Hugging Laxmi to his chest, Mr. Garg climbed the ladder propped against the wall of his house. The Devi weighed more than he’d expected. He strained to hook her to the slider piece at the top of the rail, his hands reaching out to work blindly behind her multi-armed torso, his face pressing against her chin. It felt strangely forward to be so intimate with the mother goddess, even an incarnation made of plywood and paint.
From back on the ground, though, Laxmi looked suitably untouchable and exalted, gazing out over the houses down Wayne Avenue as if the whole of Silver Spring were her domain. Switching on the power, Mr. Garg could just make out the flashing bulbs outlining the blossoms in her hands, the crenulations in the crown that rose from her head, the giant open lotus from which her body sprang. The effect would be much more pronounced in the dark, especially when the goddess descended down the rail track he had affixed to the house. He still had to hook up the motor that would winch her back up each time she touched down.
Of course, the Devi was supposed to alight only once on Diwali night, not repeatedly. But Santa also made a single passage down the chimney, which didn’t stop the Hunters’ fluorescent-tube version, so garishly visible across the street, dropping every three minutes — all the way from Thanksgiving to well after New Year’s. Mr. Garg intended his Laxmi to give Christmas a run for its money, to rival the multitude of displays sure to invade the neighborhood in the coming weeks.
His disgruntlement was cultural, not religious. Each year, he would feel his disquietude return as tinsel garlands twined and rose around lampposts along Colesville Road, as Santas hatched on cue in the atriums of shopping malls, as carols began to domineer the air even in grocery stores. Not that Thanksgiving was much better: Despite more than a decade in the United States, Mr. Garg simply hadn’t been able to get over the savagery of celebrating the slaughter of millions of turkeys nationwide. Indeed, he found the very concept of a holiday season objectionable — not because of commercialism, as some complained, but due to the forced uniformity it imposed on the entire country: one calculated toward wiping out differences and individuality, that demanded he conform, demanded he celebrate, demanded he prove himself worthy of pursuing the American dream annually.
His wife, Kalpana (Kay, as she now liked to be called), couldn’t see anything wrong. “Isn’t that the whole idea of festivals? To draw people together?” She reminded him how India, too, had a holiday season, built around Diwali, when schools closed for vacation and the entire country came to a standstill. “As for encouraging diversity, you can hardly complain, living in the D.C. area. We’ve been in this country long enough, Hari — why not try to join in?”
The problem was Mr. Garg was tired of assimilating. Tired of smiling when people called him “Harry” instead of “Hari,” tired of watching his accent (especially the vowels and the p’s), tired of feigning interest in the Nationals and the Redskins (or even trying to keep them apart in his mind). Kay — Kalpana, damn it — would point out that matters could have been much worse had his engineering firm been located in Alabama or Nebraska, instead of Rockville, where it employed immigrants from seven different countries at last count. Paradoxically, the presence of foreign co-workers simply increased the pressure to conform: the constant jockeying to see who could dress and sound and behave the most “American” (it was understood what color), to be the one management picked to interact with clients at the next sales conference.
The Gargs had moved to Silver Spring four years ago, buying the house when their green cards had finally come through. At first, Mr. Garg was impressed with how the neighbors welcomed the couple over for holiday get-togethers, how they inquired about Indian food and dance, even agricultural statistics once. But he soon sensed something calculated in these invitations, as if the true motive were to ratify the inclusiveness of his hosts, check off some invisible “cultural exchange” box. He felt drained by the onus to talk about himself, to offer up his most precious and meaningful memories like a platter of exotic sweets, so that his new compatriots (having picked and chosen the most regaling tidbits) felt satisfied. In reciprocation, it behooved him to sit still as they helpfully indoctrinated him further in The American Way: pilgrims and the other kind of Indians, turkey carcass traditions, unexpected presents for “Kay and Harry” under the tree, and twice, to his shock, Christmas carol singalongs.
Mr. Garg knew the time had come to take a stand. He could not afford to lose any more of his Indianness. He genuinely liked America but felt he’d melted as much as he could into the pot. Only his bones remained, which he suspected they’d soon boil down for broth.
He’d experienced his flash of inspiration last month, upon noticing that Diwali fell unusually late this year, in the week before Thanksgiving. Why not promote it as an Indian alternative, use it as a bulwark against the obliterating holiday tide? Hadn’t African Americans created the festival of Kwanzaa for the same reason?
Kalpana immediately tried to turn his idea into a neighborhood potluck. “We can bring the idol out from the bedroom, show them how Devi pooja is done. Then give everyone an oil lamp to light on the lawn, since the county doesn’t allow fireworks.”
Mr. Garg vetoed her plan. The whole point was to preserve Diwali’s purity, its dignity and authenticity, not make it a superficial “show and tell.” Except running a flashing cutout up and down the front of their house was hardly traditional, as Kalpana countered. In the end, the temptation of attracting a large audience for Laxmi’s inaugural descent tipped the balance. Mr. Garg compromised: The neighbors would be invited at 9, after the pooja rituals were complete.
Looking up at his handiwork, Mr. Garg wondered why none of his Indian friends had thought of this before. He’d call them over for a joint prayer ceremony, after which they could all welcome Laxmi to Earth. Perhaps he’d even sneak in a few rockets and firecrackers from Virginia to re-create a little corner of Mumbai. That would be sure to please the Devi; she’d make a beeline for their house in the dark, shower it with prosperity for the 12 months to come.
The storm struck on Diwali afternoon at 3. Mr. Garg watched incredulously as the sky turned black, as thunder roared, lightning sparked and burst. He was stupefied when the air filled with white. It was only November — the high had been 60 the day before. Besides, the Devi was supposed to bestow blessings on them, not snow.
The calls began soon after: the Mittals, the Agrawals, the Bansals — all announcing they wouldn’t make it. “They’re suddenly saying it could be up to 14 inches, Hari. That even the Beltway might close.”
Indeed, when he turned on the TV, the newscasters were pronouncing the freak storm to be almost a replica of the one that shut down the city on Veterans Day in November 1987. Something about thundershowers in the Carolinas meeting a cold front to create an unpredictable “convective band” over the city. The NOAA expert’s assurances that this was probably unrelated to global warming did little to make Mr. Garg feel better.
By 5, Mr. Garg sank into the snow over the rims of his winter boots, which he had pulled down from the attic. He could just make out Laxmi’s white-enrobed form at the top of his house, valiantly facing the storm, like the figurehead on a ship. A twinge of guilt ran through him — the Devi was, after all, not accustomed to this inhospitable climate he had plunged her into. He wondered if he should climb up to brush her off.
A more practical issue demanded his attention: removing the mound of snow that had accumulated against the Devi’s wall. Mr. Garg retrieved the shovel from the garage and dug a path, along with clearing a spot where she could descend. Even as he watched, though, flakes, heavy and wet, started adhering again to the rail running up to her perch. How many times would he need to repeat this?
Could he cheat a little with the timing, have Laxmi come down right away? After all, despite the murky luminosity lingering in the air here, it was well past midnight in Mumbai. Mr. Garg was tempted to switch on the strings of lights at least, so that Laxmi’s twinkling outline could dispel a little of the gloom. But then he decided to hold off a little longer — surely the storm would move away soon.
Unfortunately, he waited too long, because at 6:30, the electricity failed. While he stumbled and fretted in the dark, Kalpana remained calm. “That’s one advantage of Diwali, all these oil lamps I have ready.” She went around the house, placing the lit diyas on tables, windowsills, countertops and in two parallel rows up the stairs. “Now we’re truly prepared — my father always said Laxmi preferred oil to electricity.”
Except Laxmi, Mr. Garg remembered, was stranded outside, near their roofline. Where she might remain for days, if the power company’s response after previous storms was any indicator. What kind of calamities would rain down on them if she didn’t touch down as scheduled on Diwali? All the warnings drilled into Mr. Garg’s head from childhood came surging back. Gods resided in their images — to show disrespect to figures or idols was to insult the deities themselves. Kalpana’s face wrinkled into a silent frown. The realization had dawned on her, too.
The first attempt to rescue Laxmi didn’t go well. Mr. Garg tugged on the electric cable attached to the motor mechanism, and the plug at the other end came hurtling down and almost hit him on the head. So he had no choice but to climb a ladder while Kalpana tried holding it in place against the snow-covered wall. Shards of precipitation raked his lips as he ascended toward Laxmi through the spiraling gusts of wind. The snow had frozen into a scrim of ice across the Devi’s face. About to clear it off, Mr. Garg hesitated — would she be staring accusingly at him underneath? But her eyes, when he unveiled them, seemed trained serenely into the distance, as if able to penetrate the storm all the way to the Discovery building and the Metro station beyond.
Mr. Garg tried to work free the wire fasteners behind her back, but they were too difficult to locate by touch. He took off his thick gloves and let them drop. But then his fingers turned numb, and he suddenly felt something sharp puncture his thumb. Was Laxmi signaling her ire? He mentally pledged to make it up to her after getting her down. He would carry her right into the living room and aim all the heating vents at her body to dry her off. Perform pooja directly to her, instead of to the idol in the bedroom; offer her all the milk and saffron and coins she could possibly want.
The Devi’s fasteners remained invulnerable. Giving up on them, he attempted to disengage the entire slider mechanism by lifting it out of its slot. But the bolt in the attached brake wouldn’t budge. There was only one thing left to do. Mr. Garg apologized again to the Devi, then wrapped his arms around the wood of her torso to try to yank it off.
He was still grappling with her when the ladder started to slip — not due to the snow on the wall, as he had feared, but the patch of ice that had formed where he had shoveled. He heard Kalpana scream as his foothold vanished from under him and the ladder rumbled to the ground. For an instant, Mr. Garg clung to the mother goddess as if he truly were her infant. Then the rail track he had laid began popping loose from the wall. Laxmi seemed to take her eyes off Silver Spring to stare directly into his face. Then, pitching forward further, as if to kiss him, she began their descent to earth.
Manil Suri, a professor of mathematics at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, is the author of “The Death of Vishnu” and “The Age of Shiva.” His new novel, “The City of Devi,” will appear in February 2013. To comment on this story, send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.