LIFTING THE GOLD CHAIN that rests around his neck, Maharani Emporium owner Rupert Lalla raises the attached figure from beneath his green plaid shirt. Bringing it forward so I can see it more closely, he reveals a tiny, somewhat tarnished figure with an elephant head, human body, and four arms: Ganesha.
I take this as a good sign, as I’ve been grilling Rupert in his Toronto shop about the Hindu god and why, for Indian vehicles, he is the preferred dashboard deity.
In 2010 I traveled to Bali, “Island of the Gods,” which is predominately Hindu. Outside of an elephant preserve in the jungle, I saw a moss-speckled Ganesha sculpture carved from volcanic rock. Captivated by the contrast of the dark stone and the electric green moss that covered it, I felt a certain connection to this funny-looking deity.
Perhaps that’s why, back in the US, I purchased a Ganesha pendant. I was about to quit my job and decided it couldn’t hurt to have a god that clears the way for new opportunities hanging close to my heart. Ganesha is the Hindu god of protection and wisdom and remover of obstacles. The son of Shiva, god of destruction and recreation, and Parvati, Hindu goddess of power, Ganesha was born out of Parvati’s desire to have an uninterrupted bath at her palace. She needed a gana, an attendant who would guard her door, so out of saffron paste, Parvati molded herself a son: Ganesha.
Ganesha watched the palace entrance faithfully, and he wouldn’t let anybody in. Even when Shiva arrived, Ganesha shut him down. Shiva was incensed and beheaded Ganesha. Understandably horrified, Parvati raged against the universe.
To console his wife, Shiva told his followers to sever and bring back the head of the first creature they encountered, which happened to be an elephant. With the aid of some holy water and the pachyderm’s head placed on his body, Ganesha came back to life. Shiva proclaimed him a god as well as his son.
Recently, a shopkeeper in a Colorado new-age store told me it’s common in India for drivers to have Ganesha sitting on their dashboards as they dodge cars, cows, tuk tuks, motor scooters, and oxen carts. I tried to envision this scene. What would a Ganesha dashboard figure look like? Would Dashboard Ganesha’s elephant head bobble? Would he shake it like a hula dancer?
This cultural phenomenon needed investigation. Unfortunately, traveling to India was out. But after some research, I found that Toronto, the next city on my itinerary, had one of the largest South Asian marketplaces in North America: the Gerrard India Bazaar. Short of flying to Mumbai, this seemed like the best place to find Dashboard Ganesha.
After getting off at Toronto’s Greenwood subway station, I head to Gerrard Street East. For 20 minutes, I traipse past row houses and the occasional bus stop.
A mural displaying a peacock, temple, and what looks like bright orange Arabic script on a brick wall tells me I’m close. A Pakistani flag waves from a nearby restaurant. A gyro stand and the lamb meat swiveling on a spinning spit catch my attention. Then an Islamic religious store seems to mark the end of the Pakistani portion of Gerrard.
After crossing the street, I spot women in saris walking with shopping bags past silk shops and restaurants. Outside a gift store, a dad and his son dance to a Bollywood song blaring from outside speakers. Farther down the street, I notice a woman in a black abaya window shopping.
I’m now in front of the Maharani Emporium, which advertises books, incense, CDs, handicrafts, musical instruments, and religious items. I open the door.
Jasmine incense replaces the lingering smell of sizzling lamb and fresh pita. Gold and bronze burst in the ultra-bright fluorescent lighting, as I scan the room to see rows of statues and masks of Hindu gods lining the aisles, shelves, and hanging from the walls.
I am way out of my league. I think of a guy I once met in Berkeley, who plastered “Free Tibet” stickers all over his car yet thought Tibet was located in Nepal. There’s definitely not going to be a hula-ing, bobble-headed Ganesha dashboard dude here. In fact, I probably shouldn’t refer to Ganesha as a “dude.”
“Excuse me,” I ask the proprietor, an older Indian gentleman with a white goatee and white tufts on the sides of his head. “I’m curious to know,” I continue, “do Indians use Ganesha as a dashboard ornament?”
“Oh, yes,” he says, looking at me through his wide, stylish eyeglasses. “We have many Ganesha dashboard figures.” Rupert gestures for me to follow him. He shows me a shelf with a lineup of several glitzy gold, red, and sparkly Vegas-like Ganeshas, and some more subdued Ganeshas made out of sandstone, wood, and metal. “We also have Ganesha key chains, magnets, and jewelry.”
“Why Ganesha for the car?” I ask.
“For protection,” he says, picking up and moving a white, waxy Ganesha with gold trim and red markings on his elephant forehead. “For any marriage, the first day we pray [to] Ganesha.”
“What about Shiva?” I ask. “Do people really want the god of destruction watching over them while they’re driving?”
“Yes, of course,” he says, seeming surprised that I’d ask. “You can have whatever god you want. But Ganesha is the most popular.” Rupert looks over as new customers enter the shop.
“We have many books on all the gods,” he suggests, pointing toward the book aisle.
Automatically, I gravitate toward the children’s books. One comic book depicts Ganesha as a ripped superhero. While paging through some of the more serious titles, I see nothing but solid blocks of text with few paragraph breaks.
I go back to the aisle with the Ganesha dashboard deities.
“I have a Ganesha necklace,” I admit to Rupert as he returns, showing him the silver square with a painted image of Ganesha sitting on a throne, emitting a yellow glow. “Is it okay to wear him if you’re not Hindu?” I ask. “Or is it offensive?” It’s a little late for that question, I think, since I’ve just shown Rupert my pendant.
“No, no,” he declares. “You should put it on.” His tone says, What are you waiting for?
Rupert pulls his own Ganesha pendant from beneath his shirt. “You wait. In three or four days, there will be a change,” he says after I get a good look at his necklace. “You will see.”
It hits me then that one week ago I was pulled over by a police officer for speeding in a Colorado mountain town. As I was apologizing profusely, I became aware that I was wearing my Ganesha pendant. I wondered if the cop could be a right-winger who’d peg me as a heathen idolator and give me a ticket.
He’d let me go with a warning.
I tell Rupert this story.
“See?” he says, nodding.