That special day arrived today in the morning. In India, mornings are busy. Most housewives get up early to do their pujas, their prayers, sweep and clean, make an exhaustively prepared breakfast, iron bathe and dress everyone, eat, send their family off to work and school, and then start on the mid-day meal. My days used to be the same, but since I have 7 furry animals that I call children, it works a little differently, but is somehow fairly similar. They all demand attention.
Today was an exception. It was Grandfather's first year after going home. For me, the year passed normally slow. I've painted thirty-six paintings since his passing, and wrote a number of blogs. My husband and I have made significantly good changes and decisions in this year. We have experienced lovely times with friends and family. We even had a fun and care-free vacation, the first in many years. Helps and healings have come. And still, it has only been a year since our Grandfather-neighbor went home.
While bathing, I reflected on the ritual bathing routine some of my friends use before engaging in their religious practice. My friend from the Maldive Islands is a fiery and inspiring woman who raised 6 boys. She's a family friend who calls me "Swee-Za," because "Susan" sounds too much like a bad word in her language Divehi. Swee-Za sounds like candy in my ears when she's around. She's bubbly and loves to talk to me. I love to listen. The language doesn't seem to be a problem. We understand each other despite her English skills and my Divehi. The Indian Ocean holds the Maldives, located South West of India and Sri Lanka in the Laccadive Sea, a low-laying archepelago that teeters on coral reefs, with white sands and serene blue waters. I've only seen the photos. This amazing land is a Muslim island culture. She demonstrated her ritual bathing to me, "Seven times we bathe every part of our body, then we go to mosque to pray."
So today I was in ritual bathing mode, pretending to have warm water. My water was icy cold because I was late with my morning routine, and I didn't bother to heat up a pot. As I followed her regimen, I scooped the dipper cup into icy water and poured. I felt my heart beat speed up and smiled as I shuttered. I was preparing for something special. Hurriedly, I whipped on a sari and then a green shawl and sat down for a few moments to collect myself and to have a word with the Chief Engineer.
My village is a Baraga tribal village. They've adopted us, and this family across the street was responsible for helping us feel so welcome when we came three years ago. They are Hindu, and so I am careful to observe simple things while going in to their home. This very morning I had read a Bruno Gröning quote, "Is there a basic sentence on which you can base your life? Yes: Love your neighbor." Oh, how appropriate, thank you.
Hands together, I greeted Grandfather's son and wife, and other neighbors who were outside. I slipped off my sandals and climbed the steps to their home. Barefoot, I stepped over the threshold with my right foot, as if I were stepping into a temple or a holy house of God. In the second room was a modest shrine with Grandfather and Grandmother's photographs, flower garlands and greens surrounded them, a plate of different colored powders, and other religious acoutrements necessary for their puja.
The custom is to hold both hands together while praying. In my personal practice, I hold my hands in an open posture to collect spiritual power, but this very posture can be misinterpreted as praying "like a Muslim," a Christian friend once pointed out to me a few years ago. The open hand posture is my preference, and I've experienced greater spiritual power coming in to my body this way, so I opened my hands, felt God's presence in the room, and then put my hands together in a typical prayer posture. Of course, my neighbors don't expect me to do what they do, since I'm a Christian, and I certainly have my preferences and pray my own silent prayers while taking in God's spiritual power. I stood for what seemed like a long time in front of their photographs and felt the power streaming in. Grandmother and Grandfather were present, and I could feel their sweetness. I took a little ash and put it on my forehead "to seal the deal." Ashe Wednesday came to mind when I did this, and it felt right.
I sat on the floor to wait for the food, but they wouldn't let me do this. Most everyone was sitting on the floor, so I didn't think that it was a problem. They moved me over to the next room, where a tall and long window seat stood. Grandmother and Grandfather's two other sons were sitting there. They made polite inquiries, and went back to talking with each other. I greeted them and shinnied up to my designated spot. The Baraga food staple—distinctly flavored bean curry over rice with a spoonful of ghee, pappadam, a fruit salad, resam, a sweet made from creamed wheat, and a banana were brought to me only after my right hand was washed over the banana leaf, water drained carefully into a waste container.
My one very loud neighbor was there—big broad smile, sitting on the floor. "Where's the doctor?" she boomed. "He'll come later." I said in broken Tamil. In India, it's not too wise to let everyone know that one's husband is gone for the month. Of course, in a village everyone usually knows. Yes, I have a female friend who stays with me on occasion during these long lapses. This is a safe neighborhood and village, and the people here look after me. If they hear a loud sound, they come over to inquire.
Special occasions and ritual feasts require that one fast in the morning, because there is just not enough space for the food served. I am reminded of a joke my husband made while we were celebrating the braking of a fast with Aisha, for her Ramadan. Here in India, when cars go to the filling station for gas or diesel, often times they rock the car to make sure that the highest quantity of petrol can fill the tank, and all air comes out. I felt the same way. I ate slowly. More rice was served. "Conjam, Conjam," I requested, um, almost pleaded, with a smile. "A little, please." Then a second serving of beautiful beans were gingerly scooped on. Oh my goodness. I looked over at my neighbor across the way. Our eyes met, and she smiled her wide, toothy grin, right fingers slowly forming her next bite. I noticed that I was eating faster than she. I shifted my torso with a slight rocking motion. A family member came with resam, a tangy drink that, in Kerala, is traditionally taken with a cupped hand and consumed. I've perfected this tricky manuever, but she served it to me in a paper cup. I slowly moved the food around on my banana leaf with my right hand, stalling for time while my stomach made more space. "Please don't play with your food," a sentence that I heard during childhood wafted through my mind. Still, there was a banana and the rest of my dessert to eat.
Ladies came by and made small talk with me. "Tamil tiri uma?" "Conjum conjum tirium." "Do you know Tamil?" "I know a little." We smiled at each other. The heart speaks louder than words though the eyes and smiles. This is what I love about Indian culture, because there is so much feeling in the facial expressions.That's probably why there is no word for thank you (except in a professional and formal context,) and please. It is all expressed in the eyes and face that someone feels gratitude, admiration, and thankful for a kind deed. You can feel this with your heart. Sometimes I notice how my husband looks at his male friends and acquaintainces, sometimes holding their hand, for a long moment. This level of communication can only be felt with the heart. Nothing is said. Heads are bobbed. Smiles are smiled, and everyone goes away with a good feeling. I also do this with my close female friends.
After the meal, I washed my right hand, bade goodbye to my neighbors, and once again to Grandmother and Grandfather. "Oita-ba-ne" I said in Baraga. My friend Aisha was waiting for me at my gate to let me in. She had a smile. Once in, I closed the gate, and started crying. She understood. They were tears of knowing when something is very real and special that deserves reverence, almost too holy to talk about. These two people have a deep and profound effect on me, something I haven't yet fully explored with my writing. Our gracious neighbors have let us in to their lives. "Is there a basic sentence on which you can base your life? Yes: Love your neighbor." How grateful I am for this experience, living the everyday Indian life. And I do love my neighbors. I love life. Thank you.
Posted by Susan Rena Rajkumar.