Sometimes the most profound lessons unfold in unexpected places
And sometimes it takes a very long time to realize exactly how important a few simple words can be. Especially when they’re uttered by a humble man who never sat in a classroom and whose English was restricted to a few words common amongst poor laborers and vendors in the streets of Bombay.
Nur Singh was my driver. After our marriage, my husband and I settled in Bombay where he joined the family business. My eldest sister-in-law was solicitous to a fault, making sure I was comfortable and happy. And she fretted constantly about my safety. After all, I was a Canadian girl and in those days the only foreigners in the city were safely ensconced behind the walls of the various Consulates and Embassies. But there I was, with my chestnut hair and green eyes, wearing a saree and trying to blend in as best I could.
Before I came into their midst, the Seth family had only married within the Kshatriya caste. And since they were from the Punjab they were Khatris. And just any Kshatriya-Khatri girl wouldn’t have been acceptable. She would have had to have come from the proper daighar, which was a sort of clan list of five family names … Seth, Khanna, Kapoor, Malhotra and Mehra. So there was a highly restricted roster of eligible brides for their youngest son.
However after my marriage, my eldest sister-in-law unilaterally added “Tomkins” to the centuries-old list of our daighar names thus rending the list a little lopsided. “Malhotra, Khanna, Kapoor, Mehra, Seth and … Tomkins,” she announced authoritatively to the rest of the relatives. And then she would pat my hand and adjust a wayward strand of my hair and squeeze my cheeks. Cheek-squeezing was the ultimate gesture of affection towards younger family members.
Since I was now a Seth, my security and welfare became a major concern for the entire family. It was obvious they couldn’t match the walls and watchmen attached to the foreign embassies, but they’d do the best they could. That included an apartment in the one building occupied by ten families from the German Embassy as well as arrangements for a large staff of servants and a driver.
Being a survivor of college days in New York in the days when Juilliard was situated on the rambunctious and somewhat seedy upper Westside, I found all this a little excessive and finally persuaded my husband to support me in amending the staff list. I pared it down to one cook for breakfast and dinner, one sweeper for an hour a day, one dhobi to take the washing once a week and a driver, since women didn’t drive in India in those days. My eldest sister-in-law threw up her hands in horror at the sparseness of my staff. “Hai hai hai,” she said mournfully rolling her large dark eyes in dismay.
But the arrangement worked perfectly for me. Nur Singh was an excellent driver and served as an unofficial bodyguard as well, deftly steering me away from the catastrophes I have been prone to all my life. Thugs and abductors weren’t nearly as dangerous as my own curiosity and obliviousness to risks and Nur Singh usually nipped these tendencies in the bud.
I promptly dove into the Bombay scene. There were parties and shopping trips and excursions to wonderful temples. There were endless festivals and family celebrations. Weddings lasted for days and then the new bride was feted for months afterwards. Indian families celebrated everything from births to first haircuts. True they did observe anniversaries of deaths and various periods of ritual fasting but promptly made up for these periods of abstention with a new round of festivities. I delighted in it all.
The bazaars were a source of endless fascination for me. I loved the colors of the gorgeous handwoven saris, the shining brass utensils and pots, the strange vegetables and fruits heaped in wonderfully symmetrical piles. There were the curious little containers of colored powders, some of which were used to make rangoli patterns on the floor outside one’s door and others which were applied to the forehead to make a fashionably colored bindi, the little spot Hindu women wore on their foreheads. I couldn’t figure out which powders were for my floor and which for my forehead so I bought several different kinds.
And I began to wear the bindi daily. I loved the way it seemed to balance my face and the way it declared me a Hindu married woman. The ladies in my family were delighted with my bindi and my cheeks were squeezed so often, they acquired a pinkish glow for hours after a family visit. And then the women predictably began to expand my wardrobe. This meant more trips to the bazaar for fabric and side trips to the darzi or tailor, who would measure me for salwar kameez, a pantaloons and tunic outfit favored by Punjabi women. The darzi would have it complete and perfectly fitted in just two days.
As I became more familiar with Bombay and the various markets and bazaars, I often took my driver and set out on my shopping expeditions alone. Nur Singh became familiar with my itinerary and even became accustomed to some odd purchases. He acquiesced gracefully when I loaded a parrot in a bamboo cage into the back of the car, but balked at the monkey.
He explained patiently in a desperate mixture of Hindi and English that the monkey was ” kharab … gunda … bad … dirty ” and that Sahib would be “goosa … angry.” To emphasize his point he added ” Bahut goosa”… very angry indeed. I backed down and put the little creature back into its cage and ignored the vendor’s pleas that he would reduce the price by half for a very fine monkey. He assured me it was a special price for a pretty lady as Nur Singh started up the engine.
But most of my purchases were less contentious. Every festival offered an occasion to learn something new and acquire the exotic trappings suited to the event. And there were a lot of festivals in my new home.
Holi was one of the first ones I remember celebrating. This is the most rambunctious and exuberant of all the Hindu holidays. The normal proprieties are abandoned as everyone races around the city tossing colored powders and water on each other to celebrate Spring and commemorate Lord Vishnu’s devotee Prahlad’s escape from Holika, a demoness. I read up on this, because none of my family seemed to remember the genesis of this occasion. Like most Indians they simply reveled in a time of unusually free and uninhibited behavior.
I decided to go out and experience the celebrations from the safety of my car. As I climbed into the back seat, Nur Singh gingerly unfolded a small square of paper and dipped a finger into some red powder. With a question in his eyes, he tentatively extended his finger towards my forehead. I leaned forward to accept his Holi offering, touched by his gesture. And we set off.
“Memsahib … up the jangala,” he warned. I obediently closed the window. But as we tooled along the steamy hot streets, I opened it a crack and then very surreptitiously lowered it to a comfortable level. A hot breeze was better than no breeze, I reasoned.
A huge crowd had assembled outside my brother-in-law’s apartment building as we pulled up into the thick of it. A rainbow of powders were swirling around us and young boys armed with water guns pranced around gleefully spraying everyone in their path. A fine opportunity for young servants to douse their masters with impunity because caste and station were obliterated for this one magical day. And they took up the opportunity with gusto.
Oh it was a fine spectacle. I leaned forward to catch every detail. Suddenly I felt a sharp thud against my cheek and an explosion of water descended on me and the inside of the car. Someone had thrown a water balloon, a favored Holi missile of the poorer celebrants. And it had squarely hit its target … ME!
Hundreds of eyes swiveled towards me sitting in my car. Horrified eyes. There I was, a foreigner in a white shalwar kameez with Nur Singh’s discreet holi smudge on my forehead. And I was sitting in a white car with a uniformed driver. Clearly an important person. Maybe even a diplomat’s wife. Their dismay was palpable.
It took me only a fraction of a moment to realize what had happened. A little mischief from a young lad caught up in the spirit of the day. A water-filled balloon and that Memsahib in her car were just too much temptation. I wiped my face and started to laugh. The crowd looked even more astonished. Then one by one, little smiles began to appear on their faces. In a minute or two we were all howling with laughter. I picked up the shreds of the balloon and wagged my fingers in a mock threat as I tossed it back into the crowd. And they laughed even harder.
The next festival I found myself celebrating unexpectedly was Ganesh Chaturti, another wildly popular street celebration which entailed thousands of people carrying plaster figures of the much-loved elephant god Ganesh or Ganapati to be submerged in the sea.
According to legend, Ganesh was created by Parvati, consort of Lord Shiva from sandalwood paste. After many misadventures and in spite of his rather odd conception, Ganesh became the favorite son of Lord Shiva and Ganesh Chaturti is an occasion to celebrate his elevation to highest echelon of the gods. He is also believed to be a god of wisdom and good fortune.
This lavish festival extends for a full ten days, beginning with the installation of a figure of Lord Ganesh in the home of the more orthodox Hindus and followed by prayers and offerings culminating in the final march to the ocean. Individual families carry small idols, while larger groups may march with enormous figures as large as seventy feet high. Dancing and gyrating and chanting, the crowds meander their way through the streets. Regular decorum is abandoned as ladies dance with sarees disheveled and hair flying loose around their heads. Drums and cymbals and chanting mingle to produce a cacophony unimaginable even to ears accustomed to loudspeakers. Even the pavement seems to vibrate under one’s feet.
Predictably, I wanted to join in the festivities and inveigled Nur Singh to drive me as close to Chowpatty beach as he could. Eventually the crowds became so dense we were reduced to a standstill. Finally Nur Singh stopped the car and announced we had arrived as close to my destination as we were going to get.
He assumed I would sit quietly and safely in the car and view the melee from behind the windows, which he was becoming much more adept at keeping closed. But I had other plans. I wanted to walk behind one of the idols and experience what it felt like to really chant wholeheartedly without a little hymn book in my hands. Just to shout and dance like everyone around me. So I quickly opened the door and headed into the midst of the crowd.
“Memsahib …. MEMSAHIB …… MEMSaaaaaaaaaaaheb …”
I could hear Nur Singh’s protest rise and fall as I gained distance from my car. I joined a small gaggle of Punjabi ladies in salwar kameez, assuming I’d blend in. Off we marched towards the beach. One of the men in their group carried a small decorated platform on which reposed a beautifully ornamented figure of the god.
As we approached the water, several people surged forward to help lift the platform and balance it carefully on the man’s head. When it stopped wobbling and seemed secure, the bearer finally said ” Achaaa …. good.” And our procession proceeded, straight into the ocean.
In the crush of people bearing dozens of Ganapatis on their heads and shoulders, the women fell behind a bit as they struggled to keep their individual groups together. We fixed our eyes on our small Ganapati swaying back and forth a few paces ahead of us until we were nearly knee deep in water. I looked down in dismay and realized my lovely white shalwar were soaking wet and the water was already creeping up the hem of my tunic. I grabbed my gold-trimmed chunni and wrapped it three or four times around my neck to keep it as dry as possible.
Mercifully the women halted just before the water reached our waists. We stood there and watched the men walk out into the sea until their heads were barely visible above the waves. Finally the man bearing Lord Ganapti lowered the platform carefully into the water, submerging the god as everyone chanted in Marati , the local language of Bombay’s majority community.
“Ganpati Bappa Moriya Pudhchya Varshi Lavkar yaa ” Oh Ganpati My Lord, return soon next year.
I was still struggling with Hindi and could only manage the first three words of the chant. So I waited until the verse repeated and returned to “Ganapati Bappa Moriya ” and then threw my head back and added my somewhat truncated prayer to the thousands of chanting voices.
As Lord Ganapati disappeared beneath the water, the men in our group slowly turned around and waded back to shore. We women joined them as they slowly plodded their way through the mud and sand to the beach.
I ducked my head and offered a “Namaste” and received shy smiles from everyone as I turned to wend my way back through the crowds to where I’d left Nur Singh and my car. I had lost one sandal somewhere in the confusion and my clothes were a mottled dun color with mud already beginning to cake around my ankles. My chunni had survived with only minimal damage and I was tempted to wrap the entire two and a half yards around my body and sneak into the back seat of my car when I saw the look on Nur Singh’s face.
He was standing by the car and his expression conveyed everything. I was in trouble. For a horrible moment I wondered if he would allow me back into his nice clean car. Maybe he’d tell me to walk home. Then I remembered I was the Memsahib and it was my car.
With a suitably chastened look on my face, I crept into the rear seat and managed to whisper, ” Ghar chalo … Take me home.” As he started up I tried to reassure him that I wouldn’t tell the Sahib and that I’d wash everything very well before he got home. But when we pulled up to the apartment building, I could see Nur Singh wasn’t convinced. So I added , ” Very clean. Very necessary. ” Then to be sure he understood …
“मत घबराया हुआ … Mata ghabraya hua ….. “Don’t be nervous!“
Holi and Ganesh Chaturti were only two of the many festivals observed throughout the year in India. But Divali … the “Festival of Lights” … is by far the the largest and most widely celebrated occasion. It sweeps across the whole country engulfing everyone in a spasm of feasting, gifting and brand new clothes. Every conceivable form of illumination, from the traditional small earthenware diyas or oil lamps, to strings of colored lights and huge paper lanterns, festoon every available square inch of the entire country’s windows and doorways.
Traditionally there is a deep spiritual meaning behind all these lights, which are lit to celebrate the triumph of the the soul or atman over darkness. With this awakening comes compassion and the awareness of the oneness of all things.
But like most Hindu festivals, no matter how somber or how sacred the original genesis may be, there is ample allowance for fun and uninhibited enjoyment. In the case of Divali, these pleasures aren’t merely the brand new clothes and delicious sweets, but an astonishing explosion of firecrackers.
There were no restrictions on firecrackers in those days and manufacturers vied with one another to produce the largest and most explosive devices. Some of them were so big and so violent, that the foundations of buildings within two blocks of the impact were actually jarred. And a particularly nasty trick was setting off these bombs at 3 in the morning, thus jolting entire neighborhoods out of bed.
I was totally unprepared for this unbelievable mayhem and for the fact it began a full month ahead of the five days of Divali itself! Meanwhile life went on normally in this artificially created war-zone as firecracker casings accumulated, leaving piles of red paper shreds in the gutters and strewn across the roads.
In retrospect, I imagine in that first year Nur Singh nurtured a lot of trepidation about this upcoming holiday, wondering how he could keep his Memsahib safely inside the car and away from those firecrackers. A blazing cracker hurled into the car through an open window could cause terrible damage and possibly immolate me in a puff of flaming chiffon.
But he needn’t have worried. I am terrified of fire crackers.
It took only one brief jaunt to the market for some mangoes and one mischievous urchin’s cracker exploding near my feet as I climbed out of my car, and I promptly went into a month’s hibernation. Nur Singh spent the next thirty days or so on a semi-vacation, being called upon only to purchase the necessary vegetables and household necessities. I remained cowering in my room with the windows closed and cotton balls wedged into my ears for the entire month before Divali.
When it was over, I crawled hesitantly back into the daylight and reminded myself that it would be a whole year before I’d have to live through it again. And wondering if I could persuade my husband that a trip to Singapore in that pre-Divali period might be a good idea. ( He agreed. I was spared the following year.)
Barely a month or two after the Divali celebrations, Christmas came to Bandra and Santa Cruz, two suburbs of Bombay where there is a small Christian community. This was a much more sedate festival with no colored powders, water balloons, ocean immersions or … fire crackers. There was a scattering of colored lights around the windows of some Christian homes in Santa Cruz, a lovely large crèche in the courtyard of the Sacred Heart Church and sometimes a few artificial Christmas trees in the local market. These were ghastly assemblages of neon green bristles wired to wooden dowels and any resemblance to natural fir trees was pure serendipity. I was dismayed when I realized that my choice of christmas tree was limited. There were NO natural fir trees.
So after a few days of feeling homesick and nostalgic while somewhat masochistically dwelling on memories of sweet-smelling Canadian firs and that magical moment of shaking the snow off the branches before hauling a huge tree into the living room, I decided to make the best of it. I got into the car and headed back to Santa Cruz market for one of the little green bristle trees.
The bazaar was bustling with Anglo-Indians, who were easily identifiable by their western garb. The women wore “frocks” with short skirts showing their bare legs and they often cut their hair into western-style bobs. And they spoke English as their mother tongue which made shopping in their markets much easier.
I located a stand displaying a bucket of the bristle trees and began the requisite haggling ritual which entailed chopping the quoted price by almost exactly half and then observing a pantomime of raised eyebrows on both sides. Then the vendor with a great show of reluctance would allow a discount of about ten percent, looking quite distressed. Then I was expected to flap my hands around a few times, assume a woeful expression of disappointment and slowly turn away. Within about four paces, the seller would then call me back and bring the price down further. About sixty to seventy percent of the original quote was usually deemed fair and both parties would seal the deal with big smiles and general goodwill all around.
When the price had been properly negotiated and we were both beaming at each other, I bought one of his trees and stopped at the exit of the market to pick up two small packages of glass ball ornaments, the only seasonal item in the market which looked vaguely familar. A dozen each of red and green. Then I got back into the car, settling the tree next to me on the back seat inside
Nur Singh looked at it and gave it a nod of approval and a big grin. “Chreesmash Chree” he announced. ” घर के अंदर … gar ki andar … inside the house? ”
I nodded and he waggled his head from side to side as all Indians are prone to do. I couldn’t tell if he was amused or puzzled or thought it a wonderful idea. Then suddenly I remembered that the Sacred Heart Church was about two blocks away and I’d seen a crèche in the courtyard. Maybe I could share a bit of the Christian tradition with him. I directed him down the block to the parking lot behind the church.
I motioned for him to get out of the car and follow me across the yard towards a wooden structure housing the familiar crèche scene. Mother Mary, cradled the Christ Child as Joseph hovered over her shoulder. It was a simple assemblage with only one angel apparently supporting the sheltering roof, the three Magi and a few sheep scattered on the perimeter. But there were several slightly upgraded bristle fir trees decked with lights embracing the tableau.
” Chreeshmash Chrees,” said Nur Singh, obviously pleased to make the connection between these decorations and the tree in the back seat of the car. He hesitated a moment and peered into the crèche and then asked, ” अपने भगवान … Apney Bhagwan? Your God? “
I nodded. “Yes, the baby Jesus.” He folded his hands in a respectful namaste and we both stood for a few moments in front of the sacred images before walking silently back to the car.
Nur Singh was very quiet on the ride back home. He swiveled his head from side to side several times which indicated he was thinking about something.
Then he murmured, ” Is ONE God …”
He turned around from the wheel for a fraction of a moment to see if I agreed. I nodded.
“Is many many names …”
And then a perfect pause as he gathered himself to share his final answer.
“Is SAME to SAME …”
Many years have passed. I later delved into the most arcane branches of the world’s religions, looking for a common thread. How could I not have recognized that Nur Singh had found it that day as we drove home from the Santa Cruz market and the crèche at the Sacred Heart Church?
And that it was so simple.