Since I was a “US-return,” my father insisted that we take a taxi. It was an indication that our status had risen. Our taxiwala uncle was a Muslim, judging by his beautiful and intricate, small, round cap. I asked him, “Siddhivinayak?” He nodded and asked us to sit inside. Dad took the front seat while mom and I sat at the back. The morning held purpose, especially for Dad, as he had skipped his morning puja, thinking the visit to Siddhivinayak surmounted his daily ritual.
When we arrived at the temple gates, I noticed how men and women were ushered into separate lines. The men’s queue had access to the bag scanner while the women’s didn’t. I had to walk towards the men’s section and place my Michael Kors very carefully on the scanner. As I was frisked, I saw my parents not paying much heed to the security routine. Siddhivinayak has real gold domes, so I suppose the security had to be strict.
As we removed our slippers at a stall and picked up a plate of flowers for the deity, I realized that in the many years I’d lived in Mumbai, I had never questioned the honesty of the man who kept watch on my slippers before I stepped into the holy temple. Nowhere in the world would I show this kind of blind faith. But with this man, my trust came easily. It was an unsaid pact that had probably begun during the 2006 floods. During that time of upheaval, I had been proud to be a Mumbaikar. Mumbaikars hadn’t taken advantage of the floods to loot one’s neighbor. And with that thought, I walked towards the long lines.
As the three of us walked between two metal rods that guided our way to the deity, the women were diverted toward a shortcut within the temple. Dad, quietly joined the longer queue. I felt a bit disappointed about the separation.
Since I came back from the United States, I’ve had a bit of trouble adjusting to the way things are done in India. I remember taking the Metro train from the Union station in Los Angeles and keeping in mind the one and only rule that those in the train were to alight first. I let the thought drift and joined the hordes of ladies waiting to get into the “womb” where the Lord resided.
As I marveled at the ladies who wore saris in the unbelievable heat of Mumbai, my mom started her tirade about paying our respects from the outside instead of inside the sanctum sanctorum. It was because i) she was drenched in pearls of sweat and ii) she was being pushed into the row of ladies at the front. The scene looked like a crowd of football fans getting crushed and as I stretched on my toes, the view from the top looked like a human wave.
I took the plate of flowers from my mother’s hands, as she wobbled forward. The smell of coconut oil pervaded the air. I noticed that all of a sudden a lady appeared out of nowhere and displaced my mother from her original place in front of me to somewhere behind me. I looked back and saw my frail mother smiling at me valiantly.
Fury raged within me for the woman who had acted with such aggression in this most sacred place of worship. I moved back and placed myself right behind my mother so that I could protect her.
Finally when we were let into the inner sanctum, pandemonium ensued. Women pushed each other, and the plates rose fiercely in the air, precariously held aloft. (If the plates fell, it would be unfit for God.) I saw Mom quickly put her hands together and pray quickly and hard. Then she rushed out of the sanctum. I stretched out my hand so that one of the pundits would take my gift and offer it to the Lord. I could feel my neck sprain, and my arm twist as I extended my offering. In that instant, I saw the red-colored Ganesha with dark black eyes take notice of me. In a matter of seconds, the pundit stretched his arm with a face that winced and eyebrows that knitted together, and just in the way Adam and God’s fingers met in the Michelangelo painting in the Sistine Chapel, my gift was accepted.
I came out of the womb, victorious. When Dad arrived, Mom narrated our experience and made him promise to never enter the sanctum again, because i) it made more sense to watch the Lord from the television outside the womb and ii) they were not young anymore.
When we finally sat in a taxi, I smiled at the secularism of our country as we rode back home with another Muslim uncle wearing an intricately designed, white, round cap chattering with Dad about corrupt politicians.
Vyoma Hadkar is an advertising professional and an alumni of MICA, India. She experiments with food, makes great travel plans, ruminates in haiku, dabbles in calligraphy and is a lover of art and museums.