A day’s blessings

The moment I keep coming back to is when we ran. Asha’s slimness, her yellow salwar kameez, her small, damp hand pulling me along behind her. Once or twice she glanced back to look at me; she was laughing just like I was. We were running simply because we could, and because it felt joyous to run. It felt like being a kid again. Like finally making it to the front of the line for a ride at the fair at the end of summer in middle school: a girlfriend next to me, some boys our age a few rows behind, the exaggerated way we burst forth, our relief and disappointment that the anticipation that something might happen was suddenly over.

This was on the down-ramp to the main underground chamber of the Mahakaleshwar Temple in Ujjain. It was Mahashivaratri, the great festival of Shiva, and Asha, her mother, her neighbors, and I were among the 200,000 people who’d come that day to give offerings and receive blessings on this particularly auspicious day at this particularly auspicious place. I hadn’t intended to actually go into the temple. On the phone with Neel that morning I’d expressed my very intention not to go into the temple. I’d timed my visit to Ujjain to coincide with the festival on purpose, but I only wanted to get close, to see what it was all about from nearby.

After breakfast I walked to the temple. Outside it were temporary barricades set up to control the flow of the crowd. I was surprised to see space behind them and people actually moving, not just standing. I kept walking, not stopping to linger, but even as I walked blocks in the opposite direction I could feel that I was going to turn back and get into that line. It wasn’t so noble as some magnetic, otherworldly pull that did it. It was just that the line was shorter than I thought. Maybe an excuse for a good story to tell later. Maybe a good way to pass a day that I otherwise did not know how I would pass. Maybe a sure, why not?

I met Asha and her companions in line. They, a group of five, short women, had come up suddenly at my side with the mischievous energy of having cut the line somewhere, the line I’d been crushed in for half an hour already. Just as quickly as they had appeared, they ducked through the gate and under the linked arms of two policemen that were blocking the way of everyone else. I followed their lead. The policemen let me through, sweaty tall white woman who appeared not to understand the rules of the crowd.

Landing behind the women in line, I listened to them comment on my presence for a moment or two before letting on that I understood their Hindi. They laughed, intrigued and unembarrassed, and started talking about something else. Asha, a quiet 20-year-old with a thick braid and warm, bright eyes, slipped from her place at the front of the group back toward me. She asked my name and where I was from, then said, Paas rahiye—stay close.

After that we were simply in line. For three hours, standing, shuffling, pushing, shuffling, standing, shuffling, pushing. Around corners and when the line moved from double- to single-file or back again, I put my hand on Asha’s shoulder, scrunching my fingertips against her dupatta and squeezing my way past anyone who tried to push ahead between us.

Asha and I talked some, but not much. It was noisy and hot and dull, and there was nothing to look at but the other people in line. I’d entrusted my shoulder bag to Chunchun, the woman selling garlands at stall number 7, just before ducking through the gate. Standing bored, I repeated these details to myself: Chunchun. Stall number 7. I wondered whether I should have bought a mala from Chunchun as an insurance policy on the purse. (I hadn’t because I already had a bag containing loose carnations, sugar balls, and a sloshing plastic packet of milk to give as prasad.) Or maybe I should have told her I would give her money when I got back. Too late now, I told myself.

Twice we passed Girl Scout-looking girls passing out water and twice I wondered, achingly thirsty, if it was safe for me to drink. Twice I decided no and regretted it immediately. Finally we arrived at a metal gate where all of a sudden there was space. We took wider and wider strides down a corridor, then reached the down-ramp and started to run. I didn’t know why we were running but I wanted to keep going. I loved the sudden rush of blood in my legs and how good it felt to laugh out loud.

Soon we tumbled into the entrance to the temple where the crowd, now feverish, had piled up again. Policemen were yelling and blowing their whistles into the frenzy. Everyone was moving at once. I pushed my way through to the front and stretched my arm out to hand my bag of prasad to the priest sitting cross-legged on a table covered in marigolds in front of the linga. The priest seemed to be giving and taking from 10 people at once, so I stuck my hand out again resolutely, insistent on receiving prasad. I was already beginning to lose my spot when he placed a pack of sugar balls into my hand.

Asha and her mother were standing waiting for me on the exit ramp. Their neighbors had already split off and gone ahead, out of the temple. I had taken darshan for the briefest moment, not more than a few seconds, barely enough to register that this was what I had come for, my prayer a simple “Thank you”—and yet I’d taken the longest of anyone. For a moment I regretted not holding my gaze there longer; but of course, I didn’t have much of a choice.

Outside, we found a place to sit down. Asha pulled a few pieces of bel, a small sour fruit resembling a cherry tomato, out of her handbag. One of the neighbor women reappeared and said she’d gone to say hello to her sister. Asha’s mother pointed toward a noticeably un-flustered woman being shown around by a few men with eager smiles and said that was the Collector, come to take darshan like everyone else. I looked at my dirty feet and said I’d chosen a bad day to wear white.

There was no need to reflect or comment more. We had fulfilled our goal. We were hot, out of patience, and a little bruised. And so what, if in the end it was not the darshan but that sweet, giddy interlude of flight that made me think, lucky me. The point is I knew I’d been blessed.


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