A few weeks ago, after a night with some friends in South Bombay, I flagged down an air-conditioned taxi to transport me the short but densely-trafficked distance back to Ghatkopar. Just as we were about to reach my apartment, the taxi driver – missing more than a few teeth – lisped out, “You Christian?” I nodded in affirmation. Smiling, he motioned toward a small, colorful figurine of Vishnu, the four-armed Hindu God, on his dashboard. “This my Jesus.”
Aside from pleasantly surprising me with his use of English, the cab driver’s short-but-sweet metaphor got me thinking how my experience in India has been frequently defined by the deeply spiritual culture. The traditions and beliefs of Hinduism, in particular, seem to infuse every aspect of Mumbai daily life, from car ornaments to mealtime etiquette.
As I have mentioned in previous posts, Hindu temples broadcast recorded songs and chants regularly, adding to the already boisterous city noise levels. I find these songs distracting during the day, but hauntingly beautiful when played at night. Hindu worships are loud and enthusiastic – characteristics which seem to suffuse the personalities of many locals I meet, particularly the rickshaw drivers who vigorously hum Hindi hymns and shout good-natured questions at me daily.
Vegetarian options are, of course, abundant. In many venues, the variety of veg dishes eclipses the choices of meat, which are limited to variations of chicken and mutton – including the particularly regrettable (in my opinion) “chicken salami.” However – like Christians who only attend church on Christmas – plenty of Hindi followers can pick and choose their rites of religious devotion. When enjoying a buffet dinner with some colleagues, I noticed one friend savoring a roast chicken dish washed down with whiskey, while another nibbled on a vegetarian platter with a glass of water. I began talking with my vegetarian colleague about his religious dietary choices. Picking up on our conversation, my other colleague noted, “I’m supposed to be like him – no meat or alcohol. But…” He gave an indifferent shrug. I was also drinking alcohol and eating meat, and of course understood my colleague’s point– India is no theocracy, and like America, the spiritual lives of citizens only overlap professional or personal lives as much as one allows.
Another ubiquitous symbol of religion here is the swastika. Within my first 24 hours in the city, I deduced fairly quickly that the symbol decorating so many Mumbai cars and storefronts must hold a different meaning then the insignia of Nazi Germany. Indeed, the Hindu swastika is seen as a symbol of Ganesh – the elephant-headed, pot-bellied “remover of obstacles.” I have an admittedly limited knowledge of the canon of Hindu deities, but have nonetheless taken a particular fondness for Ganesh. He is a regarded as a beacon of good luck and prosperity, particularly for businesses. The presence of a tiny Ganesh figurine on one of my coworker’s desks may be comparable to framed Christian psalms or miniature crosses in American cubicle
I have highlighted the Hindu aspects of culture here, but the city is also home to Muslims, Christians, and a bevy of expats bringing with them there are own varied spiritualties. I’m interested to hear other’s experiences with the religious life of India, especially Mumbai. How much does Hinduism influence the city and its people? Are there even larger forces at work?
Look forward to hearing from some of you,
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