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Excerpt: 'Dreaming in Hindi'

Katherine Russell Rich is author of Dreaming In Hindi, which tells how learning the language helped her gain sense of self.
Katherine Russell Rich is author of Dreaming In Hindi, which tells how learning the language helped her gain sense of self.

One time in India, I appeared half naked in a temple, just up and flashed the worshippers. I surprised myself on the Lord God Shiva's birthday. Surprised the celebrants, too, I'd say. This would have been a long time in, for by then I knew something of the language. I'd come in fact, to do just that, to learn the language. Originally, I'd imagined if I could it would be like cracking a code, a shimmering triumphant entry, but by now all this was was someone talking. I knew, for example, what a woman on the bus ride up to the temple town had whispered about me. "Gori!, Gori!," she'd squeaked to a thin man in a dhoti pressed between usWhitie! Whitie!and I'd reflexively smiled at her surprise.

By then, I knew a lot of things easily: That the peeling dashboard stickers of a goddess on a tiger meant the bus driver was a devotee of Durga, for instance. Or what the Hindi was for "the languor has no tail due to an electrical accident," one of the things a man in Western clothes, an engineer, said when we struck up a conversation outside the town's main temple.

There used to be glorious gardens here, he told me. the palace of the winds at the top of the hill was the summer residence of kings, would you like to join us for Shiva's birthday worship?*not one word jammed, the talk was purling, though every so often the man would excuse himself and slip into the temple, then re-emerge. The last time he appeared he was in a bright red lungi wrap, transformed from an engineer. A grizzled old man in a white lungi followed him.

"You may join us but you must change your clothes. We don't allow pants inside," the old man, a pandit, a Brahmin priest, said. I said I'd be honored to be included.

"See, Pandit-ji! She speaks good Hindi," the engineer said, and the priest handed me a bundled white cloth, the makings of an impromptu sari. I eyed it warily. Any time I'd tried to wrap myself, the results had been unfortunate.

He directed me over a high step, into a sanctum containing statues of gods, where five men and a woman with grape-green eyes were seated in a circle. Further on, in a back room, I gave the cloth a try. I took off my jeans and draped myself, I thought, rakishly. But when I reappeared at the door, the Venus de Milo effect unravelled into strips, leaving my gori flanks exposed. The men gaped. The green-eyed woman barked out a reproof. Western women were known to flagrantly exhibit themselves. The pandit abruptly ordered me out of the room, commanded the woman to follow and lend a hand.

I worried I'd irrevocably disgraced myself, but once she'd snugly fitted me, the priest waved me back to the circle. He was solicitous throughout the ceremony, through the hours we kneeled on the cold stone floor and my knees turned to points of stabbing pain. He guided my hands onto copper bowls, onto my neighbors, at the necessary moments. We washed the gods in milk, honey, curds, water and ghee. He continually chanted their names, and I blinked to find myself sinking into what seemed like a far center I'd always known. This place was greenly translucent, soothing, universal, like the water in the pool where as a child I'd nearly drowned and hadn't, till I surfaced, been afraid. But the sudden merger with the infinite skewered my earthly activities. Lulled, I tipped a bowl of water onto a deity's head.

Dhire! Dhire! the devotees cried: Slowly! Slowly! We are giving the god a bath.

Incense spiralled up like djinns. We rubbed the gods with sugar. We garlanded them with marigolds, as people leaned on the step and peered in. The gawkers lit more sandalwood sticks, left oranges as offerings, asked what was going on in there. There was a foreigner?

"Her Hindi is good," the devotees informed them the first hour.

"Her Hindi is very good," the devotees said in the second, though my known repertoire had not expanded much beyond What was that?

The third hour, a new man joined us, glanced over, said something. "Haan," the priest sai. Yes. "She is fluent."

"That was Sanskrit he was speaking!" the devotees exclaimed after each of the priest's rumbled chants. "Very old," the priest concurred, holding up a text the size and shape of a comic book, breaking to provide me with some tutelage in the classics. Then the green-eyed woman produced small outfits hemmed in tinsel, and we carefully dressed the gods.

Afterward, with the thick grainy smell of ghee in our hair, the worshipers clamored to explain that the ceremony was older than Buddhism, than Jainism, than Christianity. "It is only once a year," a man said, adding I was lucky to have arrived there on the day. "And after, you feel so peaceful, " another man said of the four hours' of pure devotion. "By doing this, you keep the world happy," he said, though the exact verb he used was more like, "set."

What follows is a story about setting the world happy, about the strange, snaking course devotion can take. It's about what happens if you allow yourself to get swept away by a passion. The short answer is this: inevitably, at some point, you come unwrapped.

*Throughout the piece, conversations that took place in Hindi are given in italicized

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