Urban Sacraments

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“I have something for you,” Nicky said, as we sat down on the curb to wait for chai, “Some the string.”

He pulled from his pocket two lengths of nylon thread, one black, one red. “This is for the protection,” he said, “Protection from the dangers, also from the bad looking.”

Nicky had apparently decided we needed all the protection we could get after the incident at the fair. “May I wrap for you?” he asked.

He took my right hand and wrapped the length of string around it several times, holding his finger between my wrist and the string to ensure that it didn’t pull too tightly. With several loops and crossovers, he tied a strong (if somewhat cumbersome) knot, and then looked somewhat displeased with the remaining ends of the string.

Nicky stood up rather suddenly. “Bhai Sahib,” he called to a man down the street. He spoke to him in a long string of Hindi, pointing back to me and my extended wrist, now boasting a nearly completed wrap of black string. The man gave a rather confused look, shrugged his shoulders, and gave Nicky the last smoldering quarter of his cigarette.

Nicky returned and, using the cigarette as a torch, burnt away the loose ends of the knot. The smell of burning tobacco overwhelmed my nostrils, serving as an acrid incense to seal our informal urban ritual of friendship.

Then he gave me the red string, and said, “Now you wrap for Sarah.” I repeated the process for my wife, although Sarah, understandably, was less than excited about having me prod her with a cigarette. So we let the loose ends dangle.

I don’t know what these strings are supposed to represent, or what mythology it invokes to claim the power of protection. For me it is a symbol of my friendship with Nicky and Amar, of a deep heart connection that can come into being by the grace of God and the power of the Holy Spirit between people of such radically different backgrounds. I am very proud to be wearing it.

Nicky shared with us many words of wisdom that day. “In the city, everything is dead,” he told us. “Only the pollution, only the dust, like this. You go to mountains, to village: Rishikesh, or Varanasi, to my village, see Ganga-ji, make shower. Ganga-ji give life. Here, no life.”

At one point, a street sweeper walked by. (In India, a street sweeper is a person with a broom and a garbage can.) He scooped up a pile of garbage, exposing a colony of ants that frantically dashed for cover.

“Those ants?” Sarah indicated, making conversation, “Chinti? They run away, saying, ‘Ahh! Where is my home!’”

“Yes, exactly,” Nicky said with a smile. “The ants, they run away. You know why? They think there is a the problem coming.”

Nicky stared thoughtfully as the ants continued scurrying away. “Our life? It’s like the ants. We don’t know when there is problem coming. Only we think it comes, and we run away. And God is watching after, like we are watching the ants.”

Applying the Sindur

“I’m looking for sindur,” Sarah told the shopkeeper. Sindur is the red coloring that married Indian women apply at the part of their hair. After our evening at the fair, Sarah and I concluded that she needs all the “married” indicators she can get. Indian men don’t check for a ring before they start flirting.

“Madam,” he replied, “Do you wish to become Indian?”

Sarah has worn the sindur a couple of times, but on Main Bazaar, it attracts more attention than it discourages. Everyone wants to gawk at the tourist who is participating in Indian ritual.

Sahid was strangely insistent that we pursue an Indian marriage. “Go around the fire seven times, put on the bangles, apply the sindur,” he said. “It is good for you. The only proper way to be married in India. Please, let me arrange it for you. Or a Muslim marriage, if you prefer.”

The Indian marriage ceremonies and traditions surrounding spousal piety are quite beautiful, and Sarah and I will probably want to participate to some extent at some point, particularly if we want to develop long term bi-culturality. It would also be a fascinating thing to engage in and interpret as a Christian. Maybe it is something that we will look into as our first wedding anniversary approaches.

Amar thinks that Sahid just wants to give us an opportunity to celebrate, so that we pass out and he can steal our things.

Holy Cow

“Where do the cows live? What do they eat?” I asked Amar. Every evening as we eat dinner, we watch the cows migrate down Main Bazaar. They are clever about it: they tend to keep to the side of the road to avoid getting hit by angry auto-rickshaws, and they walk on the appropriate side. It’s quite a surreal experience: one I don’t think we will ever get used to it.

A cow on her nightly migration past Grand Sindhi.
A cow on her nightly migration past Grand Sindhi.

“Come with me,” Amar told me, “I show you.”

Amar led me though the vegetable market, a narrow alley off Main Bazaar that I had not yet explored. Sheltered by the cool of the evening, it was full of eager shoppers, and wallahs announcing their product in loud, lyrical Hindi. Despite the heavy flow of people, the smell of fresh produce filled the evening air with a gentle, calming perfume.

The alley fed onto a road that was a lot like Main Bazaar, but wider, and had fewer tourists. Most of the wares peddled in the shops along the street were of practical sort—lamps, chairs, mattresses—rather than souvenirs.

All along the side of the street were the cows. Some were standing, some were lying down, some chewing their cud. All were very bovine, and didn’t seem to be bothered about being in the midst of a city.

Amar gestured to the line of animals. “Is this where they live?” I asked.

He nodded.

“What do they eat?” I asked him.

“Sometimes they go to eat the gardens, the greens there. Also if the cow stops in front of the people house, the people come out and feed the cow. It is better for the people. ”

Amar asked me for four rupees, with which he purchased two chapattis from a roadside vendor. He took the chappatis, which the vendor wrapped in a piece of newspaper, and gave them to me.

“Now you feed the cow,” Amar instructed, grinning widely. “And then, do this.” He made a gesture with his hands, taking some invisible blessing from the air, and bringing it close to his chest.

Cows are not very polite eaters. The first cow we encountered to was a big, black beast standing at about shoulder level to me. I offered the chappati, and, after sniffing it once, she inhaled the whole thing. The second cow we met was lying lazily on the ground. I put the chappati near its nose, and it vaguely opened its mouth to receive it. The chappati fell through her mouth, and landed on the ground. But with a little effort, she managed to grapple the bread with her tongue and take it into her mouth.

“If every morning and every evening, you buy two chappati and feed the cow, it’s better for you,” Amar said. “We speak, and we understand. Even the beggar people, they speak, they understand. If we hungry, we say, ‘Please, give me something to eat.’ The cow, she says nothing. You give chappati, God very happy. He say, ‘That very nice American boy. He give to the needy, even when they cannot ask.’”

As a Christian born and bred in America (where our cultural rituals involving cow are barbeque, fast food, and stylish jackets) I don’t understand and cannot relate with the underlying sacred beliefs about these animals. But Amar’s description of compassion that reaches to those who can’t ask for it was deeply moving. And I am touched that he would be so eager to share these sacred rituals with me.

Shoe Shining

On the day we left Delhi, Nicky shined my shoes.

I brought two pairs of sandals to India: a simple leather pair, and a pair of nice hiking sandals. I usually choose the leather pair (which between Nicky and Amar received a tremendous amount of care) but at some point, Nicky caught a glimpse of my hiking sandals.

“Those are good slipper, your other slipper,” Nicky commented, “Very good.”

“Yes,” I agreed, “Very sturdy.”

“Dirty? Ok. You bring tomorrow, and I wash them.”

I wasn’t intending to let him. Nicky is not a very good businessman. Since we are his friends, he won’t let us pay for his shoe shining services.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t exactly avoidable. I always wear my hiking sandals when we are moving. It leaves more room in the suitcase for the rest of our junk. I was hoping that by that time Nicky would have forgotten.

But sure enough, as soon as he saw my shoes, he called, “I shine your shoes now. Thik hai?”

Amar and Nicky shine my shoes.
Amar and Nicky shine my shoes.

Nicky’s shoe shining box is old and worn, adorned with faded red paint and a green canvas strap. It looks like an antique, as do all his bottles and tins of supplies, but it can’t be much more than ten years old.

He began by examining my shoes, and regluing those portions that were coming loose. Then he poured out a few drops of soap, diluted it with a cap of full boiling water from the chai wallah down the street. Then he scrubbed my shoes with a toothbrush, and polished them with a piece of a rag.

It was hard work and dirty work, but work he engaged in silently, contentedly, lovingly.

“You know this Jesus God?” I asked Nicky, pointing to the pewter figure of Christ on the crucifix around my neck. “On the night before he died to take away the sins of the world, he had dinner with his friends. And before this dinner he got down on his knees, and he washed their feet. Do you understand?”

He nodded, hesitantly. “Just a little,” he replied.

“Right now, I think you are like Jesus, because you wash my shoes.”

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