Mumbai - Lakshmi puja

by Joe Morris

In the month before arriving in Mumbai, I had vicariously travelled with Paul Theroux by rail around Europe and Asia, and then down the length of the Americas; I was now in the land of Indian Railways, which at 1.6 million people is the world's largest employer. I was eager to get on a train. And after the chaos of Indian roads, the idea of being in a vehicle that was on rails was very appealing.

I got my chance when I was invited by a friend of a friend, Nirav Desai, to visit a Lakshmi prayer service, or puja, at the factory that his family owned. "It's not a big Ganesh parade kind of deal, just a small puja in the factory. I just don't want to get your hopes up," he explained. Small is just fine, I replied.

Nirav's factory was in a part of Mumbai that was futher north, called Vile Parle (pronounced in a Spanish or Italian fashion: "Veelay Parlay"). I went to Churchgate station, which services the western rail line of Mumbai -- Victoria Terminus, the larger station, runs the eastern line and long haul services. There was no one around the first class ticket window. I checked the price: 56 rupees, just over a dollar. There was a small crowd around second class, which went for seven rupees. I queued up and bought a ticket.

I walked up to the nearest train that looked like it might be leaving soon. The cars were painted either dark and light blue for first class at the front of the train, or dark brown and tan for second class. A man was hanging out the doorway of one of the second class cars.

"Vile Parle?" I asked.

He shook his head in a wobbling manner, like a toy for a car dashboard. I knew that Indians did this when they were talking, but I didn't know if, in isolation, it was affirmative or negative. It looked more like a head shaking than a nod, and better to ask again than to just get on the wrong train. I turned around to try another platform.

"Hello! Hello!" he called after me, and made a sucking, whistling sound that North Americans reserve for getting the attention of household pets ("Here pooch!"), but Indians use to call people's attention. I looked back, and he was motioning for me to get on the train. Note to self: wobbling means affirmative.

There were not yet many people on the train. I took a seat and looked around. The windows were low, suitable for a midget, and covered with heavy wire grating, like chainlink fencing. The interior of the car had been painted dark brown several times in its long history, but it was chipping everywhere and worn away almost completely on the rods that ran the length of the car. The car was divided into four sections of seating, two on either side of the door, each split by the aisleway. I took a seat in the back next to a man with a particularly elaborate dot design on his forehead, a clean white shirt, and a plastic bag on the floor.

The car filled with middle class Indian men: serious looking folks, all in polyester pants and collared shirts. I counted one of the four sections, and there were twenty five people. Multiplied by four sections: there were one hundred people in the car. Among them, there were three women: one was a girl, leaning on her father's shoulder in front of me, and then two women together on the far side of the car. There were supposedly women-only cars, although I never saw any labelled as such. Many people were carrying parcels and bags of purchases. I remembered this later on in the evening, when I asked an electronics store owner, a friend of Nirav's, how business was.

"Recently, just ok, not too great the last week. But yesterday, today, have been really good. People wait for this day at the beginning of Diwali for purchases."

"Like gifts, for other people?" I asked.

"No, mostly for themselves. It's considered auspicious, a lucky time to buy. People who are buying cars, they order them months in advance but want delivery today."

The railway car filled and filled with more people. Men came to the back row, where I was sitting, and kept asking people to move until we were packed hip to hip, as many as the hard wooden bench would hold.

The train pulled out of the station. I bobbed my head throughout the twenty minute journey, straining to see out the window, but there was little to see. The scenery was all concrete walls and barbed wire fences, changing to only slightly less dense urban jungle as we went north.

Vile Parle is considered "suburban" Mumbai, but the streets are still thick with people and merchants. It had the fruit stands with hanging hands of stubby bananas and piles of greenish oranges and jackfruit, and restaurants (or "Hotel" as they are known in India; this led to the improbable sign "Vegetarian Hotel" being common in India) seemed to be every other door. Nirav had said to meet him at the McDonald's west of the stataion. I asked two businessses where McDonald's was, and received looks like I was a lunatic, looking for an outpost of my own culture deep in the heart of urban India. So I walked four blocks into the setting sun, and there they were, the golden arches, looking terribly manufactured in the organic mess of hand painted signs in fron of Indian stores. I called Nirav from a nearby pay phone, which was run by a person, as most public phones are in India, then ordered a chocolate shake at McDonald's, which tasted exactly the same as they do in Indiana.


Nirav's family factory, which produced dye pastes, was in an industrial park a few miles from the train station.

"This is just a small facility, we do a little bit of work here, but most of it is at a plant north of Mumbai," explained Nirav. We walked through an entrance room, through a room with a twenty-foot ceiling that was filled with what looked like heavy equipment, and up a stairwell to Nirav's office.

"The Chinese make the dye powders," he continued. "There's a lot of toxic chemicals involved in making those. Here we just mix it with other substances to make dye paste, and that's the stuff that sticks to your shirt there," said Nirav, pointing to my shirt. It was the only shirt with a collar that I had in India, and I had just bought it an hour before on the street outside Churchgate Station, since it seemed possibly inappropriate to show up at a puja in a UC Berkeley t-shirt. Nirav did the export/import side of the business, which meshed with his affinity for travel; his brother took care of domestic affairs.

Nirav went out of his office, to the room next door. "The puja will be in the next room, but they're still preparing. It'll be a little bit."

We checked our email; Nirav had one of the workers bring bottled water. I had seen people on the street drinking water from taps and fountains, and they didn't keel over on the spot from amoebic dystentary; I was curious if upper class people in India drank the local water, and if it was something you could get used to. I asked Nirav.

"Uh-uh, nope, that should be rule number one, do not drink the water here," he replied. "Stick with bottles."

I was glad I brought a water purifier. I had been thinking about using the local water for tooth brushing, but I gave up on that idea on the spot.

Five minutes later, we went into the room that was being used for the puja, and the need for preparation was immediately evident. The floor was covered with cloth, and at the front was a small altar built for the occasion. The altar was about three feet high, with groups of banana leaves as the four posts and garlands of marigolds as the walls. Silver colored metal miniatures of Lakshmi and Vishnu sat within, and another of the elephant-headed Ganesh was out front. Under the canopy, with Lakshmi and Vishnu, was a selection from a fruit market: a red apple, a green apple, a coconut, a kiwi and an artichoke. This organic display was like a small tropical island among industrial surroundings; there were four computers set around the room, looking slightly aged and well used. The shelves and cabinets around the office were stuffed every which way with binders that bulged with documents.

The prayer leader, or pujari, sat to the left of the altar. Pujaris are professional leader of Hindu ceremonies, and have spent years studying and memorizing the Vedic scriptures. V.S. Naipaul gives a tremendous description of the life of a pujari in Mumbai in India: A Million Mutinies Now. The book describes India as an aggregate of small stories of representative people, and most tell of families in transition from tradition-bound, rural India to modernity: a grandfather who worked in a traditional role in the village, deeply caste-bound; a father who is a "cultural commuter", dressing in Western clothes for work at a service job within the Indian government but changing to traditional garb at home; and the son, who is a stock trader or computer programmer.

But the pujari Naipaul describes stuck with the old path, studying vedas at the temple in his village instead of business at the university. When it turned out that there were already enough pujaris in his village, he went to Bombay and plied his trade there, walking two hours or more to each prayer service, and reciting Vedas for as long as six hours, in the case of a wedding ceremony. The pay was very little, but then Naipaul finds out that despite this, he has saved enough to buy a place to live -- he has very low rent because his landlord is a devout Hindu, and there is frequently food left over from prayer ceremonies.

So it was with this in mind that I watched the pujari start the Lakshmi puja. He wore a long loose-fitting shirt and simple pants, and his face was slightly plump, wise in a jovial way. Bantha, Nirav's brother, sat cross-legged in front of the banana-leaf temple, and I was just behind him to the left. The pujari started to chant in Gujarati, and for the next hour, almost without pause, his voice continued: a steady chant, then singing, a whispered instruction to Bantha, occasionally a loud chorus, joined by others in the room. Bantha sat stock still, but then followed directions occasional directions the pujari uttered to him like a Christian priest in a wedding ("Okay, now you put the ring on her finger"). The pujari and Bantha were surrounded by tin trays of leaves, flowers, fruits, colored string, and small paper wrapped parcels. The first twenty minutes were spent on the Ganesh idol. It was placed on a circular tin tray with raised edges, and water poured over it, then the tray was drained and he was wreathed in multi-colored string, then white string, then with marigolds and another small white flower, held together with a thread.

The pujari put Ganesh, now robed and resplendant, back on the front of the altar. Lakshmi and Vishnu looked positivly naked by comparison. But they, too, had their turn, and were similarly washed and garbed; a coconut was decked with flowers and held their place on the altar while this took place. Then the pujari put a large tin plate of small leaves that resembled basil in front of Bantha, who proceeded to move them one by one into a pile around Lakshmi and Vishnu while the pujari recited a repetitive veda. Up until this point, I had been impressed at how tactile and dynamic the ceremony was; there was some new process happening, flowers, thread and produce going each and every way. The leaf-moving was still a very physical form of worship, but it was static; and although it only lasted ten minutes, but it seemed much longer. The left side of my back started to streak with pain, and I shifted my weight to stretch it and change my position. The pujari and Nirav's brother sat stock still throughout, however; I admired their patience and concentration.

After the leaves were moved, the pujari took one of the round tin trays and inscribed a swastika-like emblem, with four dots inside of it. It was jarring, a symbol of violence dropped in the middle of the ceremony of a peaceful religion. He then put balls of camphor at the center and lit them, and had Bantha move it in circles before the altar while he chanted; this ended with the ringing of a bell. That was the end of a section of the puja; Bantha stretched and a few people stepped outside. Soon after, though, a new, less formal ceremony began of story telling.

It was evident from the pujari's tone of voice that this was a different type of of presentation. Bantha's daughter, a pretty and well dressed girl of about six or seven, was sitting on her grandmother's lap, and it was evident that this was particuarly meant for her edification. I asked Nirav about this later, and he said, "They're stories of the gods, with morals and lessons; its like your stories of St. Peter and Paul, except with Hindu gods." I moved to a chair at the back of the room near Nirav for this, which took about fifteen minutes. The actual puja was entertaining to watch, but hearing stories in a language of which I didn't speak a word was not particularly engaging.

The story telling ended, and then there was a puja-finishing ceremony. First each person went in front of the altar, and the pujari put red powder and small white seeds on each of our foreheads. The remainder of the puja-finishing was very similar the ending of another that I had seen six weeks before at the Hindu temple in Livermore, California, which I had visited with my friend Hari. Water was brought around, and poured into each persons hand. Hari had explained was laced with camphor; each person drank a part of it and poured the remainder on their head. The pujari had earlier, while finishing the stories, molded cotton and camphor together into the shape of a large Hershey's kiss, and placed it in the middle of the tin tray. He now lit it, and the tray was passed around. Each person put a few rupees on the tray and wafted their hand above the flame and towards their throat, and then placed their hands together in prayer. Some of the workers of the factory made motions towards their throat and forehead; it was like an abbreviated form of a Catholic making the sign of the cross.

And with that, the puja concluded. We all retired to the lower offices where tea and snacks were served; there was fruit, nuts, and indian desserts. In general, Indian desserts are small sugary balls that have different shapes and colors, but are without fail sickeningly sweet to a Western palate. Here, though, I found one dessert that was tasty: they were little yellow loops, like circular pretzels, that were crispy on the outside with a gelatinous interior. Nirav explained that they were jalebis; I found them slightly less appetizing after I saw them being made later -- they're deep fried, pulled out of big pools of boiling oil -- but they are still the best of Indian desserts.

I asked Nirav about the puja.

"Well, Lakshmi is the goddess of wealth, so you're basically praying for money."

"Is everybody doing it across India, or is this just a thing for your family, or Gujaratis?"

"It's everywhere, all across India on this day. Everybody wants money, right? Usually people perform it in their office, but if not, then then in their homes. Many people come to whereever they work to see it, like all of the men who work in the factory who came here for it."

Later on that evening Nirav took me to visit a friend who was celebrating his birthday. The main thing that was remarkable about that was the amount of time that I listened to his friends converse did not recognize that the exchanges were occurring in my own mother tongue, albeit evolved to suit the Indian subcontinent. When the Nirav's friends addressed me directly, I could understand them; and I could always hear that Nirav was speaking English, as he studied at the University of Leeds and has a lovely British accent. But for fifteen minutes or more I was under the impression that the others in the group were speaking back to him, and to each other, in Hindi or Gujarati. But from this Babel more and more English phrases seemed to fly, and as I listened more closely, I realized that the conversaion might, possibly, be entirely in English, although I couldn't be certain. One of his friends, an emaciated fellow named Suzieboy, spoke in machine gun bursts so rapid that it was a wonder it could be understood by anyone.

As we left, I asked Nirav. It was all English, he said; these were friends from school, and as they were from disparate parts of India and thus used English as a lingua franca.

As we drove through the area near where Nirav lives, he pointed out the salient buildings in the neighborhood: the Hare Krishna temple, a building of white arches that was lit garishly with flashing colored lights, like the most ostentatious display of Christmas lights in the United States. The bald guys with flowers in airports in the '70's, they all originated here. There was Amitabh Bachchan's house -- not a house, a compound, with high walls, the structure barely visible behind it.

"Amitabh is the biggest star in Bollywood," said Nirav. "He's like Marlon Brando, Tom Cruise and Robert Redford rolled into one. There was a poll by the BBC recently for the biggest name in movies, and Amitabh won by a long shot; the British all voted for different people, but there are a lot of Indians in Britain, and they all voted for one person: Amitabh." I looked this up on the Internet; Sir Lawrence Olivier was in second place by a wide margin.

I thought the voting for Amitabh was particuarly ironic since I had just been thumbing through a newspaper earlier in the day, which was running a story about how a prominent Member of Parliament had criticized the Indian community in the UK for political apathy, which, the story said, was essentially true, although it was tactless for the MP to say so. But they were a solid voting bloc when it came to Bollywood. I thought about this, watching the traffic go slowly by.

"Holy shit, there's an elephant!"

There it was, lumbering the opposite direction in traffic in front of four-star hotels, its face painted red and white like a brahmin. Traffic, the Mumbai morass of autorickshaws, trucks and passenger vehicles, flowed right around it. Nirav was impassive.

"They're pretty common. Sometimes American companies will hire them out for advertising, and they hang billboards from them, although that doesn't seem to be the case with that one. Sometimes people just need to move things from one place to another."

"So they use an elephant?"

"If you need to move something, and you have an elephant, that's what you use, I guess."

"It must be hard to park an elephant."

"I'm not sure that they need to park them all that often."

I was similarly startled by a woman walking a monkey down the street in Colaba, and then later on by a snake charmer with his cobras in Fort Cochin. I was used to these animals in zoos, behind bars or glass, on display as exotic specimens. In India they were just earning a living.

We stopped by Nirav's house, and I noticed the swastika-like emblems on either side of the threshold.

"What's with these swastika-like emblems?" I asked.

"They're swastikas."

"Well, yeah, but don't they have a Hindi name or something?"

"That's it: swastika. It's a Hindi word. Hitler was big into this Aryan race thing, and they Aryans were here in northern India; he took the symbol and the name both from us. The only difference is that his are turned 45 degrees and there aren't the four dots inside. It gets kind of embarrassing sometimes in other countries when people don't know."

I had read in the guidebook that the Aryans had moved into India in millenia past, but I had thought this was a coincidence and was not actually related to "Aryan" in the Nazi sense (which I had thought was spelled "Arian"; and it can be, but according to the dictionary that's a less-used alternate spelling). I didn't doubt Nirav, but I checked Webster's Revised Unabridged to see what it had to say: "One of a primitive people supposed to have lived in prehistoric times... and to have been the stock from which sprang the Hindoo, Persian, Greek, Latin, Celtic, Teutonic, Slavonic, and other races."

We went to visit a friend of Nirav's at The Otter Club, which was like a country club without the golf course; there was dancing, sometimes with sticks that two dancers would hit together, more jalebis (this is where I saw them being prepared), and I had the conversation with the electronics store owner about purchases on Diwali. Afterwards, Nirav dropped me off at the Dadar train station, further south than Vile Parle; it was one in the morning, but the trains were still running.

I bought a first class ticket, so that I could compare what you got for another forty nine rupees. The ticket agent smirked as he handed me my ticket. It didn't occur to me until after I got on the train that no one had checked for my ticket on the way north, and this was even less likely to occur on the way back home in the middle of the night; buying the more expensive ticket turned out to merely be a donation to Indian Railways.

There were about a dozen men waiting for the southbound train, and they were all fairly well dressed and kept to themselves. When the train arrived, I found that the first class bogie was identical to second class except that it was painted blue, and the windows were slightly larger and higher up, although they were still covered in heavy wire. There were two other people in the car with me, who were both devout Muslims wearing white robes and woven white caps; I suspected that they hadn't paid first class fare. I later ran into large numbers of simiarly dressed Muslims two days later when I walked to Craford Market, several miles north of my Hotel, and it was near there that these two left the train.

On the walk back from Churchgate to my hotel, a distance of about a mile, there were still plenty of people about, some well dressed middle class people heading home, but also those lying out to sleep on the sidewalks. There was a street sleeper who had invested in a mosquito net; one group was staying up late playing cards. I was surprised at how perfectly safe it seemed; there were so many people around that it was hard to imagine how a mugging could occur. Moreover, in the early hours of the morning, it was possible to cross the street without stepping through the chaos of Mumbai traffic. The next day I felt much more at home in Mumbai, having seen it both at the proper tourist visiting hours as well as in the still of night.

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