An atheist seeks out the Goddess

Atheists frequently call on other people’s Gods when they’re desperate. Worn down by circumstance, my back to the proverbial wall, I accompanied my husband, a believer, to South Mumbai’s Mahalakshmi temple in the summer of 2022. In tight blue denim, a black Puma exercise t-shirt, and a heavy mangalsutra, I looked every bit the modern-day Mumbaikar, playing it cool, but secretly eager to get Devi Ma’s attention that evening.

There are many things a newlywed Indian couple can pray for at the feet of Goddess Mahalakshmi, but that evening, the storm in both our hearts had everything to do with the American consulate. We went there to pray for my visa, one of the more commonplace prayers in the country, especially among the middle class. For us, at the time, my visa was the be-all and end-all of everything; we’d been married for three weeks and my husband was scheduled to board a flight to San Francisco, without me, in a few days. Our visa agent said I’d have to wait anywhere between 18 and 22 months before I could join him there. It usually doesn’t take that long; this was symptomatic of some post-COVID red tape that the American embassy in India had become notorious for back then. The situation was hopeless enough to put a haughty skeptic in a long line at one the busiest mandirs in the city, just before the auspicious Maha Aarti.

The crush of devotees

It was uncomfortable, to say the least. I was in a line flanked by two other lines. There was no elbow room in that disproportionately crowded area, full of aggressive devotees trying to out-pray one another, each one audaciously confident that She was actually listening to their inner voice in that cacophony of temple bells, mantras, and chatter.

I inhaled a concoction of sweat, mogra, agarbattis, and Mumbai’s salty June air. Dizzy from the humidity and bored because my husband was in a different line, far away from me, I was losing patience. I started trying to squeeze my way out when suddenly there was absolute silence. The special 20-minute window for intense worship, which people had traveled across the city to experience, had opened and a new sound filled the room.

Mata chad gayi

I thought the pandit had begun a different song, but quickly realized it was coming from my left –haunting, guttural, and distinctly female. One of the ladies in the adjoining queue – heavyset, 40-something, sunburnt – had begun to swoon as if possessed, screaming “Aaaaaaa, aaaaaa….” every now and then, swinging to her own music, arms raised above her head, eyes closed. She seemed to be in a trance, her long hair loose about her face, swaying this way and that, as she dipped her head low, then arched her back the other way and bent backward. Thick strands of black hair clung to her face and neck as she moved around in circles, perturbed neither by the cleavage that showed as she danced with abandon nor by the sindoor that was seeping onto her forehead. Her bindi fell off as did her dupatta. Her companion grabbed her purse just in time.

Onlookers stared at this sweaty spectacle for a few seconds before making their way to her one by one, gingerly touching her head, and her feet, muttering their deepest desires as if to seek her blessings. That’s when it hit me – to them, she was the Goddess incarnate. There’s a term for this in almost every Indian language but the ones I’m familiar with are ‘devi angaat aali’ in Marathi and ‘mata chadh gayi’ in Hindi. It means, for those few minutes, the divine feminine energy of the Goddess had ‘entered’ the body of this lady, making her a temporary avatar of Mahalakshmi, Kamla, Padma, Aditi, Vimla, Siddhi, Indira… whoever she was, ceased to exist.

For those few mad minutes, she had socio-religious sanction to go hysterical in public, she had a holy license to pause her templated life and let her hair down and… misbehave. The rules of social censorship were temporarily suspended. She, who was probably reprimanded by an elder for a peeking bra strap or untamed hair that very morning, could put up an unsolicited, wild performance for a roomful of strangers in such close proximity to her, allowing her flesh to shift around beneath her salwar kameez, only because that behavior was… blessed.

Locking eyes with the Devi

And just like that, her self-induced fugue state came to an end. Her mannerisms were regular once again – she adjusted her clothes, tied, then untied, then re-tied her hair, urgently took her purse from her friend, and wiped her face with a handkerchief. The people who’d gathered around to touch her suddenly felt they stood too close for comfort and moved away, reclaiming their original positions.

Before I could process what was going on, my husband appeared out of nowhere and grabbed my hand, pulling me to the front. Suddenly the Goddess was back in the garlanded idol facing the crowd. All eyes looked at the golden murti once again.

All but mine. After scanning the place for a few seconds, I saw her again. She was chewing something while looking at her cell phone – ordinary, human, mortal. When she looked up, she noticed my gaze and we locked eyes for a few moments.

Cynical, questioning, and piercing, my eyes challenged her. Appealing to the unspoken sisterhood that all women share beneath the surface, she held my gaze and smiled conspiratorially, aware that I was calling her bluff but telling me to let it go because she knew I understood.

I heard her, loud and clear.

Everyone went home. We got busy packing my husband’s suitcases and he left for America as planned.

My visa arrived in four months.

This article was first published in the Alien Buddha anthology

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Ashwini Gangal is a fiction writer based in San Francisco, who has published stories and poems in literary magazines in the UK and Croatia.