One Ganesh Chaturthi some years ago, I invited the lovely Sridevi to join me for the 4.30pm aarti at Siddhivinayak, Mumbai's temple of miracles, dedicated to Lord Ganesh, in Prabhadevi. It was Anant Chaturdashi, the 10th and final day of the festival. Mumbai's roads were jammed with noisy, joyous processions taking Ganpati idols to the sea for immersion. Siddhivinayak was built out of bricks as a small place of worship in 1801. Today, it is a magnificent and monolithic structure of granite and marble, a temple of historical importance as much as it is of religious significance. The presiding deity, a 19th-century stone Ganpati idol that is only two-and-half feet high, answers every prayer made before it in faith. Tuesday is Lord Ganesh's day in Mumbai. Every Ganpati bhakt, from Amitabh Bachchan to Sachin Tendulkar, goes to Siddhivinayak on Tuesday. Sridevi too. That year, Anant Chaturdashi fell on Tuesday. After the aarti, the temple authorities would take a replica of the popular idol for immersion.
Boney got out gingerly from beside the driver. He opened the rear door. But there was no Sridevi inside! His look of bewilderment was priceless.
Sridevi accepted my invitation without a fuss. She wasn't Bollywood's ruling queen then, and even when she was, I don't think she was given to starry airs and tantrums. Her last film was Judaai with Anil Kapoor in 1997. And English Vinglish, her Bollywood comeback, would shortly happen in 2012. Sridevi had been off the screen, away from makeup, the lights and camera for 15 years. But close to 50, she still looked petite and drop-dead gorgeous, as if she was a Bollywood diva ready and waiting for the director to yell "Action". The only director at Prabhadevi that afternoon was her husband Boney Kapoor. He insisted on accompanying her. Probably to thank Lord Ganesh for Sridevi's presence in his life. I couldn't object. Boney got me on the phone minutes before they were expected. It was pouring at Prabhadevi. They were trapped in a procession of boisterous Ganpati revellers a little away from Siddhivinayak. Could I come to the car with umbrellas? And with a police escort?
I could understand his anxiety. Sridevi was, after all, the first female superstar of Hindi cinema. And there was no telling how the singing, dancing crowd might react on suddenly spotting her in their midst. I rushed with the umbrellas and policemen to their car. Boney got out gingerly from beside the driver. He opened the rear door. But there was no Sridevi inside! His look of bewilderment was priceless. One minute she was there on the back seat, the next moment she had gone. He looked this way and that in panic. Then I spotted her in the crowd. Sridevi had slipped out alone and unnoticed and was walking barefoot in the rain towards Siddhivinayak. She was looking up at the temple's golden dome with an orange flag fluttering valiantly in the rain next to it. As if seeking blessings from above. I ditched Boney and the police escort and ran after her.
Sridevi said her prayers in Telugu. "But it's okay," she reassured me with a hint of mischief, "Ganeshji understands Telugu, he must, he's God after all."
She entered the temple familiarly, smiling for the policemen at the gate reaching for their cell phones to take her picture. Boney caught up with us huffing and puffing and told me proudly that Sridevi was there every Tuesday. She walked all the way from home, he said. It was 15km, and she did it in the early hours. "Not every Tuesday," Sridevi gently corrected him, "I try to come every Tuesday I'm in Mumbai. Does that make me an ardent devotee? Absolutely! But sometimes I'm travelling and can't make it. I've been doing it for years. Ever since I got married and came to settle in Mumbai. I feel something in this temple that's difficult to explain... I feel good, I'm so relaxed when I'm here." All her years in Bollywood, she would return to Chennai after shooting, so there weren't many opportunities for Sridevi to visit Siddhivinayak. What did she do then? I asked. "I used to go to the Balaji Temple in Tirupati," she said, "and when in Chennai, I visited the Ganesh Temple there. Ganeshji is everywhere. My family keeps a Ganpati at home during the festival. They observe all the religious obligations associated with Ganesh Chaturthi and then immerse the idol. But somehow, I've never been able to join in the immersion celebrations. Not in Chennai, nor in Mumbai."
The Siddhivinayak authorities, honoured by the presence of Sridevi at Prabhadevi, seated us in the office of their chairman and plied us with refreshments. She had no films on hand that I could discuss. So I asked Sridevi about her hobby, painting. Had she done a Ganpati canvas? Her eyes lit up with the idea. "I've been painting for many years," she said. "Earlier, it used to help me de-stress when I got home from shooting; but now I do it seriously. I've never painted Lord Ganesh. But I will, I definitely must, I love the idea!"
Her prayers were simple and always the same. A wish that her husband's films did well. "Any wife would want that," she said defensively.
Promptly at 4.30 pm, the couple was taken for a darshan of the powerful Ganpati idol sitting inside Siddhivinayak since 1801, surveying everything, granting wishes and missing nobody. Sridevi said her prayers in Telugu. To my surprise, she told me she's not a Tamilian and has only been brought up in Tamil Nadu. "But it's okay," she reassured me with a hint of mischief, "Ganeshji understands Telugu, he must, he's God after all." Her prayers were simple and always the same. A wish that her husband's films did well. "Any wife would want that," she said defensively. And she offered grateful thanks for all that she's been blessed with. So it was this time, like it was every Tuesday when Sridevi is in Mumbai and visited the Siddhivinayak Temple. Then they were gone, Sridevi walking backwards, unwilling to turn her back on Ganpati or take her eyes off the Lord, taking everybody's breath away.