Lakshmi,” the pastor said in his gospel tone, “if you were saved, you would understand what we’re talking about.” Lakshmi gave her husband a hard look and left the room.
Lakshmi does not live in Orissa, she’s not Christian, she’s on a dependant visa in New York, and has begun to dislike her husband’s “church friends” and their aggressive brand of Christianity. For her, the H4 visa is like a curse word now. When she says it, it feels like a practised paan chewer directing a thin fountain along the yellowed corner of a sarkari staircase. Splotch. What if I mess up my visa page with a paan stain, she thought, wickedly. The INS chap will deport me. If he asks me what it is, I’ll say it’s a bleeding Hindu heart, Amen.
Lakshmi laughed out loud at her own joke. I was playing ping pong in the sports room next door at the community center, where a group of Indians, some Chinese and a couple of Sri Lankans — all ‘saved’ — meet every Thursday and Sunday and plan for their ‘Indian church in umreeka’ dream. We hear their loud singing, punctuated by generous helpings of Hallelujah.
Lakshmi says they have these songbooks in large fonts, and they slide the book onto her lap, so there’s social pressure to sing along.
“Peter is convinced that I cannot be his soulmate unless I read the Bible and attend church just like him. For him and his friends, I’m a ‘non-believer’ because I believe in a God by a different name.”
“On my birthday, this whole church bunch lands up and they do this really fundoo prayer session in my living room. I’m Hindu, I don’t go to people’s houses and recite shlokas...” Lakshmi got angrier as she spoke.
“You could, you just choose not to,” I said. “Yes, all Hindus could, but we don’t, right? ” “Not all of us, at least,” I said. “And, we don’t stop people from practising their religion, do we?” “Not all of us,” I said.
“Well, Peter stops me from being a Hindu the way I want to. That’s abusive and I’m going to complain to the Indian government.” With a flick of her wrist, Lakshmi shot an imaginary spot in the sky. Dishoom...
Clearly, Peter was spooking Lakshmi. For the first time since her school days, she went back and read the preamble to the Indian Constitution. She says it to herself over and over again, for strength. We..the people of India…sovereign, socialist, secular, democratic republic.
Then, Lakshmi told me this story. She has this exquisite collection of brass lamps from South India. The weekend before Navaratri began, she put all her lamps into a large kadai of hot water, threw some tamarind, lime and rock salt into it and left it to simmer. She’d learnt how to shine brass this way. When Peter saw it, “he lay his hand about 10 inches above the kadai, like he was blessing it, and mumbled. Like he was warding off a curse.”
From the corner of her Wall Street Journal, Lakshmi watched. “I was hoping you’d keep all these idols out of our home,” he said. “Peter, these are lamps. To light on special days. It’s what I’ve grown up with...” “Yes, but to me it’s all the same, false gods. Even the red dot on your forehead. I am NOT secular.”
That felt like a slap. Lakshmi never imagined the Peter she married will turn into this. It happened after he came to the US, after he met a couple more software programmers from his faith at work, she says. They even managed to ferry their own pastor on a religious worker (R1) visa from India. From their earnings, they donate a big chunk every month for the pastor’s living expenses, his salary. Peter’s self confessed non-secular ways have made Lakshmi more of a Hindu than she ever was, she has begun to buy books on Hindu rituals. She cuts out Ganesha motifs from wedding invitations and lovingly transforms them into wall hangings which she hides under her side of the bed, so Peter does not see.
Lakshmi will come home for Deepavali because Peter does not like her celebrating Hindu festivals in their home. Lakshmi will light diyas in my patio and in the ochre glow on that wintry evening, she’ll see Peter’s face and say boo.