I like the way Indians handle their gods and goddesses. The “People of India” survey shows that at least 30% of India is not sure about religion and lists more than one kul devata or family deity. The syncretic Indian can easily absorb Buddha and Christ into the pantheon and is equally happy going to a Sufi shrine to hedge all bets. In fact, the transition from fan club to cult is often smooth and an occasional temple dedicated to a southern star is not unusual. I love Puja pandals in Calcutta where, in the past, I have seen the Durga carrying a Communist Party of India (Marxist) flag.
Within this fluid world, the Ganesha is one of the most popular of gods, and seems to be getting even more so with every passing year, even in places where it was not so till quite recently. In fact, the idols and the variety of sculptures one sees of Ganesha is amazing. I know an outstanding scientist who has a wonderful collection of them. One of the great favourites of many a collector is the Ganesha flashing a mobile phone. Our gods are not only earthly, they also have a deep sense of contemporary style. Hindu gods are never distant. We feel close enough to promise them gifts in return for a favour: I have seen students bargaining – promising an extra few coconuts if they did well in exams.
Not just externalities
What I am arguing is that gods and goddesses are not just externalities, they literally exist as an interactive ecology around us. We feel homeless without them. In a global world, or a migratory one, gods, like citizens, become travelling facts.
Two things add to it. Popular media often turns gods into a Bollywood star. Ganapati and Durga would head the list and the firmament. The Durga Puja is of course legendary and no Bengali regardless of place is complete without it. Space become place when deities participate in it.
As a child in Jamshedpur, I remember all the children and most of the adults attended Durga Puja. It was not just the incentive of wonderful sweets but the elaborate dramas one witnessed. Celebrating gods was part of the civic ritual of the city. One did not have to be a Bengali to join in. Durga belonged to all of us – because some gods – and goddesses – are inclusive by nature.
Durga Puja was part of one’s civic life, because festivals and gods marked the rhythms of the city. One went because it was part of the collectivity. In fact non Bengalis paid chanda voluntarily to these groups. We adopted gods because they belonged to us and we to them. Durga Puja was a part of my childhood cosmopolitanism, my mohalla patriotism, which is the only level at which I can be patriotic. For me, these choices were beyond the lines of secular or religious, they were civic choices and my civics allowed for gods and goddesses from different religions.
Bollywood folk preferences
Gods did not belong only to a cult or sect, but could be inclusive at least on festive days. In fact a friend once said we adopt gods with the affability of Facebook friends. The openness of gods and their electoral reach intrigued me. I felt gods had their own jajmani relationship with crafts, with music, with food, with the city creating little cognitive maps of memory and storytelling. For me a lot of this is folk memory but I realised Bollywood creates its own folk preferences.
Bollywood too creates networks of affiliation, Bollywood is both cosmopolitan and parochial. It will do its salaams to Hindu, Muslim, Sikh – a church is as much a salve as a temple. Yet Bollywood located in Bombay always plays out the ritual drama of Ganesh Chaturthi. The immersion is a signal that the city has stopped. Bollywood highlights the drama of Ganesha more skilfully, without reference to ancient rituals of plastic surgery. In fact, Ganesh Chaturthi combines childhood folktale, adolescent cinematic memory, historical recreation. It was around the Ganesh festivals that Bal Gangadhar Tilak revived Hinduism. It was around the Ganesh festivals that communalism increased. It was around the chanda of the Ganesh festival that funding for the first glass factory in India by the name of Paisa Fund Glass Works in Talegaon near Pune was obtained. Ganesh Chaturthi was thus communal and communitarian all at once.
That secularism thing
Recently at an institution I know, some faculty members argued that Ganesh Chaturthi should not be celebrated in the campus, contending it was a violation of secularism . Many students responded by contending Ganesh was a childhood memory and they felt a need to celebrate it. One group played out the rhetoric of communalism, the other of community. It was fascinating to see South and North and West gather around the god. It was a mapping of memories, of gods, of rituals , where identity was worked out. It was not about violence but the need to keep certain layers of life alive. Students are part of a migrant population but we rarely see them as that.
People wandering across India moving to new cities, contending with mobility and migration, found in Ganesh both old memories and new rituals. It creates both a civics of belonging and expectation, of being at home away from home and yet creating a new home – a hybridity of memories and expectations. The Ganapati festival does that. For a South Indian like me, it creates memories of kozhakkattais, sweet dumplings, which remain a favourite. Eating them ritually was fulfilling a craving, enjoying hospitality and homelessness, a meeting of dialects, of religiosity – all adding to a bigger urban configuration.
Yet, more than Bollywood, our gods create networks of their own. The city’s anonymity gets reworked into public spaces – which are ritual, political and intellectual. Our gods today occupy the public and the digital spaces creating a civic consolidation. A city needs symbolic markers beyond consumption and mass media. Gods provide the new nexus of civic consolidation where migration and memory combine to rework identity in new and inclusive ways.