Monday, September 1, 2008

The Spirit Is Willing But the Flesh Wants Another Head Massage


I had some vague intentions to awaken at five in the morning and accompany Mister Kundari to his temple to feed the hungry. However, I hadn’t been able to run into him during the week to ask if I could come with him and, anyway, it’s so much easier to sleep in than get up at that hour.

Julianne knocks on my door at 9:15 and we walk down to her roommate’s banana yellow car to go to church.

At church, a woman from the Emanuel Hospital Organization gives a slideshow about the flooding in Bihar. Four million people have lost their homes due to the recent flooding of the Kosi River. Four million people.

I think she’s going to ask us for money, but she just asks us to pray.

They do a reading from the book of Habakkuk, one I’ve never even heard of before, in which the prophet Habakkuk gets pissed off at God for letting bad things happen. “Why do you tolerate wrong?” Habakkuk wants to know why injustices and violence and strife are so prevalent in the world. God answers him by saying something to the effect of, “If you think that’s bad, just wait and see what I do with the Babylonians.”

Habakkuk complains again and God basically explains the concept of wrath to him. Bad things happen because people are being punished.

I think of the four million homeless people in Bihar and basically stop listening to the sermon being offered to us today by Prakash George, who tends to talk endlessly in circles. The people in Bihar are no better or worse than me. Why are they suffering a calamity when I’m not? Why does it seem that Indian people suffer much more than their fair share of calamities? I think of all the limbless beggars and children in poverty I see on the streets everyday. It’s not because they deserve it. I’m with Habakkuk. What the heck, God?

I can’t believe that bad things happen because God is meting out justice. If this is the case, God has a really warped sense of justice--because bad things happen to good people all the time and vice versa. This is the kind of quackery that makes kooky people say that God sent Katrina to New Orleans because there was a gay pride parade there. Nevermind that the 1500 people who died in the disaster that followed were the poorest, most helpless among the population—not the gayest. Does God just have bad aim? He’s shooting for one thing but hits another?

When the sermon finally ends, Julianne wants to know about my searching. She’s been reading my blog and it looks to her like I’m lost. I can’t talk about anything but the frustration I feel with the day’s sermon. It’s not fair. It’s not fair. It’s not fair what happens to people with alarming frequency in India and the world, really. We are subject to disaster, war, disease. Julianne tries to console me by saying that God can change your life even in the midst of tragedy. She’s concerned about me. It seems like I’m looking for something in places other than the Bible and the Christian church. The truth is, I am. I want to know what I can learn from other religions. I want to see how they explain things like suffering and see what I can take from it. I’m not out worshipping other Gods or converting to Hinduism, but I do think there is a benefit in getting inside other people’s worldview at least a little. And what better time and place to do such a thing?

For lunch, we go to a restaurant called The Big Chill. I was hoping it would be colder inside than it is, but the name is not due to the temperature. The name is an allusion to the movie of the same name. The interior is covered in American movie posters. We sit by The Birds and are handed menus the size of small posters. There are over five hundred different dishes to choose from: most of them pasta, though they also have pizza and Panini and actual salads. In India, a salad is a pile of raw onion and maybe some cucumber. I get a “salad” with my lunch everyday, but I rarely eat it. This menu has Caesar salad on it. I order one, along with a cheese and tomato Panini that says it comes with basil. On Julianne’s advice, I also get a milkshake. A real milkshake is also a rarity here. Most times you order and get milk with a flavored syrup in it.

I think the menu is supposed to be American food even though it is almost strictly Italian. There are no French fries, no burgers, but no worries either. As a vegetarian, I don’t miss burgers one bit. I could use some French fries with my Panini, though. Or potato chips. The salad will have to suffice.

Two girls have joined us for lunch today. They’re college seniors, roommates, here together for a semester. This is their last day in Delhi before they ship off to Bihar to help with the flooding. I ask what they’ll do and they’re not sure. They think they’ll be teaching. They say they need to get a lot of stuff done today: everything they won’t be able to do in Bihar, like email. I can’t imagine being that cut off for an entire semester. Susie asks them what their families think of their adventure and they grimace. They don’t understand really.

I ask them what they did while they were in Delhi. I expect to hear about sightseeing, but I am wrong. “We visited this guy in the hospital. He got in a bad accident and was in critical condition. And we clothes shopped. You have to wear Indian clothing in Bihar. It’s not like Delhi. You need the dupata and everything.” At least they saw the Taj Mahal while they were here.

Lunch turns out to be expensive. It’s ten bucks for my salad and sandwich and milkshake. But it’s worth it.

Afterwards, we walk out front and catch auto-rickshaws to Malviya Nagar. We’re going to Style N X’s, the salon by Susie’s place, to get pedicures and eyebrow threading. Susie is excited to be able to participate this time. Last time we came, she couldn’t get a pedicure because she’d just lost a chunk of her toe at Qut’b Minar. Today she’s got blisters from walking home from a church function the night before, but she’s going to brave it anyway.

These guys aren’t gentle. They lean into my feet and rub hard on the calluses. Susie winces when they get to her blister.

“Are you going to miss these once you get back to the States?” she asks. Yes. It’s not like I can’t get a decent pedicure in the United States, but I certainly can’t get one for FOUR DOLLARS.

The guys finish up our feet and a woman motions to Susie to come to a chair for her eyebrow threading. There are no fancy chairs here, so Susie has to lean way back in the black plastic number, pretending like it’s reclining. A second woman helps hold the skin around her eyes taught, and the first woman expertly catches the hairs between the long thread she’s holding up to Susie’s eyebrows. She pauses so Susie can see the first eyebrow. Is it okay? Tikka? Susie wobbles her head: the Indian sign for “yes.” I wonder if she does this consciously or if it’s become an involuntary gesture for her after being here for over a year. I wonder if my head will be wobbly before I leave. I know I’ve picked up a strange habit of saying “yeah” a lot already. I say it now at the end of statements like, “So the pedicure is two hundred rupees, yeah?” Or when I agree with someone, I say “Yeah yeah.” I’m trying to figure out where this came from and I can’t quite place it. I have to have heard someone else doing this and had it seep into my brain.

I get my eyebrows threaded when Susie is done, not because I have bushy eyebrows. In fact, they are practically invisible because they’re so blonde. I’m just curious as to what it feels like and how it works.

It hurts much less than plucking. It feels like the thread is just getting rolled along my skin. It’s quick and painless. The only awkward thing is the chair, in which I have to slouch all the way down and lean my head back at such a strange angle that I get a crick in my neck and a head rush when I stand up.

We finish up and the proprietor recommends a dermatologist to Susie. He noticed during her pedicure that she has eczema on her legs. He has eczema too, but this clinic cured him of it. Susie’s had it since childhood, so a cure would be something miraculous. I’m curious to see if they have a magic potion that will work for her. I know the condition can be rather intractable, but maybe there’s some Indian specialty that will do the trick.

When we’re finished, Susie says she’s going to another salon to get a haircut. It’s cheaper than Style N X’s. Once again, Susie is braver than I am. After my Verma’s experience, I wouldn’t let anyone in India touch my hair, let alone someone in a “cheap” place. I tell her I’ll go with her so she doesn’t have to go alone. She may need the moral support.

As we walk to the second salon, she tells me, “You should get a hot oil head massage so you’re not just sitting there.”

I should?

“Okay,” I say, wondering exactly what a hot oil head massage is like. We descend into a basement where a man is sitting behind a desk. Susie tells them she needs a haircut and I need a head massage. She sits in front of a mirror and describes to the woman in the smock what she wants: layers, steps, but long. My God, I think, this could go so badly.

A woman who looks closer to Chinese than Indian wraps a towel around my shoulders and comes back with a little orange bowl of warm oil, which she begins to slather onto my scalp. She rubs in little circular motions until my whole head is warm and oily. This is going to feel gross on the way home, I think. Maybe I can pay them for a shampoo when I’m done.

The woman rubs my head up and down and back and forth. She massages firmly behind my ears. She massages my neck and shoulders. But mostly she massages my scalp. I think it is the most relaxing thing I’ve ever done: more hypnotizing and relaxing than even a full body Swedish massage, with none of the guilt for paying a lot of money for it. I have to struggle to stay awake. I think, “No wonder dogs love me so much. I do this for them all the time, minus the hot oil of course, but still.” Who knew getting patted on the head could be so amazing? I think I could do this every day.

About a half an hour later, the woman wraps a hot towel tightly on my head. She’ll leave the oil on there for a bit so it can condition my hair, then we’ll rinse it out and shampoo my head. Thankfully.

Again, the chair doesn’t recline and it hurts a bit to sit at such an odd angle to get my hair shampooed, but if this is the price of the hot oil head massage, I am willing to pay it. I am so relaxed, the whole place could cave in around me and I’d just be sitting there, contented, breathing deeply.

Susie and I finish up at about the same time. Her haircut is actually adorable. It’s not what she asked for, but it looks cute all the same. They ring up her haircut and my massage together. For both, the cost is ten dollars.

She asks if I’d like to come hang out for a while, but it’s already after five o’clock and I’m behind on my blogging. She walks me back to the road where I can catch an auto and helps me get one for fifty rupees. I hope we can have another salon day before I leave. I’ve spent practically the whole day being pampered and it cost me less than ten dollars total.

Sure, I didn’t wake up at five in the morning to feed the hungry. Sure, I didn’t do any reading in my Vivekananda book, but I thought about it.

The spirit was willing but the flesh had an all day salon appointment, and what an appointment it was.

Back at home, I even blow off my blogging. I am just too relaxed to bother. Besides, there’s still more time to be deep before I leave.


auntlinda said...

im so happy you had the head massage. pampering is awesome.
i just would like to give you all my thinking on the God thing. i was raised baptist just fyi. we believe that when adam and eve sinned , evil came into the world . Satin was expelled from heaven into hell , so good verses evil ...evil likes to hurt us , tempt us, make us doubt our faith in God. ( like why would God ALLOW such disasters) God is the heavenly father who like all fathers does not want to hurt us or see us suffer any more than your dad does. i know my dad would have given his life for me and so actually did the heavenly father for all of us. when evil satin hurts us by flooding , death, wars, disease, hopeless situations ,horrific suffering,doubt etc , then it is time to go the Lord and ask for His help to get through the evil. i will never believe God is teaching us a lesson by killing hundreds of people in the twin towers on 9-11 or babies suffering from aids in africa. I see satin at work there and the Lord is in heaven to help us get through . dam that eve for taking that apple . i know God
is there . He has proved himself to me many times . have faith and he will will help you through .put your life in His hands. dont blame him for evil in the world . thats what i believe and it works for me
hope everyone who reads this can relax now and just let God guide you. its my pampering!!!!!!!!!!!

Kathryn Jane d/b/a Kit Kat said...

I've been saying that for years, "What the hell, God??"

It's me mom said...

" I want to know what I can learn from other religions. I want to see how they explain things like suffering and see what I can take from it. I’m not out worshipping other Gods or converting to Hinduism, but I do think there is a benefit in getting inside other people’s worldview at least a little. And what better time and place to do such a thing"

Had to comment about the above entry. That is very clever of you, you've always needed to "learn more", and that can never hurt. It doesn't necessarily mean you have to believe everything you hear or read.

Also, I'll be looking for an "Ugly Betty bobble head" for you.

SRWRay said...

It took me a while to respond to this post because there’s a lot here to think about.

The question of why bad things happen is what is sometimes called “the problem of pain.” In my opinion, that is probably the hardest, most basic question in the human experience, one that every religion tries to answer. I do believe that sometimes suffering is punishment for sin, but sometimes it is just because the world is hard. God did not design the world to be an unpleasant place with flood and famines and disease. He created a paradise and gave mankind authority over it. But, because of that authority, when mankind rebelled against God the world rebelled as well.

Despite what we might prefer, the Christian explanation of the problem of pain and other hard questions are rarely as simple as "we 'droids were made to suffer, its our lot in life." This is probably not the best forum to tackle this issue, but I can recommend a book or two on the topic by some bright and thoughtful people if you would like.

As I read the description of your conversation with Julianne you seemed frustrated, like you felt she was trying to control what you think. I’m sure she didn’t mean to make you feel defensive. When someone has worked through a particular problem, they want to save those they care about from facing the struggle of that search.

But some people, and I’ve long felt you were one of them, need that struggle. In order to have confidence in an answer, you need to seek it and test it by considering the validity of the alternatives. Nigel is the same way.

As long as you stay focused on the importance of finding out what is really true then search wherever you feel led; if you keep seeking what is true, you will end up where you need to be.

One request, though: Please remember that Christians, like everyone else on Earth are weak and flawed individuals. I just ask that you try not to judge Christ and his teachings by the words and actions of people like Jerry Falwell, Jim Bakker, and Susan Ray. At times we say or do things that must have Jesus shaking his head and rolling his eyes with an exasperated, “They just don’t get it.” But since even Peter and John who actually walked and spoke with him often didn’t get it, I guess it’s no surprise that those who are trying to figure out his will from one remove so often screw up.

I am a very weak Christian, and not much of a scholar, but I’d be willing to work through some of this with you at some point, if you want.