Mom always told me that if I would just read my Bible and pray, the Lord would bless me. I tried like anything to read that damn book, but the treasures she promised were not forthcoming. My parents’ God entered our lives well before we were old enough to be discerning. He told Mom not to get her tubes tied after her third child despite her doctor’s earnest appeal for her health. He later told our parents to take us kids deep into the Ozark countryside so that they could protect us from worldly influences. There, all seven of us could live off the fruits of our labors tending the rocky red earth. Their God continued to enter our lives each time we converged at the supper table, through the drone of my father’s voice asking Him to bless the home and the family, and the food to the nourishment of our bodies, that despite our miserable unworthiness perhaps He would bless us with His love.
Some years earlier, when I had been about twelve, I found myself captivated by a poem in which one of God’s messengers is making his rounds on a dark, dreary night, getting a count for the number of seats they would need in heaven. He asks a quiet man along the way, “What have you done? Why should we let you into heaven?” The man contemplates this question, and then answers, “Just put me down as one who loves his fellow man.” The angel does this, and continues along his way. Years go by, and the judgment day comes, and as the poem goes, there on the list, this quiet man’s name sits above all the rest. I was so touched that I memorized the poem, wrote and re-wrote it in my childish hand, keeping a copy on a piece of tightly folded stationery in a box beside my bed. Finally, I decided to share the poem with my mother. My mother hadn’t much cared for the poem. Maybe she was distracted. Maybe what I gauged as her subtle uneasiness stemmed from the fact that I was searching for answers to spirituality that had nothing to do with hers. Over time, I held fast to that spark of inner knowing, and the sense that what I felt was true. And in that moment, in my twelve-year-old way, I was touched by the profoundly personal nature of Spirit.
I had been living in the crowded city of Dhaka for several months prior to my first visit to Eneyetpur. Baba (my father-in-law) had improved the family bungalow to include an attached bathroom. He was very happy about this improvement, and eagerly anticipated my visit, so that I could benefit from his handiwork. Driving the winding, pitted highway through fields of blooming mustard I remembered why I had been drawn to this part of the world. This was different. This transcended the mundane Midwestern life I had left behind, the politics, the rising and falling of interest rates, and the oppression of rampant commercialism. This was interesting.
As we reached the village, the condition of the road deteriorated rapidly. Baba told me that the steel-rimmed wheels of the ox-drawn carts chiseled away at the concrete, which had been patched and repaired many times over since he had been a young man, building his career in jute and textiles. Our microbus could only take us to a certain point, after which we continued our journey on foot. Back in Dhaka, Baba had pleaded with me to wear a borka which he referred to as a moving tent. I stood by my principles as he personally demonstrated its use. He looked so silly wearing the borka. That’s the way Baba was. Always jolly, always trying to make things pleasant for everyone. “But,” I had argued, since I had never been expected to wear such conservative covering in or around our home in Dhaka, “I have always tried to avoid being a hypocrite, and I think I will be able to manage just fine without.” Now I stumbled along the broken brick road with a broad scarf draped inexpertly around my head and shoulders. It was difficult for me to manage, and fell, from time to time, revealing my strikingly blond hair. My pale arms hung out and the village children reached out to touch my skin.
As a new “bride” visiting my father-in-law’s village for the first time, I was to meet the friends and relatives living there. At each modest home, I was greeted with a flourish of childlike glee. And since it was only proper, I did my best to honor each and every family by joining them for a cup of tea, a prized sweet, a piece of fresh fruit or a savory snack.
I knew I was in the presence of someone special when I met Chorto Dadi. She seemed a hundred years old. It was toward her room that I gravitated when my bride’s tour was complete. Dadi’s bed was a congregating place, and young people sat there, vying for their place closest to her as she sat so small and frail on the bed, telling stories of the old days. She had known of my coming well before I arrived, and as I knelt down beside the bed to meet her, she looked deep into my eyes. She patted the bed beside her, and told the children to make a space for me. Then on her instruction a child brought her a knotted cloth from a small drawer, and from it she drew a gold ring, delicately embellished, with a piece of garnet set into it like a rose. This she meant for me. Literally translated, Dadi is “father’s mother.” And while this woman was neither my father-in-law nor my mother-in-law’s mother, she was a sister to both. And since neither of my husband’s grandmothers had been alive for most of his life, Dadi filled the role just fine. The room where Dadi sat was part of a small grouping of similar structures referred to as the bari. Like all the other rooms of the bari, this one opened out into a shared courtyard with fruit trees and clothes lines, and open spaces for children to play. From time to time, the electricity would come on and attention would shift to other activities around the compound. Chickens and goats roamed about. The courtyard was alive with the excitement of our visit. An assortment of animal babies added a comic element for my three-year-old daughter, Allia, and the other children who had gathered around. Kittens, puppies and baby goats made up the menagerie assembled to amuse her. In order to lure her to join them, the children who lived at the bari had told Allia about a huge panther, and they carried her around, surveying the area for possible panther haunts and otherwise obliging her unrelenting curiosity.
The following day, my mother-in-law escorted me to the house of the village saint. With a measure of pride, she tucked a large wad of money into my hand. My husband had told me, before he left me in the care of his mother, that I should just do what she did. Since Ma spoke so little English, I wouldn’t be able to ask questions along the way, so I would need to watch carefully. After entering a large compound containing a maze of rooms adjoining each other in a way that it was difficult to tell if you were inside or out, we stopped in front of a large pillow-strewn bed. Ma bent down to touch the feet of the woman who sat there, smiling and eating a bowl of milky sweets. She had crumbs on her lips. Before I knew what was happening, Ma had collapsed at the edge of the bed, and in the same movement she began transferring kisses from her fingertips to the woman’s fat feet in a gesture of unabashed deference. Then she slid her wad of money into the woman’s fat hand, insisting, to counter the weak resistance she received in exchange. I was next. The ritual disturbed me, but I followed my mother-in-law’s lead, bending, depositing, rising, and looking deferential.
This is the way in which I learned about the religious customs in my husband’s village, that included the expression of deep reverence for the family members of the deceased saint. This woman was the youngest of the saint’s three wives. Here, along with her surviving co-wife and her sons, she continued to carry on the saint’s work and run the household as a kind of religious center, where a lonely, footsore traveler could always get a bite to eat, and the village inhabitants could come for encouragement and a handful of dry rice if their luck ran thin.
In preparation for the trip, I had discussed the matter with my husband. He understood my concern, agreeing that, in principal, it was a somewhat Hindu tradition—admittedly even forbidden in Islam—this bowing down and touching of feet. He implored me to trust him, promising that one day I would understand. It was best if I could set an example of reverence, he would explain later, to anyone who happened to see, and to all who would invariably be told. Looking back, I can only imagine the degree of disrespect and even immaturity it would have demonstrated if I had refused to do as I was instructed. Nevertheless, all I could think of as I left that strange place was the example I was setting. If they knew it was wrong, and they continued to do it, who would tell these simple people that they had it all wrong? I was next taken to a room with a bed in it. The bed was covered with a golden spread, with an expensive chandelier hanging above it. When Ma asked me to bend down and kiss the bed, something inside me snapped. Again, I did as I was told, but I left the room with my head spinning—holding within myself a maze of questions, and an indescribable sense of betrayal. Luckily, it wasn’t long before it was time to return to our own bungalow.
Leaving that place, and joining Tipu and his father in the village streets, I burst into an uncontrollable fit of tears. At first, Baba couldn’t understand what had happened. In my broken Bangla and his broken English, we discussed the matter. Slowly, as I was able to ask him about the bed and the golden blanket, the gaudy chandelier and the reverence, he understood. Relieved by understanding, he held me in his arms like a child and claimed it all to be his mistake. Together, with Tipu, he explained that in the village, the saint had been like a father to everyone. He had taught them how to love, how to pray, how to stay healthy and how to prosper in their lives. He had prayed for their sick children, and their after-life. And although it may have seemed like worship to decorate his bed and to bow to it, it was the Followers’ way of paying tribute. The villagers, being mostly illiterate and knowing nothing about Islam but what they had learned from the saint, loved him with their lives, and it was certainly not my place or his to question this expression of reverence.
“Have you ever seen a pulki?” Baba asked, though my eyes were still red and swollen with tears. I looked up at him and saw the twinkle in his warm eyes. “Let me show you what a pulki is,” he said. “You just wait here.” Within minutes, there appeared a small palanquin and I was instructed to get in. It was indeed an effective way to shift the topic. And it solved my borka problem, as well. On either side of the box was a small opening, covered by a light curtain. Inside, I sat normally clothed, wondering how a newly-married couple could manage to fit inside, and watching the brown feet and legs of my eager entourage upon the beaten path below.
When the ride was over and I was back at Dadi’s house, I met the adolescents. Our encounter sprang from a rare solitary moment when I was evaluating the day’s activities. Suddenly I became acutely aware of the silence around me. Small children and adults alike were taking naps. It was a different crowd that descended now, scuffling about, pretending like they had things to do, and trying not to intrude. Once I made eye contact with her, Boro Mami’s daughter, Tanya, came over to me and shyly asked me if I knew how to dance. I was surprised, for some reason, and said I did. The scuffling subsided. We had found common ground. Activity then shifted to a cassette collection, and all eyes were riveted on me. By then, the aunties had also crowded around, and were looking like curious teenagers, themselves. As Tanya and her brother selected the cassette most likely to please me, I wondered if I would need to do anything at all to impress this crowd. Once the music started, I managed to produce an energetic wiggle to the loudest Western music this strangely out-of-place Hi Fi sound system would produce, and then, little by little, I was joined by the youth. The sound system was of the latest technology, obviously a prized possession of not only its owner, but also anyone else in the family who might want to use it. Tanya’s feet and hands moved with the grace of an Indian dancer, and her hips captured all the libidinal power of a European disco.
My next surprise was the teenage response to the call to prayer. What I saw in this group was a rare and uncompromised respect, as an informer came with the message of ajahn, and the young adults rose to turn off the music. While we waited for the ajahn to finish, I began to braid Tanya’s hair. By the time it was finished, the music was playing again, and the girls all wanted their hair done. The boys, not quite sure what to do, but not yet ready to leave, were distracted by a wedding party they had detected from the rear window of the room. From this window (with only four iron bars to impede their vision) they had a clear view of a broad footpath, over which a series of decorated pulkis were carefully making their way. Standing on the furniture, crowding so they could see, were Minthu, Tumki, Tanya, Munni, Shobuj, Inna and Babu. My heart swelled to see them crowding there in the window. Tomorrow, we would have to return to Dhaka, to assume our city jobs and routines. They would stay to continue their lives in the earthy, tradition-bound pace of the village.
Two strong men poled the flatboat, the following day, which took us back to our microbus. As we moved farther and farther from the shore, I waved goodbye to my newly-discovered family. A prevailing sadness dampened the misty morning as they stood on the shore, watching our boat move gradually out of sight. As we traveled toward the road where our microbus was waiting, I wondered about these simple people. Throughout our relationship, my husband had illustrated a similar, child-like unquestioning stance toward his elders, his teachers, and especially his parents. To be honest, I had always felt a bit uncomfortable with his unflinching faith. But one thing was clear. Whether it was love these children felt or merely an agreement to defer to their elders’ control, it protected them from the world. The elders had, for the most part, adopted the ways of their parents before them. That rich cultural code, which they had absorbed, along with a whole lifetime of experience, was not a thing to be taken lightly.
Though I would not realize it until later, it was what I understood at twelve that turned out to be Truth, for me. And through a lifetime of my own experience, I gleaned this knowing. All the pain and confusion that met me along the way came from the mistaken idea that the answers would come in some kind of tidy package from someone much wiser or more experienced than me. I look back with sadness that I hadn’t trusted Baba a little more, and thought a little less. The love he had to offer was so unique, and in such contrast to the strict code of ethics I had been nurtured on. I had come to the saint’s house expecting my spiritual answers, a birthday present. At my subsequent visit to the village, I wore a borrowed borka at Baba’s graveside with gratefulness in my heart for what he had given me.