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I have no bent towards gods

“I have no bent towards gods. But I have a new love for that glittering instrument, the human soul.” – John Steinbeck

Religion is an integral part of India. Even my river is a goddess, revered at shrines along her course. Pilgrims come from all over to bathe in her sacred waters.

Every day I walk past temples, churches and mosques. I share the road with sadhus, wandering holy men. We walk side by side in amiable silence. I pass men dressed as gods (perhaps gods dressed as men too). Buses and cars are decorated with favoured deities, often the elephant-headed Ganesh. Roadside shrines depict lurid scenes from the Vedas.

I encounter so many festivals, ceremonies and wedding parades. There are celebrations of gods and goddesses and boisterous village trumpet bands practising for their celebrations of gods and goddesses. Flowers are scattered, garlands of marigolds draped round necks and girls tie fragrant white jasmine into their shining black hair. There is music, always music, with men thumping drums enthusiastically to the excited skirling of pipes.

Market stalls often cluster at the entrance to the village temple complex, the hub of community life. I pause to buy bananas. There is an enormous trench fire outside the temple, its pulsating heat stronger even than the sun. The air shimmers. Music blasts from crackling speakers. Suddenly about fifty singing and dancing children appear down the street. They are wet and muddy and are holding leafy branches in each hand. On the command of chaperoning adults, who pretend to beat them with sticks, the children stop, prostrate themselves, then stand again and continue dancing forward. They dance past me, into the temple, and are gone. The music stops. As so often happens I have no idea what I just saw. Nobody speaks enough English to be able to enlighten me. If I travel completely unprepared, I must accept that the price of surprised delight is occasional bemusement.

*

I stop at a mosque. The imam is rocking back and forth in the doorway, quietly reciting the Koran with three young pupils. He breaks off the class to chat and asks me to take his photo. Then, to my surprise, he whips out an iPhone and takes my photo. He enjoys having the modern gadget whilst the foreigner just has a clunky, old-fashioned camera. Even his beard is more impressive than mine. The imam gestures at the mosque and explains that it is very old,

“The mosque is 200 years old; three generations. My phone is 3G and my mosque is 3G!”

*

I happen across a Christian ashram and am invited to a service. The chapel is in a wood beside the river. It is plainly furnished. The congregation of about twenty people are squashed together on wooden benches. On the altar is a wooden cross and a bronze dish of fire. The priest sits cross-legged on the floor. His orange robes are vivid in the narrow strip of sunlight from the door, left ajar to allow a slight breeze.

I listen to the birds singing outside. The ashram is a good place for sedately, serenely looking for yourself whilst at peace. I am sun-fried, half asleep and half entranced as the chants, candle light, incense and gentle goodness wash over me. But I will be on my way shortly. I look for myself by hurtling, hurting and sweating.

I understand snatches of the service as the priest jumps around between languages. He intones words I recall from my childhood church visits,

“…through ignorance, through weakness, through our own deliberate fault…

He raises a chapatti scarred in baking with the sign of the cross. It is comforting and familiar, even if I dislike the dogma.

…hear our prayer…

I think of all the tiny chapels across the world where this ritual takes place. The world is so vast. Instead of chasing to touch it all, perhaps I should just try to find the essence of it in one place, like the tiny space at the heart of the lotus flower in which, they say, lies all the universe: the moons, the stars, everything.

…he broke bread and gave it to his disciples, saying: take, eat…

Maybe I should try to make the most of my life by remaining at the centre, where I am right now, and living well here. Perhaps I don’t need to be always yearning for the open road.

…for ever and ever, Amen.”

*

Though I am not allowed in the inner sanctuary, I am welcome to visit the small Hindu temples in each village. I leave my shoes at the temple entrance with a shrivelled old lady and enter. The only sound is the pad of my bare feet. The central courtyard, its flagstone floor cool in the shade, is an oasis of calm, a break from the noise and bustle outside. Inside the temple is an elephant. Worshippers put coins in its trunk. In response, the elephant pats them gently on the head, then drops the coin into its master’s hand.

Chipmunks race, tails up, around the elaborate pyramid above me. Monkeys watch from a wall. Swifts swirl across the sky, slipping the surly bonds of Earth. A man tosses a chunk of coconut towards a monkey. The monkey grabs it greedily and holds it tight to its chest. The man shyly offers me a piece too, then walks away. It tastes good.

A teenage girl, her hair in two neat plaits, with a garland of flowers round her neck and a school satchel on her back, pauses before a small carving of a god. Two candles flicker at its base. She puts down her satchel and squeezes her hands together in prayer. She is not at all self-conscious. The girl prays her concerns to her god, bends to pick up her satchel and then continues her walk to school.

A breath of breeze brings a scent of flowers. I treasure India’s endearing love of flowers. I love India. I love this journey. If I have a daughter one day, I will call her Jasmine, I decide. But no, these are my scented memories, my time. She must be free to choose her own life, her own flowers and memories.

This is an extract from my book There Are Other Rivers. I’ll post the next chapter here at the same time tomorrow evening. 

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