Mumbai?s strange New Year tradition: Chokeslamming an old man?s effigy and setting him ablaze

By Jay Pikle 

At any other time of the year, the sight of a fat old man sitting in a plastic chair on the roof of my building watchman’s cabin would make me call the cops. But things are different in December. As the year draws to a close, and Christmas and New Year season is in full force, Santa Claus is not the only jolly old man coming to town. It’s the Old Man of the Year an effigy only to be burnt at midnight on New Year’s Eve to mark the ringing out of the old and the ringing in of the new.

It was only a few years ago that I learnt that this was a uniquely Mumbai tradition. Most of our New Year’s rituals are fairly predictable. Some head to a friend’s house for a drunken bash, others to a club where the DJ plays the most awful mashups on smoke-filled and sweaty dance floors. Some of us do the brave/foolhardy thing of heading out somewhere outside city, to celebrate and say, “Getting stuck in traffic is a custom I’ve always followed.”

But setting the Old Man of the Year ablaze is something out of the ordinary, beyond the typical booze-fuelled New Year’s Party that can too often become an indistinct blur in your memory. There ain’t no party like an Old Man party because an Old Man party gets lit.

The Old Man is nothing but a stuffed figure who sits on a chair all alone, with a glass of his favourite drink and a cigarette dangling from his lips, overlooking the society building where he lives. Commonly referred to as Old Man or Old Man Gloom, the tradition of effigy burning originates in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and dates back to 1924. In Indian communities, this tradition is observed mostly along the Konkan coast, from Mumbai to Goa. The idea behind the Old Man is that many see the New Year as an infant, born on January 1, who turns old in a year’s time and goes away at the end of the year, carrying with him the burdens of the passing year. The symbolic burning of the Old Man represents the chain of death and birth, the passage of time, and the old and the new. When we got together to set the Old Man alight, we were burning away all the sorrows and gloominess of the year gone by.

Maybe this year I’ll be one of the adults standing by and watching as the kids chokeslam poor ol’ Old Man.

Given the philosophical similarities behind the burning of the Old Man and the Holika Dahan pooja, you’ll forgive seven-year-old me for thinking it was “Christian Holi”. I wanted to incorporate pichkaris and gulaal into the festivities, and even suggested it once, only to be laughed at by the elders.

In reality, there was a lot more Diwali than Holi in the celebrations – along with the straw and dry leaves we stuffed the Old Man with, we also threw in any leftover crackers from Diwali to add some sparks to the proceedings. The entire process of creating our Old Man would take us three to four days. While most of the old men were fat, some buildings made slim ones. Some, I remember, even had families, complete with a wife, and two kids! However one thing which united them all, was the mask of poor Santa Claus, whose jolly visage inevitably became the default face for the Old Man, and ended up in flames every year. Santa Dahan.

At the society’s New Year’s Eve party, we’d spend the night jigging away to the tunes of Bollywood songs, Rasna, and games of musical chairs, nail the donkey, and the eternal favourite, housie. But by 11.30 pm, the anticipation would build. The kids would be allowed a free run at the Old Man. This involved mostly trying all the wrestling moves on the effigy – my favorite being the chokeslam. Other kids would kick, punch, and hit the guy, giving vent to all their frustrations built up from strict parents and stern teachers all year long. At the finale, watching the Old Man go up in a blaze of flames and fireworks after being doused in kerosene, we always marvelled at our handiwork.

Though it’s technically just a stuffed figure that’s only around for a week or so, seeing that familiar old man back on my watchman’s cabin’s roof brought back a wave of nostalgia. Maybe this year I’ll be one of the adults standing by and watching as the kids chokeslam poor ol’ Old Man. I may not be the one doing the stuffing and setting alight, but I’ll be there to watch the embers fly up to the sky, as the new year approaches us with the promise of better times to come (maybe the long-awaited arrival of acche din, perhaps).

The symbolic burning of the Old Man represents the chain of death and birth, the passage of time, and the old and the new.

Perhaps you should find your own version of Burning Man in your neighbourhood too. Who knows, maybe with all the negativity being taken away by the Old Man, the new year may just bring in something positive for you?

The original article can be found on Arre.