It was a difficult delivery.
A Harvard junior studying religion, Portnoy had been looking for a topic for her honors thesis. Neelima Shukla-Bhatt, a graduate student who knew of her interest in Hindu goddesses, pointed out an article in the newspaper India Today that told of an interesting development in southern India. In one small rural village, people had begun worshipping a new deity who was described as the goddess of AIDS.
"That was all I had, that one little article, but I just decided to go," Portnoy says. "Deities crop up all over the place all the time in India, but the idea of actually seeing one come into being was fascinating to me."
Portnoy had written several papers on the goddess tradition in India and had some idea of what to expect. She knew that an AIDS goddess or amma (mother) fit neatly into the tradition of other diseases-inspired goddesses, such as plague-amma or chickenpox-amma.
Such deities are thought to both cause and cure the disease over which they preside. They are typically part of local village-based folk traditions and tend to merge into one another in the minds of their worshippers.
"If you ask people whether one goddess is the same as another one, they'll say, `Yes, all the mothers are one,' or they'll tell you that they're all sisters."
AIDS-amma was different, however. She had been created by an idealistic, civic-minded schoolteacher as part of an AIDS awareness campaign. Thus, while she might appear to an observer as a sister to the traditional Hindu mother goddesses, she could also be classified with such figures as Mr. Tooth Decay and Smokey Bear.
Last summer, Portnoy took off for India to investigate this new amalgam of goddess and public service campaign, thrilled to be visiting a country she had known only through books, as well as a bit nervous about traveling alone to places too small to appear on even the most detailed of maps.
She flew to Bangalore, capital of the Indian state of Karnataka, where she met the reporter who had written the article in India Today. He warned her that she might have taken his report of the new deity too seriously. Undeterred, she traveled by train and bus to the tiny village of Menasyakethana, home of the AIDS-amma shrine.
The shrine, or "temple," devoted to the AIDS goddess in the Indian village of Menasyakethana came about, Portnoy learned, through a curious combination of religiosity and public relations. There she met H.N. Girish, the high school science teacher who had created the new deity, a young man whom she describes as "extremely energetic and idealistic, almost zealous."
The idea for AIDS-amma had come to him, she learned, after a couple in the neighboring village died from the disease. AIDS has not yet reached epidemic proportions in rural India, as it has in Africa, but some observers believe its spread is inevitable. This particular couple had been ostracized by the other villagers, and after the man's death, his wife had been locked in a shack until she too died.
The incident convinced Girish that something needed to be done to educate people about AIDS, but he doubted whether they would listen unless he could "put the fear of God in them." After thinking the problem over, he decided that what was needed was a new deity. Thus AIDS-amma was born.
But was the idea working? Girish was very proud of the work he had done to educate the people of Menasyakethana about AIDS, but how much of it was due to AIDS-amma?
Girish was evasive about whether the village people were actually worshipping the new goddess, and Portnoy says that during the three weeks of her field research the only people she saw doing puja (Sanskrit, for "worship") at the shrine were women on their way to another nearby temple.
The fact that AIDS-amma seemed to have so little religious clout at first made Portnoy doubt whether it would make a suitable topic for an honors thesis. Mythology, ritual, and history--elements that the study of religion generally concerns itself with--were either missing or in short supply.
"It was a fascinating experience. I had a great time, but I didn't think I could write a thesis about it, because the AIDS-amma was in such an embryonic state."
But Portnoy took another look at her notes and realized that she had the makings of a study of how religion, politics, and society intersect in India. She could not answer the question of how Girish's AIDS-amma would evolve, or how she would fit into the Hindu pantheon, but she did have data that showed how people representing a cross-section of Indian society felt about the new goddess.