By Sujata Anandan
21st March 2019
The first time I picked up flowers and other offerings from a Muslim vendor outside the Siddhi Vinayak temple in Mumbai, I felt as queasy as the man in the Brooke Bond ad who comes to buy an idol of Lord Ganpati only to discover the seller is Muslim.
The ad is one of the most beautiful ones I have seen on Indian culture and unity. The market looks like the one that is usually set up in Lalbaug in Mumbai (abutting the Muslim ghetto of Mohammad Ali Road) where most of the idols are made before being sent on to other markets in the city. Lalbaug also sets up among the tallest Ganpati idols and every year actor Salman Khan is among the earliest worshippers offering huge donations to the Lalbaug Ganpati Mandal, the proceeds of which go to help poor kidney patients, both Hindu and Muslim, with free dialysis.
In this Brooke Bond ad, the idol vendor seems to know more about Ganpati and his vahana, the mooshak (or mouse) who was a cursed Asura in his previous birth and returns as Ganpati’s vehicle to atone for his sins.
The ad was meant to sell tea but in today’s polarised times, it brings home the message of national integration and religious harmony.
The flower seller outside the Siddhi Vinayak temple somehow seemed to be more devoted to his work than other vendors. The curiosity of a journalist got the better of my devotion as a Hindu and I discovered he had been a poor streetside vendor of eatables when his son had fallen seriously ill. He offered prayers at Haji Ali and to Our Lady at the St Michael’s Church in Mahim (as Jaya Bachchan had done when Amitabh Bachchan had been seriously injured during a shooting for the film Coolie years ago). Both places are famed for answering your sincere prayers. But when the man’s son continued to be ill, he made his way gingerly to Siddhi Vinayak—barefoot, as is the tradition, for five Tuesdays.
Miraculously, his son recovered after his fifth offering to Siddhi Vinayak and he gave up his food stall to set up a flowers and coconut kiosk outside the temple to serve Lord Ganpati for the rest of his life.
His son is not interested in following in his footsteps, but now times are such that the father does not insist either. But, I believe, ads like that of Brooke Bond have been inspired by stories like his, even if there are fewer takers today for the message of unity in diversity.
At one time, I would have curled up my nose and dismissed the latest Surf Excel ad as a government-like ‘Mera Bharat Mahan’ type of commercial. But after the to-do by right-wing bigots over it, I have begun to appreciate the fact that there still remain people and professionals in India who have not lost their sense of proportion and are keeping the idea of India alive. Just ahead of Holi, which falls on March 20 and 21 this year, the ad depicts children playing with colours. A young girl draws others out to drench her and when they are all out of colour or water, she tells her five-year-old friend, “It is now safe to come out.”
The little boy, in pristine white, tells her he will return after offering Namaaz whereupon she warns him to be ready to be drenched with colours when he does. The ad is meant to promote the stain-removing powers of the detergent but once again it has emphasised the idea of India, its unity in diversity and its integrated culture.
Frankly speaking, I could not understand the outrage of the right-wingers. The young kids playing the lead roles in the commercial are no more than five to six years old and love jihad of the kind the bigots were raging about is never even on the horizon of children that age.
Opinions have been divided with as many people coming down heavily on the bigots as the bigots outraging about the ad. But I hope the spirit of that commercial continues to be part of our DNA as it has been for centuries. How many people know, for example, that at the birth of a child in a few Muslim households they sing a hymn—Sohar—to Allah to give them a son like Nandlal (or Lord Krishna)? That is the spirit of India and it must never die out.
Which is why I am also glad at the fright of a lawyer of a petitioner—calling for Indian Muslims to be sent to Pakistan—in the Supreme Court last week when Justice Rohinton Nariman came down heavily on the man. Asked if he really wanted to argue the case, the lawyer said just one word “No.” And the case was summarily dismissed.
We should similarly dismiss all bigotry from this country and salute the Muslim Ganpati worshippers both in the ad and outside the temple. And the Hindu child facilitating the Namaaz of her Muslim friend. That is the real India.
Sujata Anandan is senior journalist and political commentator