Almost exactly 25 years ago, at dawn on September 21, 1995, a devotee in a temple in central Delhi gave an idol of Ganesha his morning shot of milk. To his surprise and that of the priest, it seemed to vanish up its trunk. Someone reached for a phone to communicate the miracle. In 1995, cellphones were rare, so that meant rushing home or to an office to dial an MTNL landline.
By daybreak, Ganeshas all over India were drinking milk. Within a couple of hours, people defeated by the surging crowds in temples invaded the homes of friends and neighbours who collected Ganesha idols and left them slathered with milk. By breakfast-time, traffic was at a standstill because all the one million and eight gods of the Hindu pantheon were putting it away, and huge crowds were turning out to slake their thirst. Milk ran out in markets nationwide. Stock markets suspended trading for want of custom.
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But American idols stole a march on Indian peers because of the difference in time-zones. September 21, 1995, was a Thursday, but long-distance calls from India reached American Hindu groups on Wednesday evening, and the NRI faithful broke out the half-and-half and the double skim, according to taste. Congratulatory faxes and newfangled emails about the greatest miracle in modern times began to fly between Hindu groups in the US, Canada, UK, the Emirates, Nepal and India.
The milk miracle appeared to be motiveless, a colossal mass hysteria that put the tulip mania of 1673 to shame. Or was it a dummy run for something else altogether? An experiment to see if vast, widely dispersed populations could be united by a rumour and called to action at the speed of a telecom switch? The story took over the front pages of every...