The DiploKids and I had the best evening yesterday; an evening that reminds me again how incredibly lucky we are and how fabulous and rich our lives are.
Mount Mary Church in Bandra has an annual Bandra Fest to celebrate Mary’s birthday. Bandra, a northern suburb of Mumbai, has a lot of Catholic churches and a lot of Catholics. Walking around Bandra, one is struck by the number of shrines to Mary, Joseph, and Jesus that substitute for the usual Ganeshas and Shivas one normally finds. Still, there is some Indian flavor, and garlands of marigolds, jasmine, and tuberose are looped over crosses, Madonnas, and Pietas.
In a fit of unbridled enthusiasm, I decided that we should visit on the first day of the festival. It was full of energy as promised, but ya’ll know that means “full of people” too. I love that sort of thing; DiploDad is less comfortable in crowds. The Taxi dropped us off at the foot of the hill, right by the beginning of the stands selling offerings. People were coming at us from left and right, “Mam, buy candles!” “Mam! Buy flowers for Mother Mary!” “Ten Rupees only!” I smiled. DiploDad rolled his eyes.
Some of the beautiful flower offerings sold at the Fair.
We started up the hill, following the crowds, and bought several of the R10- offerings sold by little children and elderly women. DiploDad and I had “run the gauntlet” from vendors and street sellers before, but it was a new thing for the DiploBoys. DiploBoy1 was a little freaked out. DiploBoy2 wanted to buy something from everyone.
One of the traditions for the festival is to make an offering to Mother Mary for something you are praying for or want very badly. Many of the stalls sell wax offerings in the form of houses, factories, shops, baby boys, baby girls, or body parts that you need healed. Thinking DiploBoy1 needs all the help he can get, I purchased him a wax stack of books, with the hope that Mother Mary would guide him to straight As for the school year.
Left: A selection of wax legs, houses, babies and other offerings.
Right: DiploBoy1 browsing the stand.
On the way up the hill, we added to our offerings by purchasing a bunch of candles, a small nosegay, and a few candles surrounded by marigolds. By the time we hit the back of the line to enter the church, the DiploBoys were pros at fending off over-eager hawkers, and had learned to smile at every pretty girl or lady who said hello.
DiploDad looked at the end of the line, wiped a bead of sweat off his forehead and growled, “We are not standing in that line.” Which made me really, really want to snatch him bald, because that wasn’t really stated as a request or a desire, but a command. Sigh. So after a little negotiating, we decided to instead just go up to visit the outdoor shrine, which had a markedly shorter line. We walked up the steps, greeted Mother Mary and dropped our offerings, and went back down the stairs.
Notice the baby lizard up in the top right corner?
Along the way, I caught a glimpse of the elusive church, and caught my breath. The outside top that I could see was just beautiful.
It was completely sweltering, so after making our way downhill, we caught a cab home and retreated to the cool confines of home.
But oh, how I wanted to go inside that church. Badly. I felt like I’d baked a whole giant batch of brownies but only got to smell them. I began plotting my return in earnest.
It only took me about 5 minutes to convince the younger DiploBoy to go back with me. I love the Fearless Age. The older DiploBoy took a bit more convincing and a little bribery. Less thrilled about the Jaded Tween Age. Was I gonna ask DiploDad? Um, nooooooo. The plan was to go after school, before everyone got off of work, and during the week. I decided Wednesday would be good. Then, that slipped away, and Thursday became the next target date. Finally, Friday rolled around and I absolutely, positively, could not put it off any longer, so the DiploBoys and I had our driver, D, take us up to Bandra to drop us off for another trek up the hill.
D got us all the way up to where the road split and was barricaded, which was pretty amazing. We began our trek up the stairs to the church and saw him waving to us, indicating he’d gotten parking right nearby. Awesome. This was meant to be!
The DiploBoys and I went up the stairs a second time, and I was fully prepared. Knowing that all offerings were R10, I’d rolled a bunch of individual ten Rupee notes up and put them in the front pocket of my jeans for easy accessibility. DiploBoy1 still had his wax books, and DiploBoy2 still had some candles. We bought a couple more nosegays on the way up, and I had to shoot down the suggestion that I buy a pink baby girl wax doll at least once. The pace up the hill was quicker this time, and we soon reached the top.
“The line’s going to be SO bad!” wailed DiploBoy1. “I don’t want to stand in line forever!”
“What line?” I asked.
The DiploBoys looked up at me. They looked ahead. They looked to the left. They looked to the right. There was no line.
“Mommy SCORE!” shouted DiploBoy1, hurrying up to the church gate with flowers in his hand and a huge smile on his face. Following along after his big brother, DiploBoy2 chugged along on his skinny little legs, excited to see inside the church. The crowd divided up into two separate lines, and everyone kept pushing towards the right, so we just followed.
Within minutes we were inside the church.
Loud. Crowded. Beautiful.
Mother Mary was at the front, dressed beautifully in an embroidered robe. Volunteers were standing on a table in front of us, taking offerings, telling everyone to move along. People were praying the rosary, taking photos, taking selfies.
DiploBoy1 dropped his wax books into an offering box, made the sign of the cross and walked to the exit. DiploBoy2 went right up to the middle, laid his nosegay down, clasped his hands together in prayer and stopped, bowing his head. People swarmed around him, dropping offerings, making the sign of the cross. He just stood there, saying a prayer, before looking up at the Madonna and reaching into his pocket. When he pulled his hand out, I knew what he would have in it. Little colored glass pebbles, which he called “gems” and collects voraciously. He gives them to people he likes sometimes. He had a whole fistful of “gems”, which he dumped into the offering basket. I heard them hit the tin bottom with a loud clatter, and so did the female volunteer who was frantically grabbing nosegays and wax figures. She smiled, picked up a nosegay, and gave it to him, saying, “This is for you from Mother Mary.” DiploBoy2 smiled, took the flowers, and headed towards the entrance.
Leaving the church, we were swarmed by nuns and charities soliciting donations, so we dropped a few R10 notes in some of them.
I love this sign. Jesus speaks Hindi!
We then were directed down a long staircase with many vendors selling traditional Goan treats. We tried some roasted chickpeas and bought some. They were nutty and crispy.
At the bottom of the hill, I made good on the bribe to DiploBoy1 and bought everyone ice cream. It was perfect, and cut the heat we were definitely feeling after being in the crush of people in the church.
We chatted all the way back to our car, winding our way through the streets of Bandra, smiling at the little kids dancing to the music in the streets, dodging the folks hawking offerings, and holding hands. The boys loved the inside of the church. They loved the experience. They asked questions about Catholics in India, about why they made offerings, about the unusual group ritual that is not part of our tradition at home. We slid into the back seat of the car in a snuggly pile, feeling happy and grateful, excited and tired.
When we got home, DiploDad was back from work, and the DiploBoys jumped all over him, telling him about what they’d just seen and done. Giving them a hug, DiploDad looked at me over their heads, gave me a knowing smile, and said, “I’m sorry I missed it. I’m glad you and Mommy had fun.” I gave him a wink and a grin and said, “Next year!”