You are in India, how exotic! I read in e-mails and messages. The elephants and the dancing and the colors!
But it is true, what my professor said on the first day, “If you ask me to produce a snake-charmer, I couldn’t do it. If you ask me to produce an IT technician, no problem.” You begin to differentiate between the cotton saris and silk ones and don’t I already know there’s more sweat than transcendence in yoga.
Our trip to Vijayawada wasn’t a search for the fictional exoticism, but we had hoped that by moving through the typical life in a new place we would find adventure. Our affection for this country had been turning fallow in the weeks before we left, and we ready to reseed it. However, by noon the second day, we had dosed ourselves thoroughly in the typical. We had seen the temple and taken a boat ride to the island in the river. We had just tried to see the Ghandi Memorial. The men sitting at the gate told us to come back in three hours. So now what? We were sick of over-paying for autos and our ad hoc ignorance of this town. We were tired. We were vaguely hungry. We were tourists.
So, we decided we would venture to the Jain temple. We walked back to the main road and hailed an auto. After pointing vigorously to the paper on which I had written the unpronounceable temple name, the man wobbled his head. We got in and he started shouting questions at the other auto drivers as we pulled away. They gestured forward, which either meant that way or ask someone else that way.
He weaved through the streets we knew and then ones we didn’t. He stopped abruptly when the when the road hit a wall at the foot of a hill. He pointed up. We craned our necks. All the way up there? Through a white concrete gate a staircase, painted in alternating red and white stripes, cut through a residential area on a hill like a zipper. At the top, the bright green and pink of a Hindu temple peered over a stack of equally colorful apartments. Oh well, we thought. Why not?
Shutters started opening as word spread that two white girls were making the trek up the staircase. The young children waved, the older ones lingered bashfully in doorways. When we reached the top, a bolt of bright green and yellow radiates from the interior.
Off! a voice came, as we begin to climb the abandoned steps. A woman and small girl with a strict middle part waved hello and motioned for us to remove our shoes.
Inside, listless bodies sprawled on the dirt floor beneath the rainbow arches. I walked so not to wake them for both of our sakes. This temple contained even more colors and shrines than the Kanaka Durga, but a strange quiet balances its flashy hues. Clearly, we were the only visitors. Taking the opportunity of the sleeping souls, we snapped a few forbidden pictures. Then we saw the woman and her daughter curiously peeping around the corner. We were immediately wary, thinking they might ask for money. We are the top of a hill on their domain. Those are a lot of steps for open, extended palms to chase us.
Instead, she approached and led us through the three floors each brighter than the last. She scrunched her face in front of each statue, trying to think of the right words to explain the complexity of Hinduism to us. She just smiled when she knew we don’t understand her small English, and we nod to make her feel as if we do to substantiate her efforts. She rubbed some red kumkum from the foot of Swamy, to whom the temple belongs, and placed it on forehead.
As we were leaving, two old men approached us and asked the requisite questions in strung words: Name? What country? Married? Obama?
Obama! TV! the oldest man, who was the temple priest, said enthusiastically. Then he began swatting at the air. Anna smiled wider but her brows furrowed in confusion. I said, Yeah, yeah…..wait…yeah! Fortuitously, my brother had sent me this link days before. In a temple high above an obscure city, this man and I made a holy connection over youtube.
You will come to my house? Eat? The woman said, already halfway down the stairs. I cannot believe myself, that I almost said No. Instead, we followed tepidly without a word of discussion between us through an alley and stop in front of a large concrete block. Three dark rectangles open into it. The girl stepped over the orange and white diamonds painted on the otherwise green door frame of the first. We entered slowly.
A tucked twin bed, a large green file cabinet, in-set shelves, a jumble of pots and burners divided from the bed by a sheet, and a stripe of floor between it all – one room for four. In the middle the woman stood. One room for four we would later discover. At home the room I share with just myself is double the size if not more. Still the small lamp with pink fringe, the religious emblems over the tv, and the small hanging plants on the porch marked every space as an entire, personal universe.
We washed our hands on the even smaller balcony. As the woman poured water from a pump onto my hands, which is surely giving them a new turn of dirt, I look over the concrete ledge. This tiny hard square commanded multiples below – this was the best view of the whole city I saw during the whole weekend. The woman sat us on the bed and soon heaping steaming pile of rice and pickle curry were on my fingers and lips.
This is an instance when she will keep giving us food when we finish it. And sure enough, another and another came. I rolled the rice and sopped it in the sage juice. Out of safety we refused the tap water. We took everything else offered. The only remedy after three servings of curry, with less pickle and more spice, was another ladle of rice. When that disappeared, the saccharine materialized from the matchbox kitchen. The balled laddu and long, flat brown ariselu extinguished the flames of some taste buds by distracting the sweeter ones.
The girl, her daughter, is Prianca. How many years? 8. And the shirtless boy still with his baby chub, Patush, her son, age 4. A man who looks like my Uncle John but with a thicker black mustache lounges in a chair. Potina, he writes later we ask for their address. He says nothing but to clarify at times. Unlike the streets, we have entered a woman’s world. Haritha’s world we can say when we learn her name.
All the children – a girl, probably a pre-teen, two boys about her same age, and Prianca and Patush smile at us as we eat. The long black curly hair of a slightly older man, married but not beyond me in age, shook when he laughed at everything when we finally got the meaning of each other. Somehow we braided the conversation with two languages understood only in short strands. Yet, I learned of their relation to each other and we told them what we could about ourselves.
The jovial long haired man brought out a deck of cards. Magic trick, he glinted. He flipped the cards, hide the cards, confused us with the cards. He obliterated and then conjured the chosen ones and did the same with the quarter we produced to show them. It was the only tangible America we could give in return.
The man’s grin consumed his large almond face after each trick. We had seen them all before and I knew all his ploys, but his delight was ours, too. As we all laughed, I thought of the events that conspired to bring us here. They had seemed so puncturing at the time – our boredom, getting in the wrong rickshaw, going to the wrong temple, that long hike up the hill. I believed in the fortune of these places. They weren’t exotic at all. Still, they had a simple magic in their unexpected combination.