Sunday, August 17, 2014

The God of Monsoons and Peacocks!

The afternoon is dim with clouds. I cannot hear the TV because of the rolling thunder. The cats just burst into the kitchen, glaring accusingly at me, holding me accountable for the wet, rumbling day. It is a perfect Janmashtmi! Today celebrates the birth of Krishna, the god whose skin is the inimitable hue of rain clouds.

There are many celebrations scheduled all over the world, in temples, in homes, on streets. Agile youngsters will crawl over each other to make human pyramids high enough to reach a pot filled with yogurt and curds, tempered with honey and basil, hung high above traffic lights, swinging at unimaginable altitudes. The crowd will cheer as the smallest child reaches the pot and breaks it open, spilling sweetened yogurt over everyone, scattering marigold petals around the world. Loudspeakers perched high on street corners will blare filmi music, for there is plenty of that which revolves around the child god. Babies will be dressed in Krishna costumes and fed treats, much to their alarm and delight. Complete strangers will color each other in gulal, erasing separations in a singular joy that celebrates life, recognizable as it is ubiquitous.

I remember this day every year, though I have stopped celebrating it ritualistically since my child is all grown up and not in town any more. But this was a day I used to look forward to as a child. The preparations would begin days, even weeks before. Our Guruji, the Kathak teacher, would assemble todas and thaats constructed around the exploits of the young Krishna, as he stole freshly churned butter from pots, saris and clothes from bathing gopis, and hearts from the entire population of Brij land. We would learn permutations of rhythms, and as we owned those new combinations, we felt the joy of anticipating the festival. The children of the street would put together a show of dances to be performed on the day. Families would create elaborate, colorful jhupadi or hut exhibitions, depicting scenes from Krishna's childhood, and these would be displayed for a week.

Our street was also the playground for the children of the families that lived along its banks. On nights leading up to Janmashtmi, children would gather after supper and play would continue deep into the night, long after the living rooms were converted into bed rooms, lights blinked off in apartments, and women emerged on front porches with grain to pick through and vegetables to chop for the next day's meals. Stories would be told about Krishna's life, tales of enormous trees who were really monsters; mouths that opened to show a view of the entire cosmos; poisonous, many-hooded serpents who could be conquered with a dance and a bargain; and, of course, the eternal raas lila, the roundel that accompanies Krishna stories everywhere. Mothers deliberately left out freshly butter, along with other treats, so that their children could "steal" these when they returned from school, and when the household smiled indulgently at the child, they were really worshipping a god.

I remember looking forward to outings, especially, since clothing, ornaments, and peacock feathers created specially to fit the divine infant would be sold on city streets, along with Janmashtmi treats, and each street corner boasted its own jhupadi. During recess at school, talk revolved around the most decorated jhupadis and where they might be found, and the peculiar delicacy each family cooked during this festival. Even the curriculum at schools did not remain untouched. We had quizzes based on the Krishna Lila sections of the Mahabharata in General Knowledge classes; Krishna-poems abounded in Hindi classes; a bhajan, a devotional song by Narsinh Mehta would be included in our usually secular prayer halls that began the school day. Our school, too, had its own cultural program to celebrate this festival, and a special students' council would be established to oversee the jhupadi our school sponsored.

As I consider the wet afternoon thundering with elephantine roars, I ponder on the fact that every year, on this day, it rains like this, at least once. Of course, it is quite possible that this is no coincidence or divine design, just the usual weather pattern the year follows. However, as I raise my cup of tea to the God of Joy; I am grateful for the memories his birthday has granted me. These memories remind me of a world gone by, of times that have revolved away with the earth's circumambulations, leaving behind an aftertaste of sweetened yogurt I am no longer allowed.

I watch a yellowed leaf drift lazily through the drizzle and imagine it a marigold petal. I believe the joy I take in my tea this afternoon is as true as any I have felt during midnight street games, the newly owned thaats, and the inimitable taste of white, soft, freshly churned butter. If I concentrate hard enough, I am sure to inhale the fragrance of sandalwood my grandmother used to smear on the idol of the infant god of monsoons and peacocks.


  1. What a neat post! Thanks for the insight into a religious holiday which is so different from anything I've experienced.

  2. Thank you for reading this, Kristin; I am afraid I gave in to a weak moment of nostalgia.