Poetry at Sangam



WHY SO MANY GODS? by Nissar Ahmed

(Translated from the Kannada by Roopa Pai.)

These days
In this my great country

Despite countless privations—food, clothes, a roof—
Despite its foundations crumbling swiftly
Under the weight of its huddled masses—
There is an exultant upsurge of faith in the divine.
Belief struts, decked out in pearls,
A glamorous, seductive embellishment
To our social life.

So many modes, styles, names, attributes
Forms, patterns, manner
of demigod and deity
are sprouting everywhere you look—
making the gods pedestrian, rendering them
as cheap, as commonplace,
as human lives.
They crowd
parks, mounds, roundabouts,
the stone slabs over gutter and culvert
even the secular paving stones of footpaths,
flashing their why-fear-while-I’m-here abhaya hastas
to believers of every stripe.

Their temperaments—benign, vindictive, sweet-till-scorned—
determine their importance,
their place in the hierarchy
of nurture, reverence, ritual and appeasement;
how often each is visited
how much worship each receives
the cost (previously fixed) of a pooja, arathi, archana,
and the volume of offerings – flowers, fruit, coconuts—
each is worth.
Similarly determined, as per the god’s standing,
(on special festive days),
is the number of mango leaf toranas, banana stems, ash gourds
required for the rituals,
as well as what (and how much of it) is to be extended
to his human interlocutor.

Ask, stunned,
‘Why such legions of gods
In our gloriously rich country, where the very poor live?’
And there are people who will eagerly respond—
‘It takes a countless stars, brother, to fill the vast firmament;
likewise, a billion gods
to gratify a billion souls!’

Could it be true?
Could it be that faith flourishes in our country’s sacred soil
more prodigally than elsewhere?
Could it be that while every other country
is only capable of harvesting
a mean, low-grade firewood
from the forest that is the world,
our motherland has discovered
the mother lode, a fragrant vein, of
rare sandalwood?

Who can fathom Fate’s mysterious workings?
But this, equally, could be true—
When the number of police stations increases
It usually means
That across the length and breadth of the state
crime is on the upswing.
No other proof is necessary.
And when houses of worship mushroom, like a rash,
higgledy-piggledy across the land,
One can only speculate
on the extent of the (im)moral epidemic
that has infected the country,
and brought it
to its knees.