As the clock strikes midnight, a disciplined silence grows over the 1,500-square-foot ground in Majaswadi slum that is part of a hilly terrain in Mumbai’s Jogeshwari East. Over 150 men form a huddle, another 150 hoist themselves on to their shoulders and within minutes, a six-tier human pyramid sways in the quiet night. An eight-year-old wiry girl props herself onto the shoulders of her fellow Govindas — as the men who are part of the pyramid are called — and rises like a diva, clambering on, till she is right at the top. Prapti Desai is tier number seven of the pyramid and she stands there, alone, for a full minute. She is the youngest Govinda in the Jai Jawan Mitra Mandal, which is said to have broken the Guinness World Record in 2012 by forming 43.79-foot-tall, nine-tier human pyramids to celebrate Krishna Janmashtami.
Prapti raises both her hands, her eyes steady. At the count of 60, which rings loud and clear in the ground, the girl relaxes and gracefully climbs down. The pyramid disintegrates. For the last three months, Prapti has been delaying her bedtime by two hours to practise for Monday’s Janmashtami festival here in Shiv Tekdi ground.
It’s a day after the Bombay High Court put a cap of 20 feet for the height of human pyramids and prohibited minors from participating as Govindas. Any talk of the ruling and Prapti turns around to her father Nilesh Desai and asks, “Ab kya hoga baba, mein Govinda banugi ya nahi?”
After the HC ruling on August 11, which followed two separate PILs filed by Mumbai residents and two deaths of minors during dahi handi practice, various mandals protested and filed a petition in the Supreme Court. On Thursday, the Supreme Court revoked the HC order but restricted under-12-year-olds from becoming Govindas. The members of Jai Jawan Mitra Mandal, however, point out that they keep an ambulance and a doctor ready during the festival and claim that they have earlier had even a three-year-old Govinda. For now, the Jai Jawan Mitra Mandal is going ahead with Prapti’s training in the hope that the court would change its stand before Janmashtami. This year, the mandal hopes to create a nine-tier, over-40-foot-tall pyramid with 540 men. Today, fewer people have turned up for training so the pyramid is only seven tiers.
With closely cropped hair, a sparkling stud in her nose and a mischievous smile, Prapti is the only girl in the male-dominated army of Govindas as they sit listening to directions from their coach — “Watch your fellow’s back”. “You have to keep each other safe”. “Focus and balance well”.
Prapti, a Class II student, has been participating in the dahi-handi festival since she was five. She practises with fellow Govindas from 9.30 pm till 12.30 am and wakes up for school at 6 am the next day. She takes a city bus to get to the Cannosa Primary Girls School, less than 10 km away in Andheri, at 7 am, attends her classes — “No, I don’t sleep during class,” she says — and comes home at 2 pm. After a quick lunch, she attends her tuition classes till 7 pm. By 9.30 pm, she stands at the entrance to her basti, eagerly waiting for her coach Sandeep Bhosale.
“I don’t allow just about anyone to become a Govinda. But I knew that with her light weight and flexible body, she would make a good Govinda,” says Bhosale, 46, who has been coaching Govindas for the last 16 years.
The human pyramids involve months of rigorous training. Sudheer Mane, a Govinda, says, “We have given up alcohol for these three months. We run every morning and exercise as much as possible. We have to stay fit.”
While Prapti has been spared the exercise routine, she has to stay alert for the practice sessions that are held at night since most Govindas are away at work during the day. By the time Prapti herself creeps into bed and cuddles up next to her mother, it’s 1 am.
“Her unit tests start from August 19, a day after Janmashtami. But she manages her studies along with all this practice,” says her mother Nikita Desai, 34.
Prapti’s parents work in a jewellery shop in Andheri and her father Nilesh, 35, gets back at 11 pm, just in time to watch his little girl rise up the pyramid.
For now, Prapti’s other interests are on hold. After Janmashtami and the exams, she will get back to her free-style dancing and join drawing classes too, says her mother. “I like watching Chhota Bheem and Raju on Pogo. Sometimes I play with my friends, but they don’t come for the dahi handi practice,” says Prapti.
‘Fear’ is not a word the Desais mention when they talk about human pyramids, though Prapti fell thrice at last year’s practice. “She wasn’t injured and wanted to try again herself,” says Nilesh. “We have seen this mandal practise for years. They are well-trained.”
They are all my mamas. I know I will be safe,” pipes up Prapti, and then squeals: “Main handi phodegi.”
On Janmashtami day, the person at the top has to break a handi full of buttermilk, but practice days are without the handi.
By now, it’s 12.30 am and Prapti is on her last round of practice for the day. The huddle is back and Prapti is propped up on the shoulders of Vidhyadhar Acharekar. She then switches shoulders and mounts herself onto another Govinda and goes on this way for a few heart-stopping moments till she is finally on the top. She then raises both her hands, her legs firmly rooted on a Govinda’s shoulder. The 50-odd spectators hold their breath. The coach blows his whistle, the pyramid breaks down with a thunderous “Ganpati Bappa” to which Prapti shouts in response: “Morya”.
Practice over, the Govindas assemble in the nearby temple for food and gossip, which continues till 1 am. Prapti’s father tucks her hand into his and they head home: “Chal ab sone chalegi ya nahi (Won’t you go to bed now)? Tomorrow is school,” he tells her.