One of the most sought after events of the annual calendar was the Ganpati festival, popularly called Ganesh Puja. This was not due to any religious fervour, the attraction being the associated mela with the Puja. All publicly celebrated Hindu festivals have a carnival-like atmosphere around them. Durga Puja, Saraswati Puja, Vishwakarma puja and Kali Puja, no Puja is complete without the loud film songs on the PA system, the eateries and the toy-wallahs. But the Ganesh Puja mela of Jamshepdur was something else altogether. While virtually each street corner had their Ganesh pujas, the Puja I am talking about is the one which was celebrated in the Kadma area.
To start with, for a kid, the focus of this Ganesh Puja was on the mela and not on the puja. Unlike, say, Durga Puja, where moving from pandal-to-pandal and admiring different versions of Goddess Durga’s statue and the pandal decor. Worship being the focus during Saraswati Puja. Ganesh puja was total mela, total fun.
The fun lay in the multiple “stalls” laid out around the Ganesh Puja pandal. These would start springing up weeks before the D-day. They were the standard ones, but that did not stop us from feverishly anticipating them as the day neared. Little tarpaulin-covered stalls ready to unleash their magic!
Nandan Kanan Kala Bhavan (नंदन कानन कला भवन) was the major attraction in the mela. This was a most wondrous collection of clay statues magically brought to life by ingenious use of electric motors. The statues dealt largely with scriptures and mythology, like Ram’s vanvaas, Sita’s agni-pariksha etc. They would be so constructed that each limb or part of the body could “move” at a pre-determined trajectory, repetitively. For example take this tableux of the treatment meted out to a sinner when he reached hell. There would be this petrified sinner sitting right in the middle with two fiercely mustachioed, bare-torsoed giants on either side of him. The giants would hold a mean-looking hacksaw with which they would proceed to decapitate their victim. Their movements were programmed to move in unison with the hacksaw going through the pre-slitted throat of the sinner. Rrrrriiippp, they would move left, and then return to their starting point, stopping with a shudder. And Rrrrriiippp again, this time to the right. And so on it went ad infinitum. The thick red “blood” oozing out of the throat was life-like, the burning eyes of the giants enough to scare the daylights out of a kid. We would be petrified and would stay rooted to the tableux, till the exhibitors nudged us along to the next one. Which would probably be an equally blood-curdling one like this one about an alternate punishment for the sinner, getting dunked into a large karahi of boling oil! As I would exit the “Kala Bhavan” I would solemnly resolve to myself not to commit any sin, not even an innocuous lie.
It was time then to go into some light-hearted stuff. The hall of mirrors. This was an array of mirrors of different curvatures placed alongside the walls of the stall. In one mirror you would look very fat, very thin and tall in the other. And then in the third, you could see multiple images of yourself. And a totally contorted image of your body in the fourth. None of the images ever failed to evoke delirious laughter among us kids! I had not studied optics then, and indeed not even physics. So, there was no urge to figure out the curvature of mirrors. Sheer, unadulterated joy of seeing distorted images of your body! And your friends’!!
From mirth and laughter it was time to move on to some real action. The ever scintillating “Maut Ka Kuwan” (मौत का कुआँ). Or the “Well of Death”. Just 25 paise for the show! The well was an overground one, maybe 70-80 feet tall and about 25 feet in diameter, a creeky wooden structure laid out for the mela. The spectators would climb up on the rickety staircase constructed on the outside of the wall and peer into the well below. And- after what seemed like hours- the motorcycle rider rode in, on the “floor” of the well. The biker would circle all around the periphery of the well and then with a sudden swift movement, clamber onto the wall of the well. Yes, nearly perpendicular to the wall to start with and then navigate his way to the upper part of the wall -totally perpendicular to it. Why did I say “he”? It was often a “she”! Round-and-round the biker would go. The bike would make a raucous sound on its ambulations and the well would shake and rattle resonating the motion of the bike. Adding to the effect the show was having on us, the spectators, clinging to the parapet on the top of the well watching the spectacle below. Sight, sound and vibrations. What a sensory delight! The biker would swoop up at nearly a handshake distance from the spectators leaving all squealing in delight. Biker number one was often joined by another biker, but of the opposite sex. Each dressed in flashy silk shirt/ blouse. The whirr of the silk, the sound of the bike and the rumbling of the well “wall”. The denoument when they scaled up the wall with a ferocious speed nearly within the reach of the spectators whose collective hearts skipped several beats! And then the time to wind down and descend to the safety of terra firma. Boy, that was some experience, each time!
Then there was the next one. The one which allowed kids to behave like “studs” by themselves! The jhoola. The innocuous jhoola was a major one to display one’s “abilities”. It was a wooden four-cradle affair being spun manually by the jhoola-wallah. 4 to a cradle, 16 in total. The jhoola-wallah would initially give a few slow spins to all the “travelers” and check if each one of us was feeling OK. No nausea etc. Sure enough, the tough ones amongst us would say, OK, and rarely, if anyone, demurred. And then began the rapid whirl. Each as exhilarating as the other. Remember there were no electric jhoolas those days. Grunts and shrieks and hands clinging tight to the cart handles. The more adventurous ones amongst us (not me!!) would throw down their ‘kerchiefs down on the ground on the way up and then lean down and pick it up on their way down. There were even competitions among friends as to who would pick-up the most drops of the ‘kerchief! Till the jhoola-wallah slowed down and let all of us off cart-by-cart to accommodate the next batch of the impatient queuing “passengers”!
The mela also had a chidiyaghar (चिडियाघर) a zoo. With some very tired looking tigers, lions and hippos among many others. The biggest attraction for all of us- Jamshedpur had no permanent zoo till then- were the multiple species from the simian family. Those multi-coloured bandars!
What is a mela without toys and food! After the excitement of these shows was over, it was time for some snacks. Golgappas, of course, were the most popular. And the side-dish of ghughni. Some even preferred the tikki and aloo chat. Some of the off-beat ones were Sohan Papdi, khaja (a very Bihari sweet) and . The popular peanuts, or chiniya-badaam as we call them in Jamshedpur, were handy snacks as we strolled around the mela. Then there were cart-loads of ice-cream, Kwality being the most popular brand.
Then there was these toys to be bought. There were the standard mela ones. Like the yo-yo. That water-filled rubber balloon tied to a rubber chord. You would twirl the chord around your fingers and throw the balloon down only to pick it up on its way back. Up, down, up, down. Till the balloon ruptured and sprayed its contents, water, all over the observers. And the damroo. And the modern-day damroo equivalent. The one with no name which I call the rat-tat-tat toy. And the metal tic-tic-tic toy. Looked like a whistle sheared into a half with a lip to press and depress alternately to give its defining “clack-ety” sound. And my favoritest of all- the spring monkey. A plastic monkey slung on a tightly wound spiral chord held securely on a frame. I would go berserk on the spring monkey. Holding the contraption down so that it slithered down. And then overturning the contraption so that the monkey went the other way. And back-and-forth, and forth-and-back. Endless hours of entertainment.
When I went to Jamshedpur for the Durga Puja last year I had resolved to buy a few of these spring monkeys. I found none. Even after a major hunt across several Puja pandals, by the entire family.
And then I realized, that was a bit of my childhood lost, forever! Gone!!