India 2008: Like a Prayer

A few years ago my aunt Chandra sold her house to move closer to the Sri Meenakshi Temple in Pearland, Texas. Her face time with the Hindu deities, she boasted, now rivaled that of the priests themselves. When my cousin Romi* announced she was having twins, Aunt Chandra did what many religious Hindu moms do when faced with a pregnant daughter: log on to the Internet and make an appeal to Lord Vishnu, using her Platinum MasterCard.

“Which one do you think I should choose for Romi?” she asked me over the phone. She was on a site called ePrarthana.com, billed as the Divine Link. It allows Hindus around the world to offer—for a fee—prayers at more than 2,000 temples in India with just a few clicks of the mouse. “Two hundred eighty-nine temples to my dear Vishnu bhagwan!” my aunt declared, sounding deeply gratified. And the choice! There was Ganesha, the elephant-headed god and remover of obstacles (144 temples). And Shiva, the fierce destroyer of evil (662 temples).

Brushing aside my nitpicking about God’s being present everywhere, Aunt Chandra decided on a puja—an offering with special prayers—for Romi. She was torn between the puja “for your righteous wishes to come true” and the more specific puja “for problems in pregnancy and for a normal delivery.”

“The choice is clear,” I said.

“But Romi’s had no problems so far,” my aunt countered. Then after a pause: “I want her to have a girl and a boy. Then she can be done!” She finally decided on both. Total cost: $18. Maximizing her blessings: Priceless.

For good measure she also went to Prarthana.com (prarthana means “prayer”) to order another puja at the temple of Guruvayur in Kerala, famous for many miracles. “Romi needs all the help she can get!” she said. True believers know that the idol of Vishnu in Guruvayur—rumored to be 5,000 years old—has healing powers par excellence, a veritable Lourdes for Hindus.

After we said goodbye, I couldn’t stop imagining men and women in dusty Indian villages bounding off to temples on Aunt Chandra’s behalf, making sure the priest said Romi’s name loud enough for Vishnu to hear. Several months later Romi called. Her labor had been easy. “I had twin boys,” she said. “Mom’s a little disappointed.”

Meera Nair is the author of Video, a collection of short stories.

*Characters are fictional composites of real people.