Friday, September 19, 2008

The House of God


I’m too full at breakfast to eat my banana. I throw it in my bag so I can give it to a beggar should the occasion arise.

After eating, I call on Mister Singh again. His isn’t home. His daughter-in-law comes down to see me. What did I need? I tell her I need the name of the hotel and the phone number of the taxi service Mister Singh was talking about. I leave the papers he gave me so he can write it on them. She says no problem. He’ll be home in an hour and they’ll get this done and have the papers sent back to my room at the guesthouse.

I catch my ride with time to spare today.

We stop at a red light and I see an old woman walking from car to car, tapping at the windows. I think, “Good candidate for my banana,” and dig it out of my backpack.

There’s a moment when she sees me, freezes, and tilts her head. It’s like I can see her getting a great idea. She hunches over and starts dragging her right leg behind her. Suddenly she is a crippled hunchback. She limps up to my window and raps on it. I roll it down and hand her the banana. She takes it but starts rambling in Hindi, clearly explaining to me that she wasn’t asking for a banana, stupid. She holds up a rupee. She wants money. I shake my head. Take the banana, lady. She rambles on while I roll up the window. She does one limp away from my car, then straightens up again and walks off as normally as could be. It comes off like a comedy routine. I hope she doesn’t slip on the banana peel.

At work I’m finally making some good progress on chapter six. I can see that I’ll be able to finish it by Friday.

After lunch I take a walk with Shabnum. She was reading my blog and says I didn’t get it quite right about the hijras. They aren’t servants to their gurus. They’re more like disciples or followers or students. I’m glad I have good editors.

There is an email in my inbox that says my package arrived. At first I just ignore it. I think it means that a package has been sent to me, but then I see it says it was signed for by someone with an Indian name. I must have a package here somewhere. Jane, my friend from work, asked if she could send me something a little while back, but I didn’t know if she really would. Now I think she actually has gone to the effort, but I wonder why no one here has brought it to me. I write down the tracking number and go up to the front desk. Is there a package here for me? Bibouti calls the guard shack out front. Yes, they have my package. I guess they were just waiting for me to psychically find out about it and track it down.

I go outside. They speak to me in Hindi and point to the address on the box’s label and laugh. I’m always good for a laugh here in India, apparently. I take the box down to my desk and pull at the packing tape. I can’t wait until I’m home to open it. Besides, this day has been dragging on and on. I need a little something to break up the monotony of currency forwards and futures and cross-hedging and yield curves.

No. I should save the package for tonight. I’ll be stuck at home if it rains with no company. It will be a great diversion.

No. I just have to peek. I’ll just peek.

It takes me a good five minutes just to get the tape off. I don’t have a pair of scissors handy, so I have to get creative. I use a binder clip. I told Jane that some salty snacks would be nice. There’s nothing really in India save potato chips and I don’t really like those. I lift open a flap of the box and decide not to disturb the contents too much. But what a great surprise. There is lip gloss inside. And it’s Carmex. I love lip gloss, and my lips are pretty parched, especially after my long day in the beating sun at Agra. I open the Carmex and decide I’ll leave it at work so I always have it to use during the day.

I peek a little more. There’s a magazine in there! An American magazine. How awesome. And there are two cards that I don’t open. This is way better than the salty crackers I was expecting. This isn’t a box of salty snacks. This is a box full of home.

In the car on the way back to the guesthouse I can wait no longer. I have to read the cards. The first one I open isn’t from Jane at all. It’s from another coworker, Linda. She tells me that I even made a visit to the eye doctor fun to read about. I am so buoyed. I love to know that people are actually reading my blog and, even better, enjoying it.

It begins to rain again, but today is not as bad as yesterday. I get home just before seven. I turn my funky skeleton key in the door and open it with baited breath, hoping to see the papers from Mister Singh sitting on my table with the information about the hotel written on them. There is nothing. Now what? Now I have to bother him again? Or do I just go to Armritsar with no hotel lined up? That was Susie’s plan. But Susie also uses the water here to brush her teeth and takes auto-rickshaw rides in the dark. Susie is more adventurous than I am.

I decide to let this issue simmer for a bit while I dig in to my package. There are lens cloths for cleaning your glasses. And a package of band aids. And hygienic toilet seat covers. I laugh out loud. Someone has been reading my blog very closely! Then I find a small white box with colorful ribbons tied all around it. There is a small purple note taped to the top with a quote on it, “Life isn’t about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself.” The note is signed by my director, the woman who first suggested the newdirections program to me, Nancy. Inside there is a smooth piece of quartz with the word “Create” etched into it. It’s beautiful. I cry from the kindness of all these people at home who took the time and the effort to do this for me. First I’m lucky enough to be able to participate in this program, then I’m lucky enough to have people like this cheering me on, supporting me. If I was feeling a bit alone today, I am no longer.

I open up a bag of Ritz crackers that was in the package and wander downstairs to find Pachu. “Did anyone drop off some papers for me?”

“Newspaper?” he asks.

“No. Paper. Just paper, with writing on it.”

“Oh, paper. Yesterday,” he says.

“Yes, paper like they brought yesterday. Did anyone bring some today?”

“No. No paper.”

It’s still raining out, so I decide that I’ll just call Mister Singh. I find his business card and dial him up. “Yes,” he says. “I wanted to talk to you. Why did you send back the papers I gave you?”

“Thank you for those. I just wanted you to write the hotel information on them.”

“Yes,” he says. “Give me the coach number of your train so I can call for your cab.”

I grab my ticket and tell him it’s 2A.

“That’s it? That’s the coach number?”


“No. The coach number.”

“That’s what it says.”

“Maybe sometime you can come over and show me.”

Sometime? My train leaves tomorrow. “Can I come over now? I can show you now.”

“Okay,” he says and perfunctorily hangs up.

I grab my tickets and my umbrella and walk next door. The guard waves me in. I see Mister Singh through his bedroom window tying his turban. The door is closed. I get the guard. Should I just walk in or is there a doorbell? The guard opens the door for me and shows me to the sitting room.

Mister Singh joins me there in a minute. “Yes, I wanted the information about your train so I can call for the taxi, you see. He will meet you at the station and take you to the hotel so you can wash up. Then you will go straight to the Golden Temple. He will be holding a sign for you. We went on an eighteen-day trip to Europe and there was a French woman with us all the time. When you travel you need help so you do not have to worry.”

He leaves the room and comes back with a business card from the hotel where he, indeed, has made reservations for us. I am so relieved.

“Let’s just set this now,” he says, and gets on his cell phone to the taxi service. I can understand a few English words sprinkled into his Punjabi here and there. Miss Vicki, he says. Golden Temple, he says. Saturday.

“It is set,” he says, hanging up. When we reach the station, we should look for a replica of the Golden Temple, a little scale model of it. The taxi driver will be waiting there with a sign that has my name on it. I’m amazed he’s arranged all this for me.

Poonam walks into the room from out of nowhere. I am excited to see her. She is always so full of praise and joy. I throw up my arms and say hello. She mirrors my gesture. “I worship this man,” she croons as she sits down beside me. “You know why? Because he is so kind and so noble. I am so lucky to have such a friend. He has good heart. If there is someone to help, he will help. Just anyone.”

“I know,” I tell her. “He just set up my whole trip to Armritsar for me.”

“When you think of India, you will think of this man!” she exclaims.

“And I’ll think of you too,” I tell her. She is bashful about this.

“Oh, thank you,” she sings and touches my arm.

Mister Singh draws me a picture of the layout of the temple and shows me the path we’ll have to walk to get inside of it. “Remember the gate you come in so you can find your driver,” he tells me. Here there is a four hundred year old tree with berries on it that the birds like to eat at dawn. Here is the place where the profit used to sit to watch the temple being built. Here is where we can go to sit for an hour or so just to enjoy, or whatever we like.

A house helper brings three plates and some chaat: there is spicy apple and banana and pomegranate seeds. “There is chili,” he says looking concerned, but I am already gobbling. “This is okay?”

This is fine.

Next Mister Singh has another house helper bring a stack of headscarves for me to borrow and a bag to keep them in. We’ll all need to cover our heads when we go inside. There should be enough here for me and each of my friends.

Have I had my dinner?


Then would I like to stay?

Is it okay?

Yes. Poonam tells me I should stay. Okay, then.

Mister Singh shows me a directory he produced for the people at his gurudwara. The front of it is filled with information about Sikhism which he begins explaining to me. Poonam grabs my chin as I lean forward to listen and smiles. She says I’m his “gurushishya,” his student, and soon I’ll know all about the Sikhs.

Mister Singh talks about Sikh marriages, the status of women in Sikh society, the meaning of the bracelet that Sikhs wear and, as always, the fact that the Sikhs fought against the Mughuls and abolished caste.

Poonam tells me, as always, that Mister Singh is a good man. He takes care of his wife so well. She needs so much attention and he is always there to give it to her.

Mister Singh says he is fortunate to be able to care for his wife. He is fortunate to have the money to do it with; it costs 1.25 lakh a month. Even so, even with this expense, he likes to give to charity. It is a Sikh value to help others. Whatever we do, we should help others. And we should be thankful for what we have. We shouldn’t complain to God whatever happens. We should bow our heads.

Sikhs don’t bow their heads before anything but their holy book. There are no idols. They don’t even bow to their gurus. Their gurus, he says, are like dust on the feet of God. They only bow to the book because in it is everything they need to know. It contains the wisdom of every religion that believes in one God only: Judaism, Christianity, Islam. There are quotes from all these religions in it.

The phone rings. It is Mister Kandhari. Mister Singh tells him in Hindi how he’s set up my trip for me. I understand, again, a few English words sprinkled throughout the conversation: trip, taxi, tomorrow.

He hangs up. Mister Kandhari is, how do you say it, a man-eye-oc about his garden. He gets up at five o’clock every day and works on it for three hours with three of his house helpers, watering, trimming, fertilizing.

Poonam says this work keeps him moving. Otherwise, he would get old.

Mister Singh asks how many house helpers God has? How big is God’s house? How many people does he need to help him? These are deep questions, he says.

He asks if I’d like to wash up before eating. I walk to the bathroom. On my way out, he shows me a file of papers. It’s receipts and records of all the blood drives he’s helped to run in Delhi. Then he’s helped with eye donations. And he raised money for a cricket player with kidney failure. The papers go all the way back to the 80s. They are a catalogue of good works.

Dinner is served. There are two vegetable dishes and a dal. Today, there is also tandoori roti, a thicker bread baked in a stone oven. Mister Singh gets out the pickles again, offering me first something stewing in mustard seed. This actually tastes good even if it looks like a long dead body in a jar. Then he gets out the lime pickles and plops one on my plate against my objections. I scoop it up to eat it and Poonam puts out a hand, “No!”


No! You’re not supposed to eat the whole thing like that. You’re just supposed to touch your roti to it to let it get a little bit of the flavor. No wonder the lime pickle was so bad last time I tried it. I touch my bread to it and eat it. This is much more palatable.

After dinner, there is yet another large jar that we’ll try something from. These are olives, Mister Singh tells me, though they look more like peeled kiwi fruit.

A house helper puts an olive on each of our plates. “It’s very healthy,” Poonam stresses.

I eat it and it’s good, but it tastes like solid sugar. It’s candied. I wonder what is healthy about it, but don’t ask.

I ask Mister Singh what time it is. It’s ten. Ten? I’m late for my Skype call with Scott. I tell him I have to leave but thank him profusely for all his help. I reach to shake his hand and he extends his but doesn’t grasp mine with his thumb. He kind of keeps his hand together while we shake. He doesn’t quite have this gesture down like Mister Kandhari does. When I fold my hands and bow to Mister Kandhari, he acts like I’m being silly and grabs my hand to shake. I think maybe Mister Singh is more traditional in this regard. Next time, I’ll try bowing to him.

I grab my bagful of scarves and the gurudwara Mister Singh has given me and dash off back to the guesthouse where I scramble to set up my computer. I can’t believe my good fortune this evening to have so many people thinking about me and helping me out.

And all I’ve been able to do lately is obsess about getting that hotel name out of Mister Singh. Maybe I need to think more about others. Maybe I need to take a lesson from my neighbor and coworkers. How many people does it take to run the house of God? As many as He can get.

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