Wednesday, October 8, 2008

A Smile Face

Saturday October 4

I was going to be in Jaipur today. I was going to go to Neemrana. All these plans fell through. So I am just spending the day in Delhi, getting some last minute shopping done and relaxing.

I take my copy of Main Hoon Na back to Mercury Audio Video in Khan Market. It doesn’t say anywhere on the package that there are English subtitles. I wonder if I can exchange this copy for one with subtitles. The man at the store tells me he thinks this copy has them. When I question this, he opens the package and tries it out on a mini-DVD player for me. There are the subtitles I’m looking for. Excellent. Flaming auto-rickshaw car chase, here I come!

While I’m there, I wonder if they have the CD of a song I’ve heard on the radio and liked. I sing it for them and they puzzle a bit, then a young guy thinks he knows what I’m singing. He opens the CD and plays it for me to make sure. He’s got it. It’s the song. I thank them and roam around the market a little more, picking up some thank you cards and a package of key chains.

Back in the parking lot, I tell Palminder to take me to the Lotus Temple. There’s a big traffic jam and when we finally get there, the free parking lot is closed. There are busses parked all along the street and there’s a market that’s popped up from out of nowhere: stall after stall of Prasad and burgundy and gold fabric. This is for the upcoming Hindu holiday of Dusshera. I snap a few pictures of the stands and thank the men for letting me photograph them. “Thank YOU,” they say, clearly happy to be my models.

The walk to the temple is crowded, almost shoulder-to-shoulder with people, and it’s hot; like, sweat-rolling-down-my-face hot. By the time I reach the doors, I’m in no condition to meditate, I think. But then I walk inside. The same feeling is there: a palpable and inescapable sensation of complete well-being. I sit down on one of the marble benches and fold my legs. The temple is crowded. Lots of children fail to understand that they shouldn’t make noise inside. A little boy behind me keeps whispering to his mother, who keeps whispering back to him instead of quieting him down. A woman with a Lotus Temple badge around her neck walks by and motions for them to be quiet.

I close my eyes. What should I ask today? What is God? Or did I answer that question for myself the other day? I don’t feel like I did—at least not conclusively. I don’t feel like I know God. I ask the question here but get no answer. I feel rather alone in the big echoing chamber with the high ceiling. Am I? Am I alone here? Is it just me? Or is there something, someone with me making me feel this peace again? I don’t feel anything separate from myself, external to myself. Maybe God is in me. “What is God?” I ask again, but no answer comes, or no answer comes in the brief amount of time I give myself to focus on the question between being annoyed at the crowd and the heat and wondering about other things. The book by Swami Vivekananda that Vivek, the CEO, lent to me said that God is so huge that humans can’t contemplate or understand “him,” so it’s necessary to give him or it human forms. It is only in the human form that we can love God. That’s why we have Jesus and Krishna and the gurus in Sikhism. This seems to me ultimately true. If God is this formless, infinite abstraction, what do we do with it? Still, if God is human, it creates all kinds of problems. We judge him on human standards, expecting him to be just and kind and fair and on and on in ways that specifically make us happy. Then we just get mad at him when it doesn’t seem to work that way. Or, I do.

I get up and walk around the perimeter of the chamber, reading the brass quotes that are so familiar.

“Should prosperity befall thee, rejoice not, and should abasement come upon thee, grieve not. For both shall pass away and be no more.”

“Wert thou to speed through the immensity of space and traverse the expanse of heaven; yet thou wouldst find no rest save in submission to our command and humbleness before our face.”

These words were revelations for me a few months ago.

I round the space and get to the exit but I can’t say goodbye to the Lotus Temple just yet. I stand on the stairs and regard the place, and as I do I feel such a strong lack of any tension or worry in every atom of my body that my fingers start to tingle. I can feel the same vibration spreading up my arms. What is this? Why is it that this place does this to me? How can I carry this with me into my life? I sit back down and close my eyes again to study the feeling. A few moments pass and a line of about seven Indian people with large red folders forms at the front of the temple behind the spray of flowers and clear plexi-glass lectern. It must be three o’clock. It must be time for the Baha’i service. I’ve missed it every time I’ve come, but this time, only because the tingling sensation literally stopped me in my tracks, I’ve stayed long enough to see it.

It begins with a hymn sung in a language I don’t understand. The first man finishes his song, then closes his folder and steps away. Then the next man steps up to the lectern. He also sings in clear tones, the words echoing back and forth inside the dome. He also closes his folder and steps away. Next, a woman steps up and announces, “A Buddhist Prayer.” I get a sense of what is happening only now. This service is seven different prayers from seven different world religions. The Buddhist prayer is in English. The woman says that to give up desire is to conquer all sorrows. So if I give up wanting to posses the people I love, I will no longer be sad when I’m not in their presence. If I give up the desire for perfect health, it won’t be so traumatic when something goes wrong. It will just be a fact, something that happened. The woman continues.

“It is only the fool who thinks to find true happiness through wealth or material pleasures. All these things are temporary and fleeting.” I think of Mister Singh and his ailing wife and the problem of a wish-granting God.

“If you ask for something foolish,” Mister Singh said, “then He won’t grant it.” This is a different definition of foolish than I’m used to. Maybe this finally makes sense. Maybe the Lotus Temple has given me the answer I was looking for even if I didn’t form the question myself this time. Maybe God does grant non-foolish wishes, but those are trickier to make than they seem. Is asking for cessation of someone else’s pain a foolish wish? Or is physical discomfort not the true cause of sorrow at all? Is it only the mind that makes a situation wonderful or terrible? Nothing is good or bad but thinking makes it so. Here I am again with the lesson of emptiness in this big, empty temple where I was just feeling the expanse of the dome over me and so much nothing. That was what I was supposed to feel here today: emptiness. This is what I need to remember. This is what the Lotus Temple is gifting me with today; this is, perhaps, its parting message to me.

The woman closes her folder and makes way for another woman who announces, “The Lord’s Prayer.”

“Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name,” she says. I try to listen to the prayer like it’s the first time I’ve heard it. I try to find it as fascinating as the Buddhist prayer, but it is so trodden. It is so rote. I’ve said it so many times without thinking about it, it’s a struggle to hear it anew, even here in the Lotus Temple, in Delhi, in India where day is night and on is off and everything is different. This prayer is still the same.

The service ends with a Baha’i song. A woman sings that nothing can hurt her because she is armed with the name of the Lord. She closes her folder and walks away. All the people with folders have spoken. There is no ritual or ceremony or sending off. The service is as simple as seven read prayers. I stand up and walk toward the door. I hope I get to visit the Lotus Temple again before I leave. I plan to return during the day on Saturday before my flight leaves at midnight.

I return home and spend a little time reading and relaxing. Mister Kandhari says we’ll go out to eat tonight. He picks me up at eight and we first drive around for a bit. “You like my style?” he asks me. “This is how I like to enjoy the city,” he says.

He grabs a bag of snacks from the backseat and something to drink for each of us and he tells me about a meeting he attended in the morning. He’s very excited. Defence Colony has raised fifty crore to turn the nala that runs behind it into a large park. There were lots of dignitaries at the meeting and Mister Kandhari, the “green man of Defence Colony” was invited to help with the landscaping. The project will take a year and a half to complete. He tells me I can see it when I come back. I will come back, won’t I? Do I promise? I will keep in touch, right? I will remember him, yes?

Yes, of course. Yes.

He drives to a park by the Habitat Centre and parks the car. We’re going to eat some paneer tikka. The wala from the tiny slanted shack comes to the car window and takes our order. We’re eating drive-in style tonight. A few minutes later there is a plate of chutney and fresh chapattis and paneer. Mister Kandhari hardly eats any of it. “For you,” he tells me.

He looks out his windshield at the park in front of us and cocks his head. “Vicki, life is whatever you make out of it. You understand me?” he says. I wonder where this thought came from. “This time can be a heaven or it can be a hell. It all depends on what you do, who you spend time with, if you spend time with nice person, good person. You see?”

I see. I think of the desperate Skype conversation I just had with my husband wherein I told him this last week in India was going to seem like it would take forever because all I can think about is coming home. There are no more exciting plans, nothing else to look forward to. It’s going to be hell. But it doesn’t have to be. That’s my choice to make. It can be heaven. Nothing is good or bad but thinking makes it so. Mister Kandhari reminds me, as the Lotus Temple did today, of emptiness.

I finish the last cube of paneer and Mister Kandhari throws the plate out the door. “Come, I buy you sweets. You like kulfi?” He puts the car into reverse and backs out onto the street.

“I love kulfi!” It’s like ice cream with fruit in it and sometimes it’s served with little vermicelli noodles. “That’s very kind of you. Thank you,” I tell him.

“You have kulfi before? Where?”

“At Mister Singh’s house, one day after dinner.”

“Oh my goodness, oh my goodness,” he says. “You see, you do things so people remember you well. You leave the people with a smile face,” he tells me. “I like to leave the people with a smile face.”

We pull to the side of the street in front of the Defence Colony market. There is a wala set up to the side of Moets. He’s there just to sell kulfi. He dishes up a serving of the ice cream, puts the noodles and some syrup on the plate and hands it over to me. Doesn’t Mister Kandhari want any? He takes one small bite with the spare spoon but tells me the rest is for me.

A good Sikh doesn’t eat much, doesn’t talk much, gets up early in the morning to recite the name of God, and leaves the people with a smile face.

A few minutes later, we are in front of the Ahuja Residency. He’ll see me in the morning, yes? I’ll come with tomorrow to the gurdwara? Of course, as long as I get my wake up call.

“I’ll call you, yes. I’ll call you,” he says and touches my head. What can I do but smile?


Nelle said...

Oh man, you may be on the way home as I type this.......YEAH!!!!!

praVeen said...

Thanks for sharing the experience at the Baha'i lotus temple, It was like being there! You truly conveyed the oneness of all the religions in a beautiful way.

harlan said...

Your depiction of your visit to the Lotus Temple made me tingle also. I had the same experience visiting the Baha'i Temple near Chicago. Stone and metal are not spiritual things, but there is definitely something very spiritual associated with these Temples. I was magnetized by the Baha'i Teachings from my first contact 48 years ago.