A teacher here in Secunderabad was telling me about a time he was trying to explain Hinduism to a group of American children. “We have 3.3 million gods,” he told them, “because we see god in everything.”
“Is God in a football then?” asked a child – although, since it was an American child, he actually probably said soccer ball. Yes, there is God in a football. “So you kick God?”
The teacher laughed, agreed, Yes, we kick God. Monday, 28 September is celebrated throughout India as Dussehra, commemorating the victory of good over evil and considered a great day to start something new. I wouldn’t be surprised if God was kicked on such an important holiday in Hyderabad; no one would notice because Dussehra, like Ganesh Chaturthi, is celebrated here with immersions. Clay idols of the goddess Durga astride a lion (for Dussehra; other gods get their turns at other times), many-armed and much-glittered, are loaded into the open backs of trucks and all the space she leaves empty is filled by proud, cheering people. We watched these cargoes arrive at Tank Bund, the heart-shaped reservoir pinched between Hyderabad and Secunderabad, where the people who work on holidays were damply vending boiled peanuts, colorful balloons, young coconuts, chai from thermoses, and the services of massive cranes at the edge of the lake. Trucks pulled up on the road to wait their idol’s turn, and drummers thumped the piercingly addictive rhythms of a Hyderabadi celebration while they waited.
Each statue is wrestled out of its truck bed and onto a suspended platform by as many people as can reach their hands in to touch it, because these ladies are heavy. The cranes lift, and swivel dangling platforms holding the idols and a few young men out over the water and swivel, and lower them down to just tap the surface; the young men are there to shove and tip each idol into the dubious water.
Dussehra offered a three-day weekend this year, as a national holiday falling on a Monday, but the import of the days before is more than the build-up to a major annual event. It is that also : the city turns sparkling with strings of lights, not only illuminating storefronts and outlining temples, but arranged to form huge images of gods at bus stops and canopying entire streets jutting off the main routes. But for each of the nine days before Dussehra, women gather at each others’ houses to perform special pujas together asking the blessings of different avatars of the goddess. A pair of sisters invited me to stay for a day, or two, or three, of their puja, so I spent one day in each of the two houses to attend the offerings of small meals and incense, flickering flames wrapping the tips of wicks soaked in ghee and hands clapping to the rhythm decided by emotional songlets to Durga. In return come small gifts, kumkum between the eyebrows, a sip of rosewater, and of course, lunch.
At the Tank Bund, the monsoon rain splashed on and off and the people opened and closed their umbrellas, dashed in small herds searching for fragments of shelter, or turned their faces up to the sky and laughed for joy. I caught a bus home with a crowd that had been waiting for up to an hour, and another crowd blocked the way that would lead past my house so I was tossed out into the nearby night as the monsoon turned to drenching. I walked the last half a kilometer home with drums throbbing from the street and rain slapping my broken umbrella, with thunder chasing lightning and the waterline creeping up my clinging pants because the monsoon is able to rain from every direction, even below.