Based off a chance encounter.
“Namaste! Namaste! Please take some flowers!” As the assailant approached me, I could not help but marvel at the innocence of her youth. It is quite scandalous, really—not to mention ironic and unsettling—that hallowed grounds often provide the stage for ungodly activity, such as assault, theft, and murder. Under the gleam of Hindu holiness, Rishikesh was a sociological battlefield onto which I unknowingly stepped foot. As I, the American, sauntered into the shrine with a sense of assurance, an adolescent, flower-bearing femme fatale found her target. Draped in my sense of Western imperialism and superiority, I exchanged pleasantries with her. The guru gently grazed the gong, signaling the night’s religious ceremonies. The sound assumed a foreboding rhythm. Save yourself, it seemed to warn me. Then it happened: her comrades swarmed in, and I was surrounded. The struck cymbal and my hastening heart scored my impending peril. This is Uttarakhand, battleground of a new holy war. Swagat. Welcome.
The shrine of Krishna, the Hindu god of love and divine joy, crowns Rishikesh in the northern Indian state of Uttarakhand. Tourists and Hindu adherents—Indians and non-Indians alike—flock like brokers around this Columbia-blue gem. It salutes the Ganges River, an alluring, aquatic diamond emblematic of purity and regeneration. These precious stones of landmarks exude the majesty and resplendence of Hindu India. So who would have foreseen that this holy Hindu ground would serve as the frontline for my sociological annihilation? I sure as nirvana did not.
“I’m Padma.” She approaches me first. She wears a wrinkled, black-and-white striped shirt paired with tattered yellow pants, and her feet are painted with sand. An alluring amulet—Ohm—anoints her dirt-poor décolleté, but in India, peace and serenity seem to only associate with the affluent. The U.S. battlegrounds in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and the explosive Middle East are within an airplane wing’s reach, but I unknowingly stare terror in the eye. She moves closer to me, and I become comfortable. I, an experienced introvert—tenured in the art of shyness, with a PhD. in Avoiding Social Situations Altogether—am in INDIA socializing. Look at me, mom! Perusing my facial expression and demeanor, she reads my résumé: First-time visitor, surely; American, most likely; Perfect target, definitely. At this, it seems, her allies come and surround me. Vultures around a carcass.
As Hindu incantations orchestrate around us, Padma and associates, in retrospect, seem to telepathically discuss their battle strategy. They offer me diyas, clay oil lamps that hold marigolds and a candle. Hindus ceremoniously set them afloat down the Ganges as an offering to Ganga, the resident goddess. Here I am, the non-Indian, the non-Hindu, and these Indian kids embrace me. I become one inclusive thread in this sacred fabric. Through these diyas, I feel that these kids are symbolically offering themselves to me: they are like the flowers, budding, captivating, and inviting. With my brown skin, black hair, and sixty-three-inch frame, you would not think it, but in accepting the diyas, I was Sally Field winning the Academy Award for Norma Rae: Those kids, they liked me. They really, really liked me. I was so taken aback by this act of kindness that I practically fell into the Ganges.
She is a stunner, this Padma. Naturally endowed with the fair skin, contoured face, esthetic nose, and cascading, raven hair that Photoshop, cosmetic surgeons, and L’Oreal Paris® futilely strive to replicate, she is a sure contender for Aishwarya Rai’s and Priyanka Chopra’s Miss World titles. Eye-balling it, she appears to stand at four feet and nine inches tall. One look into her café-au-lait eyes, however, suggests to me that she has witnessed more than her halted height would seem to permit. This beauty queen seemed out of place in her dirty, probably one-size-too-small clothes. Such a contrast. I felt that she held an untold story, that many a moment had left this breath-taker breathless.
She bears the embellishment of a crescent moon above her right cheekbone, mute testimony, I felt, to some tragedy. My senses had only been privy to her name and her beauty, but that was enough for me to construct her life story. She was a blank slate that I painted. “How close will you be to Pakistan?” a classmate’s panicking mother asked upon learning that we would be venturing this far eastward. If danger was perceived for us foreigners, then, I assumed, that the desis themselves—natives of the Indian sub-continent—must be living a constant reality of Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare.
I pieced together some of the free-floating, South Asian fragments in my mind. I had taken a post-colonial literature class in the fall, after all, so I felt equipped to “re-create” the puzzle of her life. Pakistani jihadists. The answer was simple. I reasoned that those martyrs—fighting in the name of Allāhu Akbar—must have waged war on her homeland, and that the moon must be her battle scar. Oh yeah, Kashmir is always in the news, I remembered. In fact, during its four-century-long rule by Muslims, Kashmir was at one point ruled by Rajit Singh from Lahore. And what do you know, Lahore is in Pakistan. That’s it. She must be a Kashmiri displaced by some fundamental Pakistani Islamists. That was how she got the moon.
My (re-) creation of Padma’s history segued into Punjab. Bend It Like Beckham (2003) introduced me to this northern Indian state, and this Parminder Nagra- and Keira Knightley-led flick just so happens to be my favorite movie ever. So, Punjab earned a comfortable, sequential place in Padma’s story. I saw Padma and her father—named “Mrinal,” like my ex-boyfriend who now attends the University of Southern California—staying with family there, still in harm’s way, however, since this breadbasket of a state is split between India and Pakistan.
Padma and Mrinal were staying with her aunt Kalpana (à la my academic advisor) and her uncle Jamal (the protagonist from Slumdog Millionaire). Uncle Jamal was like a vicarious version of me, for he had scrutinized her moon-shaped scar in the same way that I was beginning to: mythologically, portentously. The creation—err, conversation—went as follows one night over a feast of delectable, desi cuisine: “It is a gift from Diana,” Jamal said, and I was thinking. “Who?” Padma questioned, scrunching up her eyebrows in confusion the same way that I did when a Delhi hotel clerk joked that even the water is spiced here in India. “Diana, the Greek goddess of the moon.” Uncle Jamal and I had both taken courses in Classical Mythology during our undergraduate years—he at the University of Pennsylvania, and I with the Jesuits at Boston College.
“We read a lot of my good friend Homer,” I pictured him elaborating, speaking as though Homer were a long-time friend, and not an eighth-century Greek who might not have even existed. Though Western, Diana made perfect sense in my construction of an Eastern narrative. The Greeks believed —as did the Romans, who named her “Artemis,”—that Diana protected her people. “Your scar,” I saw Uncle Jamal pointing with a folded chapatti, garnished with dal, “is a gift from her.” This made perfect sense. My dad was wrong. My Classical Studies training did come in handy.
And yet, religion did initially seem like an odd cast member to my story. Okay, so maybe Padma and her family had not gotten into a standoff with some radical Pakistani Muslims. Maybe. I was willing to budge on that. However, it was definite—as her beggar status and clothes communicated—that she was working because she did not have sufficient, life-sustaining money. So, how could she believe in any god, Hindu, Muslim, Zoroastrian, or whatever? one might wonder. I took creative license anyway, and welcomed aboard my new cast member, for I felt that since I am American, American, and God shed his grace on me, whatever I mixed together in the potluck of my mind would produce an edible, logical stew.
“Fifty rupees, madam! Fifty rupees!” the kids demanded. What?. I looked at them, and no longer had that innocent representation in my mind. My mom had always pointed out—in both French and English—my character flaw. Apparently, I reside in the land of the figurative, not of the literal. Suddenly, Julia Roberts came to mind. Julia Roberts in Steel Magnolias. You know the expression: soft on the outside, tough-as-nails on the inside. So were these kids. So was Padma. Here was I in the low-budget, indie flick Steel Marigolds. I was surrounded by about six kids all less than my twenty years of age, and adrenaline went on a rollercoaster ride in my veins. I was in the middle of heavy fire, and had left my right to bear arms back in Massachusetts. I wonder what Ebert & Roper would say about this one.
“Fifty rupees!” When I looked down, and saw Padma’s outstretched palm, demanding payment, I was shocked. I realized that I was really looking at a stranger, one who appeared to be holding me for ransom. I, the ever-so-sure American, was dumbfounded, had no idea what to do. Thankfully, Joanne, one of the adults accompanying me to Rishikesh, came to my rescue. I had probably stumbled over my draping sense of superiority and imperialism that I had missed her command to evacuate the premise. She haggled with these kids, giving about ten rupees each, as opposed to the insisted fifty. The kids looked defeated. They were not the only ones who felt that way.
Ever the melodramatic, I walked away feeling betrayed. That night, we sat by the banks of the Ganges honoring Mother Ganga for…I don’t remember. I really wasn’t concentrating on the ceremony. Heck, a little boy, barely ambulatory, was waving around fire close to me, and I didn’t even know until classmates informed me later on. A little girl with the moon on her face had taken my mind hostage. All she wanted was my money. We had no friendship. I was just a business transaction. I found it ironic that in this holy place especially, a rupee note, graced by the face of Mahatma Gandhi—peace and harmony personified—proves divisive, able to generate both socio-economic comfort and calamity. With the thought of fifty rupees—less than 1 USD, no skin off my nose—Padma took away my assurance and certainty.
My visa application lists “tourism” for my purpose of travel, but I entered India as Christopher Columbus. I had not only gone to discover, but, in a way, to conquer. That night claimed many casualties. My ignorance. The right that I felt to impose my beliefs on others and to construct their lives based on nothing but some aspects of my own life. Forget the Great Ganga. I was God. I had breathed life into this inanimate object and personalized her. Made her real. Who was Padma without me? Then it hit me. Somebody. She was somebody. She was somebody before she met me. She would always be a somebody. I did not really know this girl. I felt uneasy. Padma had shot me in the chest—figuratively speaking, of course—where my major symbolic organs—omniscience, omnipotence, and superiority—were situated. It was like a National Geographic special, Indian edition. The arrogant, know-it-all leopard encounters an elephant and realized that he is not sovereign after all. Through Padma, I was confronted by the grave realization that I don’t know everything, and that presuming to can get me into trouble.
I know what you are probably thinking—how could someone possibly create a story like that and actually believe it? This story is somewhat symbolic, metaphorical. Now, if I had discovered that Padma did not, in fact, have an uncle named Jamal who attended the University of Pennsylvania, for example, I would not have been so shocked. It is not the specificity of assumptions that matters, but rather, the act of assuming itself. I entered a situation and assumed this sense of pride due to my assumptions, and walked away ever the ignorant.
I left India with luggage that thankfully did not exceed the fifty-pound limit for a free checked bag. I took back some stunning jewelry, flavorful tea, and let’s not forget hair products. Indians have the best hair. My inner deity, however, was interred in India. The God inside me died, but there is no void—either literally or figuratively. A person is now growing in Her place, one who is imperfect and learning not to judge.