The God Delusion at Work: An Indian Travel Diary

Meera Nanda in Economic and Political Weekly:

“New cars smell the same in India as they do in the US”, was the first thought that came to my mind as I took my seat in my nephew’s new Hyundai sedan in which he had come to pick me up from the Chandigarh airport. It was the first of August and I had just arrived in India for a short visit. My home- town was my first stop.  New cars in India may have the same leathery-plasticky smell as new cars every-where, but they look like nothing else in the world. The car that I was riding in, like the tens of thousands that roll out of auto-showrooms everyday all over India, was bedecked in red ribbons and had a garland of fresh marigolds strung around the number plates. The top of the front window had two swastikas and an “Om” painted on it in red colour. The drivi ng-wheel had the “auspicious” red string tied to it. The Ganesh idol on the dashboard had the residue of burnt incense in front of it.

My nephew told me that he was coming straight from the temple where he had taken his car for a vahan puja, a brand new Hindu ritual invented to bless the new vehicles that are clogging the Indian roads these days.  This being his first car – and the object of his loving devotion, at least for now – my nephew told me that he wanted to do something really, really, special for it. That is why, he told me, he took it to the temple where he had to shell out some serious cash for the ceremony, instead of getting a free puja which his dealership had offered as a part of the incentive package.  “What”? My ears pricked up. I must have sounded incredulous: “Car dealers offer free pujas? Do they have pundits on their staff now? Car dealerships have become new temples or what?” 

My nephew looked at me as if to ask where I had been all these years! This is nothing new, he said. Knowing how popular vahan pujas are, more innovative car-dealers throw in free pujas for their customers.