In spite of the Gods

There’s a road very close to my home, which thousands of commuters use every day. As roads go by, it is nothing special–not extra wide or four-laned or nicely tarred, even. It’s just a linking road, a few hundred metres in length. A redeveloped slum dominates one end of it; at the other are some indistinguishable homes, a few small businesses and the local Bescom office. Pedestrians invariably have a tough time navigating this road, especially the part that goes past the slum. For there is always traffic whizzing past, children playing about, running helter skelter unmindful of the vehicles rushing by and worse, you cannot help but gag at the stink of garbage strewn about here.

Cleanliness…

In short, it is very much like many other roads across Bengaluru. At the same time, this road is the perfect example of how piety scores over both poverty and priorities. There are three shrines on this short stretch of tarmac (there’s a temple very close to the Bescom office but it’s not technically on this particular road). The oldest of the ‘holy’ places, is one dedicated to Kaleshwari devi, it’s been there a for a while. A few metres down is a Muthu Mariamman temple. This one sprang into being just over a year ago and is located beside the slum. And across the road from this is an even newer entry, currently under development. A huge banner outside the structure urges devotees to donate anything (money, cement bricks, sand…) to help build the temple. That the pious readily oblige is obvious, this new shrine is coming up at a blistering pace.

Piety versus priorities

Not surprisingly, the temples are oceans of cleanliness, all the more ludicrous because of the garbage strewn nearby. In fact, I’ve seen the slum residents take great pride in polishing the exteriors of the Muthu Mariamman temple, and sweeping it’s surroundings clean of debris and dirt. Their dedication is all the more surprising because the rest of the road is basically a dump. Every evening, this stretch becomes a stinking mass of plastic, rotting food, animal excreta (and often, human waste too).

…not next to Godliness, in this case

Worse, there are about 30-odd children living in the slum. Most don’t wear shoes, or slippers, some of the younger ones don’t even possess underwear. How do I know that? Because I see them everyday–living, playing, fighting, eating, and yes, sleeping, in the midst of all this garbage. And their parents? Their parents are the same people who keep the shrine so scrupulously clean. But they don’t care that their children go about without proper clothes or footwear.

The Gods must be crazy

Do the slum residents prefer to be pious rather than prioritise on necessities such as clean clothes, stout shoes, and good food for their children? Actually it’s not the slum residents’ fault. We are all like that, says Meera Nanda, a Delhi-based academic. In her 2009 book ‘The God Market’ she argues that India, as a whole, has become a remarkably god-fearing land, where pilgramages and piety is prized much more than public institutions such as schools. “India now has 2.5 million places of worship, but only 1.5 million schools and barely 75,000 hospitals,” adds Nanda in her book.

So, just like the rest of India, the residents of this road too have become an increasingly god-fearing lot.

Pity about the garbage, though.