Monday, July 14, 2008

Christians and Monkeys

After my mind-blowing experience with the Sunday paper, Julianne and her roommate Suzanne came to pick me up to take me to a Christian church service not far from where I’m staying. I’ve been to Hindu temples and mosques and the Baha’i temple. I could hardly say no to Christianity.

Julianne’s friend Suzanne is quiet, very thin and Asian. She has a tiny, bright yellow car and can perform the amazing feat of driving in Delhi traffic. I offered up my amazement, and she said I could do it too if I’d been here long enough. She’s been here four years.

I have no idea what to expect from the “non-denominational” Christian service we’ll be attending. We drive past a large forest reserve, then turn at a large auditorium. “This is where they have lots of events and concerts,” Julianne explains. For a second, I think our service is going to be one of those giant rock concert style born again affairs, but we turn left instead of right—away from the big auditorium, into the parking lot of a three-story, square white building. The little cross on the outside looks out of place. It is so unadorned: no garlands of golden flowers, no glittering colors, no blue guy with four arms, just two lines: a cross.

We walk up a white marble staircase into a room that thankfully has many fans going. The seating looks like it came from a 1950s movie theatre. There is a computer set up so you can see the English words to hymns on the projector screen, and a small lectern with a microphone.

The auditorium slowly begins to fill in with certainly the most white people I’ve seen since leaving O’Hare airport. But these white people are sporty—they are wearing kurtas and scarves, their hair is flat and straight; they look assimilated. I wonder if I will have this look before I leave. Julianne wonders the other way around: what will she look like to people when she gets back? She knows she’s adapted her style to fit in here—not so much as a conscious choice, but more from necessity. When she was pointing out “western style” clothes to me at the market, they cost much more than “western style” prices. Also, western style clothes are not the best in Delhi heat. They suck onto you and don’t give making you feel like you’ve been swallowed by a snake.

The service begins and we are singing some old Welch-sounding hymn that uncannily echoes the realization I had at the Baha’i temple the other day—the one about having everything I need, being whole:

Great is thy faithfulness
Great is thy faithfulness
Morning by morning new mercies I see
All I have needed thy hand hath provided
Great is thy faithfulness
Lord unto me.

I wonder if it’s possible that every religion is right and every prophet is real. I wonder how many times God has walked among man, and in how many forms. I still wonder about that blue guy with all the arms.

Julianne jumps up and grabs a microphone from Mr. Sanjay Patra who is officiating today in the absence of the regular pastor. The regular pastor, who is from the U.K., is recuperating at home with a case of hepatitis. He, apparently, didn’t get all his shots. I say a little prayer of thanks for the Travel Clinic in Iowa City.

Julianne and another white chick awkwardly draped in an Indian scarf join two Indian boys, one of whom plays a guitar. The sound system is all feedback and static, but the boy plays merrily on. We are now singing songs that sound more like top 40 American pop—no thou or thine or thee. There is a drummer and a keyboardist.

The singing concludes and the officiator asks that the children stay for a while before going off to their Sunday schools. Today we must take time for a special recognition. A young couple who have been active in the church ministry is leaving for America for three years, and we’re going to pray for their welfare while the elders lay hands on them.

The couple is asked onto the stage, as are the elders. The officiator talks about how much work the two have done for the ministry, then asks the young man if he’d like to say a few words.

The boy (he looks about 19) steps up to the microphone and humbles himself. “None of that is true,” he says of his introduction. He then asks the congregation to pray for him so that he won’t become arrogant in America and will remember to return to his beautiful country of India. He wipes tears from his eyes. He says he’s going to America to study because it is a good opportunity but he needs help to do what is right. His young wife, whose father is one of the elders standing behind them, smiles serenely. I wonder what prayers she will request. I wonder if she wants to come back to India too, but she doesn’t get the chance to speak.

The couple kneels down, and the boy continues wiping tears from his eyes. My eyes well up. I have a newfound sympathy for those far from home, or at the beginning of a long journey that will separate them from their loved ones.

The congregation bows their heads in prayer and the elders put their hands on the couple’s shoulders.

When the prayer is finished the boy is still crying and the girl is still serene. The elders present the young woman in an orange shirt and tan western-style pants a spray of gladiolas. They give the boy a green, foil-wrapped gift. It looks Bible-shaped to me.

There are no hymnals or Bibles. It’s do-it-yourself style here. BYOB(ible).

The children leave for Sunday school, and the young man leaves to teach it. Mr. Sanjay Patra gives a long, three-point sermon on forgiveness: is there a limit to it, what is the extent of it, and what is the result of it. He says he surveyed an interfaith group about forgiveness and asked, “How many times should you forgive someone for doing something?” Most people said one or two times. Then he asked, “How many times would you like to be forgiven?” The answers were a lot higher. He talks around this point for a very long time. He discusses a short Bible excerpt wherein Jesus tells Peter that he should forgive his brother seven times seventy times.

We sing some more and the service concludes when the keyboardist presses the wrong button on his keyboard, launching a brief samba beat into the auditorium.

Afterwards, there is much talking. I meet two girls from Minnesota who have the frightened look I must have had in my eyes just a few days ago. The sort of slightly raised eyebrows that silently ask, “Am I going to spontaneously combust any second?” I meet another of Julianne’s friends who has been here for two years and is doing cultural training for corporations like IBM and Sprint. It’s her job to try to make those call center calls more effective. I tell her she has her work cut out.

We drink a little chai then catch an auto-rickshaw back to the Defense Colony. Julianne says it’s good to get out of there early for a change; sometimes the service and socializing can take all day.

At the Defense Colony, I call Sonu because the plan was to go to the Delhi Zoo today, which is just 5K from my apartment. Sonu says “I am just twenty minutes away, Ma’am.”

Sonu arrives 80 minutes later and we’re off. On the way to the zoo, Sonu messes with his cell phone and passes it back to me. “Elephant,” he says, and I see that he’s playing the video of the elephant ride we took on Friday. I show Julianne and laugh.

He is a faithful guide at the zoo, springing into action as soon as we’re out of the car. He finds the right line, takes our money and gets our tickets for us, then trots on into the zoo. I follow him throughout our time there, keeping tabs this time not on angel wings, but on a tan shirt with the word “CAMERO” in blue lettering.

I love the crowd just to see all the beautiful fabrics in the women’s sarees and the mirrors and beading and embroidery. Women here look like living jewels with their sarees and bangles and bindis and henna. I notice lots of stares from Indian men and think, “Why would you be staring at my boring behind when there is all this beauty here?” Anyway, the stares are all more curious than ominous. Julianne says the same thing, “I feel safe here.”

As usual, I don’t know what to expect from the zoo and am surprised in wonderful ways. The first enclosure we approach is a monkey exhibit, but there doesn’t seem to be any attempt at a barrier that would keep the monkeys in the exhibit. This observation is confirmed when we see a sign hammered into an adjacent tree: “Beware of stray monkeys.”

A little boy on his father’s shoulders shouts “cow” at every animal he sees, and we walk on past exhibits of about twelve different kinds of Indian deer. Every time we run into stray monkeys (and we run into stray monkeys several times), they are having snacks. We first see a pair of monkeys chilling with potato chip bags on a low wall near a restroom. Next, we spot a lone monkey eating an ice cream cone just off a footpath. There’s no telling if the monkey stole the ice cream cone or if someone gave it to him, and there’s also no disputing the monkey’s total enjoyment of the icy treat. Since he’s so enraptured, I get really close and take a few good photos.

The zoo has pretty good habitats for the animals, though some of the cages are small—especially for the leopards. Sonu leads us from exhibit to exhibit, making sure we see every animal in the whole zoo. He runs ahead and asks the zookeepers if the animals are awake or in the exhibits and steers us clear when there is nothing to see.

At one point, he calls me toward a drain pipe and gasps, “Very dangerous animal!” Floating in the water is a foot long lizard at some point, not a zoo animal, but just a visitor to the zoo. I make a mental note to avoid this “very dangerous animal” should I ever see it.

As we’re passing by, a crowd gathers around a fenced enclosure outside the giraffe exhibit. The zookeepers let several people in and they circle around a tree and begin placing their hands on it. We ask Sonu what’s going on, and he doesn’t know. It’s clearly some kind of worship but we can’t tell anything else about it. We walk on.

Occasionally a small child sees me and decides to try out his or her English. “Hello!” they say excitedly, or “Hi!” I try to remember the best version of “Hi” I’ve learned in Hindi, but it fails me. I greet them back in English.

I have tried out some Hindi words. I feel more confident now that I can check out my pronunciations with Julianne whose been studying the language for six months. So far I’ve said “OK” and “thank you”. I know that isn’t too impressive, but even our words for yes and no are so different that it’s total relearning involving sounds that we don’t even make in English. The word for no, for instance, has a nasal “N” at the end of it that you must intimate but not pronounce fully. That’s why, Julianne told me, my Hindi phrasebook has seemingly random capitalized “N’s” in it all over the place. “No” (nihan) is shown as “nihaN”.

Sonu runs up to an enclosure and exclaims, “Water horses!” We walk up to find hippos, which live in India somewhere. One thing the zoo doesn’t do a consistent job of is saying which animals are indigenous and which are not. There are wild peacocks which are not on display but just hang out at the zoo because it suits them. They perch themselves over the Himalayan bear exhibit and the giraffe enclosure and look smart with their bright blue bodies and striking feathers.

We see more deer and birds and the reptile house and elephants. We get a little lost and pass the giraffes with bonus peacocks about three times. Julianne looks like she’s getting tired, but I think, “Ah, my long lost exercise!”

Sonu asks for one last snap as we leave. He invites Julianne into the picture but she declines. “You know you’re going to be his girlfriend now and his whole family’s going to see it,” she says. I tell her he’s married, so I don’t think I’ll be his girlfriend. Plus I don’t really care. I don’t think Sonu has advanced Photoshopping skills, so he probably can’t do much harm with my picture.

“Defence Colony, ma’am?” Sonu asks me, possibly for the last time, though I can’t reckon with that or say goodbye to him when he drops Julianne and me off at the market for dinner and pulls away.

He has been my lifeline this first week in this strange country all the way across the world. I am indebted to him for showing me all that I have seen of India so far, for finagling an elephant ride, for helping me cross the street, for being there waiting at the airport, for making materialize whatever it was that I asked for: a bank, a clock, a watch, an electrical adapter. He has truly been more angel than driver.

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