Monday, July 28, 2008

Roti and Religion

Friday night after work, I tell Sonu to take me to Susie’s place. She’s invited me over to hang out.

We get to the Malviya Nagar market by Susie’s apartment with relatively no trouble (save a hairy traffic jamb that takes about 20 minutes to get through), but Sonu can’t find number 79A to save himself. We circle past her street about five times. I think I recognize it, but I’m not confident enough to tell Sonu for sure.

He stops innumerable times to ask passersby where is M Block? Where is 79A? We find 78A and 80A, but 79A is nowhere in sight.

After another half hour of circling, we find the place. I thank Sonu and tell him I’ll see him tomorrow. He can pick me up and ten and we’ll do some shopping or something. I get Sonu’s services for eight hours a day, Monday through Saturday, so he’s officially off the clock once he drops me off at Susie’s.

I open a big metal gate and climb the stairs to the first floor (which is really the second floor) where Susie’s apartment is.

She welcomes me inside and we wander into her kitchen where she has some hot chai on her camp stove. Camp stoves are standard issue here, even if musical refrigerators are not. It’s rare to have an oven, as Julianne does.

We talk about Susie’s experiences living overseas. She tells me about the 100 page paper she wrote about the Shirpa people when she lived in Nepal her junior year of undergraduate school. The Shirpas are a people and a culture separate from the mountain climbing guides as we in the west know them. In fact, until it became a popular thing to hire trekking guides, the Shirpas never climbed the mountain because they considered it sacred.

Shirpas have a kind of communal family system, Susie says. Each family optimally has three brothers. The first brother runs the mountain climbing business, the second brother becomes a Buddhist monk, and the third brother stays home and tends to the family. These three brothers share one wife.

I’m fascinated by the stuff Susie knows. I ask her if she’s ever thought about publishing her paper. I’d read it, I tell her.

“No,” she laughs self-consciously. “I don’t express myself very well in writing.” She pours our tea and puts the mugs on a little plastic tray like I’ve seen in the markets here. We walk into the living room where we chat some more about where and how to shop and who sells what. If I want to get a larger container of water, I need to find a neighborhood stand. They’ll deliver it for me. It might be better than using the hotel’s one liter bottles. Cheaper. I’ll see if I can check it out.

We sip our tea, then Susie asks if I’m hungry for dinner. “Of course,” I tell her. In a country where dinnertime is 8:30 or later, I spend a lot of time hungry for dinner.

We go back into Susie’s kitchen where she has a wall full of spices. She takes two large Tupperware containers from her fridge. Her “guy” made enough food on Wednesday to last for Thursday and Friday. She shops for him, buys all the ingredients he’ll need, then he cooks for her. What he’s made this week is a sabzi and a dal. The sabzi is a bunch of mixed vegetables cooked with spices. The dal is lentils in a gravy mostly made from tomatoes.

Susie has dough sitting in a bowlful of four. It’s for the roti, puffed bread that you use to scoop up the sabzi and dal. We’re going to roll out the roti and cook it fresh. You can’t really warm up roti and have it be good. You need to make it fresh for each meal.

She starts rolling and frying the roti, then taking it out of the frying pan and throwing it directly into the gas flame, where it magically puffs up like a balloon. It looks like no effort is involved until she asks me if I’d like to try. First you have to make a ball, then flatten it, then roll it once across in opposing directions, length-wise and width-wise. Then you have to do this kind of angle rolling to get the dough flat, thin and round. Then you have to slap it back and forth between your hands. Susie doesn’t know why. She just knows this is how the Indian family with whom she lived for two months did it. Even if you do all of this perfectly, if the roti is not perfectly even, it won’t puff.

I have to start my first roti over about three times because first I tear it, then I get it stuck to the rolling pin, then it gets stuck to my hand and creases. When I finally throw it into the fire, it ripples a little bit then deflates. Try again. This second time goes better, and my roti actually puffs. My third attempt, which I have to redo again because of problems with my technique, also puffs. To quote Meatloaf, “Two out of three ain’t bad.”

When we sit down to eat I make sure to pick the roti that I made. It tastes good, but I tell Susie she did the hard part. Making the dough is just as touchy of a process as frying it up—if not more so.

Over dinner the subject of religion comes up. I am having trouble trying to make heads or tails out of what I see over here, even though I did a little reading about the religions before I arrived. I thought I understood that in Hinduism there is basically a trinity with Brahman the Creator, Vishnu the Sustainer and Shiva the Destroyer. But I see so many gods and temples here that I don’t understand. “Who is Ganesh, the elephant god?” I want to know, “And how does he relate to the trilogy?”

Susie says I’m confused for a good reason. Even Hindus are confused about all of this, she says. She says if you ask them to explain why they’re doing something, their answer will be, “because that’s how we’ve always done it.”

I tell her we’re the same way, really. Every year I wonder why I’m putting up a Christmas tree, then I Google it to find out, then I forget again because it mustn’t make a lot of sense.

Susie says Hinduism and Buddhism are religions with no central truth, that the practices are contradictory, that there is no one text that everyone shares, that people have family gods and personal gods on top of the mess of other gods. Everybody makes it up as they go. She says the greeting “namaste” refers to the belief that there is a god in every person.

I know this phrase from my yoga classes at home. We end every class with the salutation. The way it was explained to me, I understand it to mean, “The sacred in me recognizes the sacred in you.”

Susie says that’s a watered down Americanization. That Hindus believe there is an actual god living inside every person—not a figurative “element” of the sacred, of the one true god. Buddhists think this, too, she says.

I tell her that’s not what the Buddhists in Iowa think. I feel absurd and somewhat defensive.

Susie wants to know about these “Buddhists in Iowa.”

“Are they culturally Buddhist, or did they choose the religion?” (Read: “Are they white kids who thought Buddhism sounded cool and exotic?”)

They are white kids. The Buddhist monk that I’ve been known to hang out with is my age, and he is from the suburbs of Chicago just like me. I know him as Wangden, obviously not the name he was born with.

Susie says that American practices of Hinduism and Buddhism have little resemblance to what actually happens here. I can see she has a point.

She has a friend, for instance, who tells her she’s going to a Hindu church. Susie says, “You can’t be going to a Hindu church because there is no such thing. You can go to a Hindu temple, but it’s not the same as a church. They don’t have ‘services’ for starters.”

Susie’s friend’s reply was, “I don’t care. I feel good when I go there.”

Is that what a church service is for? Being raised Catholic, I would tend to think otherwise. I would sometimes argue the opposite, in fact. “I feel bad when I go there,” could aptly describe more than a few services I’ve attended. So why was I going? From duty. From the ever-infamous Catholic guilt. To avoid damnation. Is that why you’re supposed to go to church? Or is feeling good okay?

I’m resistant to just dismissing these cultures, these practices, these traditions on the basis that they have no central truth. I think there is truth in these practices; I think I’ve glimpsed it, felt it—or am I projecting my American, Christian understandings of the universe where they don’t belong and make little sense? Because what I see here makes little sense to me.

Susie’s friend is searching, she says. She’s been trying out a bunch of different religions, sampling from them and seeing what works. She has another friend, though, whose been a little more serious about her search. She spent several months in an ashram, but now she’s Christian again. I think Susie may be telling me a cautionary tale.

She says Buddhism came out of Hinduism—a fact I realized without realizing the reality of what that means in practice. In practice, it means that lots of Hindu culture and practice seeps into Buddhism. And then there’s the issue of territory. There are different “Buddhisms” depending on the locale. Nepalese Buddhists, for instance, eat meat.

I am shocked. I thought all Buddhists were vegetarian. “The Buddhists in Iowa are all vegetarian,” I think, but this time I’m cool enough not to exclaim this out loud and sound like a total provincial wannabe dork.

The difference in diet is largely due to climate, Susie says. Buddhists in Nepal live in a cold climate where they need a lot of protein to keep them warm, plus the growing season isn’t long enough to grow good vegetables. They eat yak butter in their tea and eat yak meat. So do Tibetan Buddhists.

The Dalai Lama is a carnivore!@*?#! Okay, he’s an omnivore, but still. The Dalai Lama eats yak. It sounds like the end of a game of telephone—some message that started out making sense and got twisted into something random and in error.

I can’t believe it. I want to argue, but there’s no arguing with someone who’s been there and seen it. Susie’s not making any of this up.

Nepalese Buddhist kids, she says, wear a charm on their neck, in which they believe their personal god resides. But then, in Buddhism itself, there is no belief in a central creator god. Some people don’t even regard Buddhism as a religion because of this.

“Buddha was just a guy,” Susie says, “and he wanted to seek enlightenment, and he even told people that he didn’t know the way for them to find inner peace, he was just seeking it himself. And then he died and people venerated him; and now people worship him.” I never understood it in those terms. I understood that practitioners demonstrate respect for Buddha as an esteemed teacher of wisdom—not that they worship him as a god. Here it seems like both things happen, or neither, or something else altogether. As I started the conversation with Susie, it’s confusing. As she started the conversation with me, there is no central truth.

But there has to be. I feel like there are several truths at the core of all religions, regardless of all the trappings that go with them. All religions set out to answer our biggest questions: where did we come from, why are we here, and what happens to us when we die? We can start with at least those common questions, and then the fact that we, as human beings, deeply need answers to these same questions. There’s something universal about that search, about that longing to know.

Susie and I talk more about the wild diversity of beliefs in this country. There are the Sikhs who believe that everything is god, that god is the universe and everything in it. Then there are the Jains, who, Susie tells me, are like really strict Hindus. I think of our Amish population in Iowa.

There are some Jains who sweep the sidewalk as they walk so they don’t smash any bugs and accidentally kill them. They wear masks outside so they don’t inhale gnats and destroy life that way. They don’t eat the roots of plants because that would be like killing the plant.

Susie talks about another paper she wrote in college. She wrote way deeper papers than I ever did as an undergraduate. This other paper was about belief systems. In Hinduism, she says, they believe if you please the gods enough, you’re good. So most Hindus focus heavily on making offerings and worship, and don’t worry so much about their everyday deeds, i.e. how they treat each other.

This explains the Delhi traffic, I comment. But then I remember the concept of moksha from my visit to Akshardam Temple. “Don’t Hindus have the same concept of reaching enlightenment (i.e. salvation, loosely) as the Buddhists do? And to reach enlightenment, don’t you have to worry about how you treat others? Don’t you have to show compassion and exemplify good acts in the world?”

“Yes, but everyday Hindus don’t even hope to achieve anything like that. They don’t see themselves as anywhere close to it, so they don’t even try. It’s not possible. Just look at how they live their lives.”

I think of trying to “achieve enlightenment” while living in a hovel on the side of the road, possibly dying from the sometimes 120 degree heat. Again, it comes down to practicality. You can’t respect all life when there’s nothing to eat but yak, and you can’t ponder rising above this world when your basic needs for food, clothing and shelter are a constant struggle. Even religion is a privilege.

Before I know it, it’s quarter of eleven. Susie asks if I want to stay overnight, but I haven’t brought any of my things with me and I figure I’ll get home okay. She and her roommate walk me out to the main market and help find an auto-rickshaw that will drive me home for an agreed upon 50 rupees.

I tell myself this is a good plan. I tell myself everything will be fine. Susie tells me to call her when I get home. I say ok, and we’re off.

Everything seems to be going along fine when the driver suddenly slows and pulls to the side of the highway in a place I don’t recognize. “Defence Colony,” he says, and points at a locked gate past a median with three men in blankets sleeping on it.

I am having a harder time convincing myself this was a good decision. In fact, I admit this was a very horrible decision. One of the worse I’ve made to date, and possibly my last.

“NihaN! NihaN! Defence Colony! C-83 Defence Colony!” I tell the driver, praying that he’ll get me where I need to go and not leave me lost with these sleeping men in the middle of Delhi in the middle of the night. I look around, wondering if I should hail a different driver, but there don’t seem to be other rickshaws in the place he’s stopped. I could call Susie on my cell phone, but her number’s tucked away in bag and what good is that going to do anyway? I could call 100—that’s like the Indian 9-1-1, but I wonder if this number will work on my international cell phone. I wonder if 9-1-1 will work. But what good would that do? As I’m trying to come up with an alternate plan, he hits the throttle and the rickshaw slowly begins to move.

Troublingly, though, the driver takes me down what I think is a dead end that Sonu once drove down trying to find a shortcut. The rickshaw, though, rambles through a narrow gate where Sonu’s car couldn’t go. It appears we are actually en route to Defence Colony.

I am rattled but surprisingly assured, save the tremor in my left leg that has started to shake and won’t stop. I think, “Poor Michael J. Fox. He has tremors like this all the time.” Then I think, “Why the hell am I thinking about Michael J. Fox? I need to be thinking about how to get home.” Then I think, “If I survive this, my mom and my husband are going to kill me.” Then I think, “How could I do this to them? Stupid move, Vicki. Very stupid move.”

I notice we pass a police stand with police in it. I make a mental note in case I need to run out and find it again.

The driver is lost. He doesn’t know where C-83 Defence Colony is, and he’s trying to ask me which way to go. I can’t tell him exactly, but I know we’re getting close. Thankfully, there are guards sitting outside some of the buildings that I vaguely recognize. When the driver stops to ask them which way to go, I suddenly know I’m safe and he’s not out to kill me, but to get me home.

I realize now that I don’t have any change, but I consider paying this guy 100 rupees instead of the agreed upon 50 just as a tip for not killing me or leaving me to die somewhere.

When we finally pull up to my guest house I feel like I could melt into a puddle. I give him my 100 rupee note and wait for change. He says he has no change. I figured as much anyway. He asks the guard at the Ahuja Residency if he has change. The guard says no.

The rickshaw driver gets his 50 rupees and 50 more, and I have never been so glad to see C-83 Defence Colony.

The guard at the gate follows me into the building where he opens the door and turns the hall light on for me. Back in my room I feel like I'll throw up. I come close to crying, but I don't. A letter from Scott is waiting for me on my coffee table. More than reading it, I kiss it and hold it in my hands against my face.

Given the grace to have survived this incident in one piece, with no bumps or bruises, considering all that could have gone wrong, I promise myself on behalf of everyone I love to never, ever do anything stupid like that again.

I call Susie and let her know that I'm okay, then I crawl into bed and have a nightmare about losing my purse and my passport. All that anxiety had to come out somewhere.


auntlinda said...

i am very happy to hear of your new promise not to do anything crazy again i am one of the ones who love you so very much i am the one who was so excited for you to go there dont make me come and get you!!!!!!!!!

zen said...


Vicki said...

AuntLin, yes, you won't have to come get me. I'll be a little more street smart next time =)

Zen, thanks for the clarification and the temple reference. I'd like to learn all I can while I'm here, and I obviously have a long ways to go!