This Dussehra, like every year, Ram was to destroy the ten-headed villain Raavan again.
In Tarun Nagar neighbourhood, they had designated a resident politician’s young grandson as Ram. The demon Raavan, obviously, being the two-storey high effigy that was being erected on the grounds. Two days later, it would be burnt down while people watch with pride, bringing with some deliberation to their conscious minds that they are, indeed, celebrating the victory of good over evil. Ram over Raavan. Tarun Nagar over Gandhi Nagar. Everyone in the small neighbourhood boasted of how much grander, taller, more expensive their Tarun Nagar Raavan was.
The metaphor of the ten heads has not trickled down well through the three yugas that followed Lord Ram’s, which was when the Bull of Morality, as it says in The Laws of Manu, stood on three legs, which wasn’t nearly as bad as the present Kali yuga, when the said bull is pretty lame. The hero’s victory is celebrated as Dussehra- the day he killed the multi-headed demon who held captive the former’s wife, Sita, on the Lankan island. Today this is just a cool mythological tale, heard and enacted for entertainment; an excuse to allot a day for eating a grand traditional fare, including sweet, gram-flour stuffed puran-polis.
Tarun Nagar people were proud of their two-storey high Raavan. It rested in the middle of the ground- multicoloured, tethered to small posts that otherwise held up practice nets for cricket. Close to a hundred residents swarmed around, working on parts of the giant like Lilliputians around Gulliver. It was being stuffed with firecrackers. Elderly Mr. Khanna fashioned its painted hay moustache on his own. A handful of teenagers rested with newspaper scraps shielding their faces from the October sun. They had stayed up the previous night working on the effigy.
Mouth-open and eyes narrowed, Ved placed the last square of tinsel carefully on the Raavan’s crown.
He ignored the excess glue oozing from under the cardboard joinery, the badly cut paper on the Raavan’s clothing, the bad paper cuts on his own soft seven-year old’s fingers. He beamed at his creation. Paper scraps, sticks and vibrant material lay strewn all over the room and around him. There he stood picking at the dried glue on his chubby hands with satisfaction, putting an occasional bit into his mouth. Then, he gingerly lifted his masterpiece and brought it out into the hall, heart pounding. ‘Dad.’
His father looked up from the garland of orange marigold and mango leaves he was making. Finally, he thought with pride and relief, happy for the shine in Ved’s eyes. ‘Much better than the giant on the ground.’
‘What do you think?’
Ved giggled. Dussehra, celebrated ten days before Diwali, held more charm for him than Diwali itself. Ramayana fascinated him. Not the hero God Ram as much as the villain with ten heads. Ved was an unwanted volunteer on the neighbourhood ground, where the cool boys ruled. ‘Cool’ meant you either owned a bicycle, or had progressed from being a mere fielder in the neighbourhood cricket gang to a batsman. Ved was neither. Tired of being told not to interfere in the making of the community effigy, he had decided to make one of his own in a burst of emotion.
And now, his father’s praise was a merit badge on his small chest. Mother scolding him for cutting up one of his notebooks for the demon’s clothing also proved worth the trouble. She hugged him and said she was proud to have their personal Raavan to set fire to, that Dussehra.
Ved had a field day. His circle of friends loved the small Raavan. No one else had made one. He couldn’t wait for his grandma, aunt and cousins to see it. The wait was hard. Evening stood hours away.
Then around lunch-time, Ved decided not to burn the Raavan because it was so pretty and he had worked so hard on it.
A little later, he decided to burn it when Grandma, Auntie Gauri and a handful of cousins would turn up in the evening to celebrate with them. Afterall, it was meant to be burnt.
The very next minute he reconsidered it.
The evening before on the community ground, Mohit Joshi, a love-struck teen on the grounds had held a giggly Prachi’s hand, behind the Raavan’s third head. Ved, preening the giant’s many eyebrows could not hear what the bully told the girl with his nose in her oily hair. Ved found this both disgusting and stupid-
They sprang apart. Mohit jumped up and grabbed Ved’s ear.
‘Out. Out of here, now.’
‘But why, Mohit dada?’
‘Because I saw you ruin the Raavan.’
‘I saw you stick the wrong coloured paper on the giant’s hem. It’s not supposed to have an amber border. Don’t you know? And I think you stole some firecrackers from his crown.’
‘That wasn’t me! Must have been Janak.’
Mohit watched Prachi walk away in a huff. He bent down to look into Ved’s large, unblinking eyes.
‘We don’t need useless, meddlesome volunteers like you.’ Ved winced as Mohit gripped his arm hard. ‘Don’t want to see you around here, get it? Go away.’
So Ved had asked Mr. Khanna, while he smoothed his abundant moustache, if he needed assistance with the Raavan’s.
‘But of course not. You think I can’t do it? Go stick paper on the hem, now.’
‘But Mohit dada said…’
He approached Nirmala auntie, while she painted the giant papier-mache feet. She told him to go home and thank you, because he was such a sweet child to have offered help.
‘I won’t spoil anything. Really. I am good at craft. At school, Miss Gautam says…’
She waved the paintbrush, and Ved got speckled with skin-toned paint that smelled of acetone. ‘Go home, kid. Don’t you have homework?’
It was barely past lunchtime on the day of the festival when the hooligans turned up. Ved was halfway through a ghee-coated puran-poli when a gang disturbed the neighbourhood with loud honking on speeding bikes. Some said they were from Gandhi Nagar and were here because some boys from their own neighbourhood had probably fought with the rowdy lot. Whatever the reason, by the time the vandals left, shocked Tarun Nagar residents were closing their ears to an unexpected din magnified by the afternoon’s silence.
A rider on a Thunderbird, the last in the long line of supposed Gandhi Nagar vandals, had hurled a flaming torch in the middle of the ground. Only that morning, the Raavan had been pulled up to stand- a two-storey giant, decked in paper finery, stuffed with firecrackers for the evening’s celebrations.
The Unofficial Tarun Nagar Circle of Important People summoned a representative from Gandhi Nagar.
‘Why would we do it? Are you aware that some of us actually donated money for the Tarun Nagar Raavan?’
The host party was stunned. ‘But who asked people from your locality donations for oureffigy?’ asked Nirmala auntie.
‘We didn’t know it until yesterday. We are a large colony. Not everyone knows everyone. This teenager- a tall chap, curly haired, came around last month, ringing bells for money. Most of us gladly complied, assuming it was one of our volunteers.’
The Circle looked at each other. Who?
‘Then, when the total from receipts did not match the amount on our account book, we discovered this. A schoolmate of his lives in my block. The boy can confirm who the curly-haired culprit is, if you like. But not today. The festivities are about to start.’
‘Oh yes. Thanks to the crooks your locality harbours,’ said Mr. Khanna. ‘We aren’t even left with anything to feel festive about.’
‘See, we are not too pleased either. And, we are livid for the unethical money collection that happened from your side. But that does not mean we burnt down your Raavan.’ He rose. ‘Though Ram knows, we had the right to.’
There happened to be two teenage, tall chaps sporting curls in Tarun Nagar. Both accused the other of being the thief. Mohit Joshi versus Kiran Gokhale, Kiran Gokhale versus Mohit Joshi. Residents watched as the families joined in to exchange choicest Marathi abuses, some unheard of, perhaps invented on the spot. Joshis told the Gokhales that their children were not raised right. Gokhales pointed out the Joshis as a blight on the Konkanastha Brahmin community.
Tarun Nagar watched the referee-less match on the ground until the sun settled on the charred bunch of bamboo poles. Their Raavan’s skeleton.
Custom demands the exchange of gold leaves, along with good wishes. Thousands of Apatitrees go naked every Dussehra, sources of the said leaves which, when held at a certain angle, shine an ethereal gold in the sun.
Poeple carried sulky expressions along with the leaves that evening, spoke less of good wishes and more of the unfortunate event.
By eight, autumn stars dotted the sky. Faint cries of ‘Jai Sri Ram’ preceded pops of firecrackers from the Gandhi Nagar direction. A rumble of applause followed. The colourful fireworks could even be seen from Tarun Nagar.
Mr. Khanna, for one, did not believe the Gandhi Nagar diplomat. Whether over an unfair act of obtaining donations from a different neighbourhood or not, it was still an anti-social act. He called in people from the local paper.
The local politician whose young grandson was to burn the effigy had thrown a grand tantrum.
Meanwhile, Nirmala auntie had a brainwave on one of the leaf-exchange visits.
‘That sweet boy of yours,’ she told Ved’s mother at the latter’s home. ‘He tried to help us so much. Alas…’ She eyed the tiny effigy planted in their front yard again next to the holy basil. ‘Oh, now when did he craft that wee demon?’
The decision was no longer Ved’s.
‘I don’t want to burn my Raavan.’
‘Well it was going to be burnt anyway, wasn’t it?’ asked his visiting cousin.
‘What do you mean no?’
‘No!’ Ved burst into tears, running to his room.
His father knew the neighbourhood wanted to burn the tiny Raavan for the sake of showing fake goodwill, for putting up a show of being brave in spite of having such unfairness thrown at them. Everyone wanted to put Ved’s labour of love high up on a pedestal in the middle of the ground, next to the burnt Raavan. A hurriedly organized ceremony would state how they were not affected.
‘Gandhi Nagar people may have a grand Raavan, but Tarun Nagar folks will have something more meaningful,’ said young Mr. Fadke.
‘Even if it’s minisc– small,’ Mr. Garge added from next to Ved’s Raavan. The entire Unofficial Circle was in Ved’s house, trying to convince the small boy and his adamant parents. Grandma occasionally interrupted the cacophony with ‘don’t force him,’ and ‘leave my poor boy alone.’
‘Not daunted by the act of vandalism, we aren’t,’ recited the resident politician to the news people. The grandson prince now wanted to set fire to Ved’s Raavan himself. He bawled, ruining his blue make-up and blue Ram costume. Meanwhile, the news people tried to convince Ved, and all they managed was ample footage of a seven-year old crying, sitting on his cot cross-legged, throwing cushions at the camera.
‘Your son is a spoilsport. Where is the good, giving nature you should have instilled in him by now?’ Nirmala auntie asked Ved’s parents. Grandma asked her to leave in a tone not too polite. The news people had already left. The small crowd of Tarun Nagar people that had accumulated to convince Ved dispersed. The politician’s grandchild was promised a new bicycle and that stopped his tears.
The metaphor has not trickled down well through the yugas. First, there’s ego- the biggest, most central, most domineering. Then there’s pride, the first of the other nine, the first step towards them. Ego and pride together prod us to become infatuated with infatuation, fall in lust with lust, be overly passionate about passion. But they do not make us hate hatred, become angry with anger or be envious of envy. They feed greed to selfishness. Ego, the pivot, arranges them all in one neat row. The ten heads glower down at us ever more oppressively.
‘All those people have left, son. You can now set fire to your Raavan all by yourself. Come. Grandma is waiting for you. She is proud of the little demon!’
‘I am not a little demon!’
‘I said the little demon. Your Raavan. And she is proud of you for making such a beautiful paper statue. Now come out, your mother has cooked some more puran-polis. Just for you.’
‘Dad, I don’t want to burn it. It took me two days to make it.’ He buried his face in the tear-soaked pillow.
‘That’s the point. See, that’s why we should burn it. So next year, you make a bigger, better one.’
Ved frowned. ‘And burn that one too?’
‘Yes. So the year after that, a bigger one can follow. And a bigger one after that. All the way till you make one as great as the one that was on our ground. Who knows, maybe yours will even be taller than two-storeys. I’m sure you can make one. I’m sure you will.’
‘And what happens after I make the tallest Raavan ever?’
‘The day you make a Raavan as tall as you possibly can and burn it, you will have truly conquered it.’
Ved considered this. ‘Like Lord Ram?’
‘Like Lord Ram.’
The family stood around the holy basil. Ved approached the Raavan carefully with Grandma, a sparkler alight in his hand.
Everyone cheered when the hem caught flame. Ved stepped back, holding Grandma’s hand. His cousins clapped.
A handful of neighbours joined in on hearing the peppery sound of small crackers that Ved had diligently planted inside the giant’s cloak. The group watched the fire creep up the villain from the inside. Soon the Raavan’s furrowed face lit up with a final raging glow against the surrounding darkness.
In less than ten minutes, it was gone.