Uncertain Times in India, but Not for a Deity

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MUMBAI, India -- As this year's monsoon season receded, onions were selling for an eye-popping 58 cents a pound, another sign that inflation had accelerated to a six-month high. It has been a period of belt-tightening in India's financial capital, a slow but sure blunting of hopes.

But you would hardly have known that if you were standing under a 25-foot, gemstone-encrusted statue of the elephant-headed god Ganesh, who is believed to have the power to remove obstacles.

One idol, necklaces cascading from its neck, was unloaded at the edge of the Arabian Sea on Wednesday to be submerged in the water alongside its brethren: the Ganesh laden with 145 pounds of gold ornaments; the Ganesh that was fitted with a new satin loincloth each day of the 10-day festival marking his birthday; the Ganesh lounging under strobe lights and crystal chandeliers, one plump foot resting on a gold-dusted globe.

This year's crop of Ganeshes -- about 13,000 of them, according to the evening news -- stood out for its gaudiness.

Narendra Dahibawkar, who heads an umbrella organization overseeing the city's idol-producing groups, said spending on this year's Ganeshes was up 10 percent over 2012. The number of visitors during the festival had reportedly risen between 10 percent and 30 percent across the city, with five- and six-hour waits to make a wish. Mr. Dahibawkar said he thought the underlying reason was worry.

"People are coming because they are insecure -- about rising prices, about the way ladies are treated," Mr. Dahibawkar said. "The government is not just to them. Only God."

At midafternoon, the idols began trundling past the graceful, derelict facades of Marine Drive, past the King of Kings Printers, to the edge of the sea. Prancing beside them were men and women dusted with vermilion powder, so they looked like red ghosts.

Nikita Trevedi, 27, a pharmacist, watched dreamily as boys poled a raft heavy with idols out to the open sea and slid them below the surface of the water. It was a grander display than she had seen growing up in the 1980s.

"Belief is growing," she said happily. "It's like going back in time."

The annual immersion of Ganesh began in the early 20th century as part of the Indian independence movement. It provided a way to bridge the gap between castes, and it served as a pretext for gathering without the interference of British forces.

But in recent years, with corporate sponsors offering huge donations, Mumbai's mandals -- neighborhood organizations that sponsor and build idols -- began a competition in grandiosity. City authorities had to set a 25-foot height limit, lest the idols slam into bridges and overpasses on their way to the ocean.

Equally lavish are the offerings left for idols by wealthy devotees, typically out of gratitude that a wish has been fulfilled -- a gold cradle, a gold soccer ball, a gold house. One year, a diamond-encrusted cellphone. In most cases, offerings to idols go to the mandal to be used for construction of the next year's idol.

Social scientists have criticized lavish spending on temple rituals, arguing that a relatively small percentage of donations reach the truly needy.

Nandini Sardesai, a sociology professor who grew up in Mumbai, said she had watched the gathering turn gradually from "private feast" into a public display of wealth that demands offerings from "people who can barely say where their next meal is coming from."

Still, the streets of Mumbai were thronged and joyful on Wednesday night, and many on the beach said the ritual offered a respite during uncertain times.

Prakash Kumar, a pharmacy branch manager, said he had traveled almost 400 miles with his wife and baby to see an idol called Lalbaugcha Raja. With the arrival of Western culture in India, Mr. Kumar said, "physical things are more with us." Events like Wednesday's immersion, he said, offered him some freedom from the relentless pressure to earn.

"Everyone is looking for peace now," he said.

Atam Mukhaya, 53, who works at a metal factory, said he would wish to be free from financial anxiety. "The government doesn't care about the common man," he said. "Onions cost 80 rupees a kilogram. How can I afford a good meal? Even God can't do anything about it."

A Popsicle in his hand was dripping in the heat, and he glared at it. "All he can do is give me ice cream," he said.

Dinesh Sundakar, 44, sat with his family as they burned incense in a brass dish. He looked sour. His embroidery business had lost four big clients, he said, and he had spent the last year idle.

"Ganesh doesn't sort anything out for you, in my personal experience," he said. "Last year, I didn't bring an idol, and I had a good job. This year, I brought an idol and I am unemployed." A relative intervened, pointing out that he had had too much to drink to draw such conclusions, but Mr. Sundakar went on.

"I don't like Ganesh," he said. "Maybe it's random chance. But I think he is bad luck for me."

Mansi Choksi contributed reporting.

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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