25 October 2009

Here comes the Sun king

Today (Saturday, October 24th) was another holiday, called Chhath Puja. it’s mostly a holiday from the Indian states of Bihar and Orissa, in the east, but it has spread around the country and is now celebrated everywhere.
It pays homage to the sun god, Surya, and at sunrise and sunset people go down to the water and bathe and say prayers while in the water.
Here in Mumbai, it’s celebrated at Juhu beach, one of the 2 famous beaches in the city, and the only one where you can actually go in the water.
I was going to go on my own, and then fate remarkably intervened, as it does here in India.
I was buying a bathing suit at a shop on my street, because tomorrow I’m scheduled to play some Ultimate Frisbee at the American School of Bombay and they have a swimming pool there that we can use after. It’s a shop I’ve been to before, to buy material which i then took to a tailor to make a pair of pants for me (nicer pants that i can use for going out to fancier dinners or to work conferences and the like).
I knew one of the boys at the shop, he’s probably in his early 20’s, and I told him i was going to Juhu to check out the celebrations. It turns out he’s actually from Bihar, working here, but missing his family who is celebrating the holiday back home. So he invited me to go with him. he told me to meet him back at the shop in 20 minutes and we would go together.
I would have taken a rickshaw all the way there, but my new friend Raman (pictured above) and I took a rick to the local train station, took a train to Santa Cruz station, and then walked from there to the beach. it was about a half-hour walk, and the closer we got, the more crowded it was, more and more people walking the same way, all headed to the beach for the festival. The excitement was palpable, and growing.
Along the way we talked. I taught him some english, he taught me some hindi. We also talked about religion, and the fact that in Hinduism, God is One. This is widely misunderstood, as there are dozens of different gods and goddesses. but they are all manifestations of the one God; that is clear in the Hindu scriptures. I really appreciate this because it makes me feel like i am not violating any of my Jewish beliefs by participating in Hindu rituals. He told me he likes to meet people, and see things, and have different experiences. i said that i do too, it’s one of the thing that have brought me to india.
Anyway, we got to the beach, and man, was it a party. Thousands of people (okay not a half million as originally predicted, but still thousands) setting up little altars, with bamboo sticks forming a teepee looking thing, and offerings to the sun god like little oil lamps, bananas, sweets, and the other usual Hindu offerings. families were there together, and would walk down to the water, getting their feet wet, then going back to their spots on the beach. parents took babies and dipped their feet in.
it was really a spectacular sight, all the people and their little altars, all the children running around. as night fell, the fireworks started. big fireworks that the city must have put on, in the distance, and smaller fireworks lit by dozens of people on the beach, the same kind you would light at home on the 4th of July. it was just like Diwali last week, but on the beach. there were people selling chai, and roasted peanuts and other snacks, and some people went swimming.
it was really really nice to be there with a guide, with a new friend, Raman.
He sang a lot, and taught me some Hindi songs, and we joked with each other. he told me that since we’re friends, we never have to say “thank you” or “i’m sorry”, but i still thanked him a few times for taking me. he would remind me not to say thank you, and i would say i’m sorry for saying thank you, and we would both burst into laughter. this became a running joke and was pretty hilarious.
After a while, it was time to go, so we grabbed a rickshaw home. he had to pick up his brother at the store on my street before heading home. He lives in Dharavi, the largest slum in the world, home to more than a million people, but he told me that they’re not all dirt poor. many are, but many are working class, and live there because they have moved to Mumbai from elsewhere in India to work. it’s a slum but it’s also an urban neighborhood, with different areas for people from different states and with different jobs. Raman invited me to his home there sometime, and i will visit it and check it out for myself. he doesn’t seem dirt poor, his clothes are nice and clean, he's got a cell phone, and he has a job.
it was an amazing evening, and wonderful to see the celebration of another religious holiday in this amazing and very spiritual place. Tomorrow, on Sunday, I’ll play ultimate frisbee and go swimming with a bunch of ex-pats from the US, UK, Australia, New Zealand, and maybe a couple other places. i’m looking forward to it...

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