Deities and Gods
Bev Vines-Haines

When I first moved to Mumbai, India, I was told it was formerly called Bombay.  I remembered Bombay from my geography lessons as a child, remembered how the very word could excite my imagination.


It sounded like the Fourth of July, like the kind of parties adults enjoyed, like the secret life I hoped to have once I grew up.

The locals informed me the change was long in coming.  They said Bombay was a mispronunciation.  The continued use of the old name was a British trick intended to inhibit the amazing destiny of the city's people.  Before long I sensed an undercurrent of superstition and mysticism around the topic.

I won't say people actually genuflected as they spoke the city's name out loud.  And yet I will not say they didn't.   Mumbai's patron deity is a goddess named Mumbadevi.  Hence, speaking the name aloud is almost the same as uttering Mumbadevi's name.  Imagine if your city was called, "Oh Lord, help me."

It was kind of like that.  Like Mumbai's utterance was a prayer.  A prayer on a train, a taxi, a bicycle, supplication from each street and home.  The business addresses participated, entreating each visitor and worker to speak their desires.

I began to see Mumbadevi's likeness everywhere: nestled in the forks of trees, hidden in crevices, tucked awkwardly onto bookcase shelves.  The saturation was overwhelming; they were not holding back anything.  I found the deity's image printed on restaurant menus, train schedules and theater programs.

Gift and souvenir shops hawked Mumbadevi likenesses of every description: small, medium and large versions, golden replicas, plastic varieties with peeling paint and gaudy metal reproductions. 

Mumbai is a loud city, horns blaring, beggars begging, sacred cattle lowing and people adding to the cacophony of sound.  And yet, to my ear as the months went by, it became an incantation, a prayer if you will, entreating the gods to hear Mumbadevi, to heed her words and bless that city on the Arabian Sea. 

When my project ended I flew back to New York.  We circled twenty minutes as I studied the city below.  Spires projected into the sky from many churches.  The city skyline, so familiar, was pictured on the front of my Airline magazine.  Then I noticed it on my cocktail napkin and even across the label on my drink.

We were no different.  To whisper New York was to whisper to our gods, the buildings, the skyline, the churches and the banks.

We were safe.  New York was tucked into our crevices, our hearts and our magazines.  While I cannot say I genuflected as I left the plane, I cannot really tell you I did not.  

First published: November, 2012
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