A wedding ceremony for God Balaji and Goddess Padmavati was being carried out on that Saturday in the Woodville temple. About 200 Indians had gathered in the hall.
The God’s idol was decorated with garlands of artificial jasmine from India, roses plucked that morning by the devotees, and from colored flowers bought from Costco and Save Mart. The temple priest, Rama Ayyangar, laid Goddess Padmavati’s idol, bedecked in real and fake jewels, next to that of Balaji’s. Plenty of apples, bananas, nuts and sweets were placed in front of the idols as offerings. Fragrance from the incense sticks spread throughout the hall.
Rama Ayyangar chanted melodious Sanskrit verses placing kumkum, turmeric powder and flowers on the idols.
“Vongo mami, (come aunty), here is an empty seat,” whispered Padma. My wife, Ramya, and I happened to sit just behind Padma. Rukmini Ammal, in her mid-sixties, slowly made her way to the chair. Her diamond ear studs glittered in the oil lamps of the temple. I knew her. She lived a couple of blocks away from Padma’s home.
“Padma, is everyone well, khsemama, at home? You brought baby Anushka too? How is she doing?” Rukmini Ammal inquired in Tamil, in a low voice, so as not to disturb others.
“What can I say, aunty. Yesterday, she was released from the hospital after a week of IV antibiotics. The doctors are good, but they didn’t know the cause for Anushka’s fever. Now, she’s okay, but is not eating.”
“Padma, listen. I’m not belittling the doctors, but there are things that can affect a child. I’m sure someone cast an evil eye, drishti, on your child. I will tell you a remedy for it.”
“I don’t think you have broom sticks at your home. Never mind. Take a handful of salt, and a couple of dried chilies, and pass it around your child’s head. Then throw it into the fire in the fireplace. This is a foolproof way to get rid of the drishti.”
“Thank you, aunty. I’ll do it as soon as I go home.” Padma hugged her daughter. “You’ll be all right, sweetie.”
Aunty having found an obedient disciple was happy. “And Padma, whenever you take Anushka out, don’t forget to place a black dot on her right cheek with kohl.”
At that moment the priest announced, “Anyone who wants to sponsor for archana, please come here.”
Padma, carrying Anushka, and Rukmini Ammal proceeded toward the sanctum followed by several devotees. Ramya and I got up and slowly moved forward. Behind us a father and son were engaged in a serious conversation in low tones.
“What did the Indians contribute to the society, dad? Esoteric philosophy, I presume. Soul, reincarnation, karma and so on. Did this save lives? Look at Europe. They researched and discovered immunizations for small pox and rabies. They saved thousands of lives.”
“Think, Anish. Our philosophy has helped to maintain equanimity and peace of mind despite repeated foreign invasions. Hinduism is still flourishing because of our philosophical doctrines. God Krishna said in Bhagavad-Gita…”
“Dad, one fallacy in our discussion is you mix up mythology and history. Did Krishna with supernatural powers really exist? If so, why didn’t He destroy the enemy by just waving his hand?”
“Anish, not so loud. You don’t understand now. Get married and have children, and…”
“O, no. Not this lecture again.”
“Let life take you through its ups and downs. Along the way, read our scriptures. Ponder over the doctrines discussed in them. See whether those principles have helped you in your journey.”
By this time we had reached the sanctum. The priest offered a spoonful of tirtha, the holy water and a few almonds as prasad. I sipped the camphor laced water and passed my wet hand over my head. I waved the prasad in front of my eyes as an act of reverence and returned to my seat in the back of the hall. Ramya was talking to Padma. I munched the nuts. They were tasty.
A young man and a woman sat nearby.
“Paru,” said the young man, “I have to tell the truth to your father. I can’t hide it anymore.”
“You can do that after our wedding.”
“But, Paru, if he somehow comes to know that I eat meat, he’ll be devastated.”
“Ashok, you know that dad is orthodox. If you disclose that you are a non-vegetarian, he will hit the roof and may not agree to our wedding.”
“Then we’ll go ahead and marry without his blessings.”
Paru was silent for a minute. Then she said, “Let’s consult the priest. He probably has dealt with such situations. Moreover, he knows my dad well.”
At that moment they realized that I was listening. They smiled politely and left to meet the priest.
I went outside and joined several others relaxing on the grass. The balmy sun lulled me to doze lightly.
God Balaji and His consort, Goddess Padmavati, were conversing, relaxing on the coils of Adisesha, the celestial snake.
“My Lord, not many people paid attention to the puja. They were gossiping,” Padmavati said.
“Devi, when Christians attend to a Church sermon, they maintain silence. Our people should learn from others. Many devotees do not understand Sanskrit. I wish the priests take time to explain the meaning of some verses or reveal the symbolism hidden in the rituals. Then the devotees will pay more attention during these ceremonies.”
“You always side the devotees.”
“These are nice people. Look, what they have done to us. They placed you and me together in the Woodville temple, not separately like in India. Under this same roof, we have Lakshmi, Rama, Sita, Hanuman, Ganesh, my dear buddy Shiva, Kartikeya, and several other friends. If we get bored, we all can meet and gossip. Is it not nice?”
Padmavathi smiled and gently tapped her husband with her lotus-petal-soft hand.
At that moment Ramya, woke me up. “They are serving mahaprasad, Raghav.”