebration around the Hindu god Ganesha’s birthday. During the festival, Hindus believe that Ganesha comes down to earth to bestow his presence upon his devotees. People buy an idol of Ganesha specifically for his birthday to keep in their home during the festival, and after a pran prathista (a prayer ceremony that infuses the god’s presence in the statue) the idol is seen as a form of Ganesha himself. He is prayed to nightly, offered sweets, a guest in his devotee’s home, and at the end he is immersed in water and sent back to his home on Mount Kailash. The temple in Fremont, a city near the Mission Hills about sixty miles from San Francisco where I spent most of my childhood, hosts one of the largest celebrations of the festival in the US.
I went to cover the festival partly as research for my novel. The myth of how Ganesha got his elephant head is part of the family curse that plagues my protagonist. I wanted to hear about the myths about Ganesha from those who were his most loyal devotees, who celebrated this festival each year. But I also went to the festival because I’ve been drawn to this place where I spent my childhood for some time. Mostly because of the landscape – I love the sandy hills, the bridges that connect the east bay to the coast, making the west feel so much larger and more vast than the east. I went there with my camera in hopes of turning the experience into a photo essay.
In preparing for this trip, and for a trip to India I hope to make sometime in the next year, I began reading travel writing. I am currently in the middle of William Dalrymple’s City of Djinns, a nonfiction book about Dalrymple’s one year stay in Delhi in the 1980s. He had been to Delhi as a seventeen-year-old and fascinated by the ruins, the mystical idea that Delhi is a city inhabited by djinns, by spirits, and that is why it rises up time and time again, through invasions, through colonialism. He returned, a newlywed, with the idea of writing a book about the city. A book that then took him five years to write. Dalrymple’s work was first suggested to me by my uncle, a doctor in India who is one of the most avid readers I know. I figured that if he was suggesting a British writer’s nonfiction books about India, then they must be good. Dalrymple is a wonderful writer. Thoughtful and lyrical, his divergences into Delhi’s history are always rooted in his travel narrative. You never forget that Dalrymple is there in Delhi, or there in England, searching for the history. He takes you into musty libraries, to visits with old British women leftover in Delhi from the colonial days, to the consulate where he has to obtain travel visas. I’ve been taking my time with City of Djinns because it goes through intense periods of history, and some sections, like when Dalrymple talks about the rampage against Sikhs after Indira Gandhi was assassinated, are harder to take in because of the content. But it’s a wonderful book.
The last day of Ganesha’s stay on earth, and of my stay in the Bay Area, I participated in the Ganesha immersion, or visarjan, one of the most important parts of the festival. The visarjan takes on a dual meaning. A literal sending back of the god to his home on Mount Kailash, the path through which is the water, the Ganesha also carries with him the misfortunes of the devotee’s past year, in hopes of leaving the devotee with better luck for the next one. Four hundred people boarded a cruise ship with their idols, along with tubs of over six hundred idols belonging to those who couldn’t participate in the send off. The day was unseasonably warm, uncharacteristically cloudless and clear for San Francisco. Our ship was supposed to take us under the Golden Gate but we changed route due to turbulent waters and stalled about twenty minutes out, the Oakland Bay Bridge to our south, the Golden Gate to our north. Some tossed their idol out as far as they could, as if launching Ganesha further would take him closer to home. Others, aware that the figure they held was an embodiment of a celestial being who was the central guest in their home all week, hung over the railing as far as they could and gently dropped their Ganesha. Children anxiously waited for their parents’ signal before they threw their miniature idols into the water. And nearly everyone had a moment of calm, looking on at the statue long after he was submerged.
Towards the end of our time on the ship, one of the passengers on board asked me if I had sent off a Ganesha. I hadn’t. He handed me one from the tub and as I had watched others do, I said “Ganapati Bappa Morya” softly, painfully aware of my horrendous accent. In saying those words, I was asking him to come back next year. Darymple said in his introduction to the City of Djinns that it took him nearly four times as long as his stay in India to finish the book and I can see why. Traveling back to a place that is familiar yet not our own, and then having to write about it – how do you do this fairly, truthfully? Almost two weeks later and I’m still processing the trip. Hopefully, I will find a way to write about this journey home.Read more: bay area, Book Reviews, city of djinns, fremont, ganesh chaturthi, General, san francisco, william dalrymple