I don’t understand Hinduism. The philosophy is simple enough, but the rituals and the pantheon of multi-headed and multi-armed gods are beyond my understanding.
I witnessed a ritual on Chowpatty Beach the other night. Devout Hindus prayed and sang in front of the statues of goddesses, then they immersed the goddesses in the sea. I watched as a 50-metre effigee of Ravan, the ten-headed demon, was burned to the ground on the beach. The annual triumph of good over evil to the tune of fireworks and flame. That same day, Hindus decorated their vehicles with garlands of marigolds. Cyclists hung flowers from their bicycles. Taxi drivers broke melons in front of their cars and crushed limes beneath their tires in a ceremony of blessing.
The rains have just ended and the air is still thick with the moisture of monsoons. There was a whiff of a breeze on the beach that night, but the wind blew from the city out to the sea instead of the other way around. It was as if the water itself coaxed the dirty city air towards it, following the path of the believers who sunk their idols. The next day was the hottest yet, and the marigolds that still hung from car hoods and handlebars had grown as soft as egg yolks.
There are no neutral moments in Mumbai. Everywhere you look there is something that moves you. A man with a henna-reddened beard passes a street stall selling alarm clocks and vibrators. Another stall crushes sugar cane into juice while the bin of discarded splinters attracts flies. Burning incense sticks are rammed into the roots of trees. Bookstalls sell poorly-bound versions of famous novels, and the magazine stands offer the new Indian version of GQ. There are men who sleep on the streets every night. Women shine and sweat in their saris. At the Royal Bombay Yacht Club, wealthy members jive to a live band playing swing tunes and Elvis, while just outside, in front of the Gateway to India, beggar girls offer strings of orange blossoms to strangers in exchange for rupees. Each trip in a taxi is like an amusement park ride.
There is nothing banal in Mumbai.