A RASAM CHRISTMAS

Rasam is a tart, spicy vegetable soup, made with tamarind, peppers, tomato, lentils, as well as other vegetables and spices. It is served at almost every meal and is very nutritious. It has become my comfort food and the first thing I eat at morning breakfast.  Rasam has a foreign taste that has now become familiar during the Christmas season.

This is my first Christmas in an ancient eastern land. A cool morning breeze filters through the open window peppered by the sounds of honking cars, squeaking brakes, and rhythmic drumming coming from the local temple. In the lobby below us the statue of Lord Ganesh is bedecked in flowers while the morning offering of incense wafts up the stairs and squeezes into our apartment through a crack under the door.

But it doesn’t feel much like Christmas. Our advent wreath is looking quite dessicated. It is constructed out of cedar boughs scavenged from bouquets we received when we first arrived here. Four votive candles left for us by our American friends provide the light. Two weeks ago the staff asked us if they could throw the wreath out.  It did look like a fire hazard. So today Christmas has arrived and the wreath is gone.  A stick of burning incense has been substituted for the Christ candle and the four votives glow in the wee hours of the morning. It is very quiet, and there is just the two of us to enjoy it.

Since we have arrived in India, there have been many times when I have experienced, what I call “cognitive dissonance.” It is an uncomfortable feeling; what I am seeing does not make sense with what I believe. This is one of those times. Normally at home the Christmas meaning is overshadowed by Macy’s advertisements on TV, big box stores, and oversized trees at the local mall. There is too much to do, not enough time to do it, and huge expectations. We have snow, party invitations, cookies with sugar frosting, and of course the traditional Christmas bread. 

It is this northern European representation of Christmas that is creating the dissonance. There are parts of this foreign land where things have changed little in the past 2000 years. In fact, our experience is probably similar to that of the Apostle Thomas. Thomas arrived in Kerala, which is in southern India not far from here, about 20 years after Jesus died.  I can relate to Thomas. He is the one and the same “Doubting Thomas,” the Apostle who doubted the resurrection of Jesus, demanding to touch Jesus’ wounds after he had risen from the dead. In an interesting twist of fate he is, according to some stories, the only Apostle to have witnessed the assumption of Mary into heaven. On her way up, she conveniently drops her girdle to him, which becomes the proof he will later use to convince his friends of the event.

Thomas came to India as a slave and began establishing a church. You can read about his very interesting story in the Acts of Thomas, one of the books that didn’t make it into the Catholic-Book-of-the-Month Club. Like us, he was here on a mission (mine is of the environmental ilk), obviously a foreigner (we can’t blend in, no matter how hard we try), and he didn’t speak the language either (ask the tea lady, our self-appointed language tutor). Thomas also had his doubts about going on such a long journey (“And why are you going there?” my friends would ask). When he arrived he met people who had a completely different belief system (his actually contributed to his martyrdom in the end, which we have no desire to emulate). 

It is impossible to live in India and not embark upon a spiritual journey. While we have yet to appreciate the full panoply of the Hindu mythology, our friends are quick to instruct us on Hinduism’s basic tenets.  We find that Hinduism is not at all incongruent with the basic Christian values of “faith, hope, and love.”  Because Hinduism is an inclusive religion, Hindus are much more inclined than Christians to align the Christian Trinity with the Hindu Trinity: Brahma the Creator, Vishnu the Preserver, and Shiva the Transformer.

Religious doctrine aside, I witness daily acts of devotion and random kindness. At home, I would not see a group of blind men roped together, walking, chanting and begging in the marketplace. I also wouldn’t see the young child joyfully getting a few coins from her father to put into their outstretched bandana. For her, the poor are ever present and her giving is unquestioned.

In India, signs and miracles are alive and well. And this is how my husband and I find ourselves on Christmas Eve at a Hindu cultural celebration, seated next to the Sri Sri Sri Jayendrapuri Mahaswamiji. (Roughly translated, this means that next to us is a very honored and well respected holy man: our equivalent of a Pontiff.)  The places and people under his care include a temple devoted to the mother goddess Mata Rajarajeshwari, a school, and an ashram in Bangalore; plus 9 other ashrams in south India.

The woman in the seat next to me explains that she is a devotee of the mother goddess, who represents the sanctity of marriage. My new acquaintance goes to the temple whenever there is trouble in her marriage to pray. The Divine Mother always provides the answers. In addition, she says, other miracles have happened that makes the temple an auspicious place. I find there are many such auspicious places here: temples, trees, small places along the side of the road, marked by a small shrine where people stop for a few minutes to reflect throughout the day.

We are invited to accompany the saffron-robed Swamiji as he visits classrooms where the children’s exhibits are on display.  His assistants, clothed in white, walk close by, anticipating Swamiji’s every move. Their cell phones and digital cameras, seem like anachronisms. Teachers greet and demonstrate their absolute respect for the Swamiji by kneeling on the floor and bowing their heads to the ground. Meanwhile the children approach him eagerly, speaking to him with great ease and not at all shy. Suddenly I understand the experience that Jesus must have had as he walked the streets with his followers 2000 years ago.

The evening show begins and the school’s children come on stage, all radiating their happiness at this chance to share their art. The younger children play musical instruments and dance in brilliant costumes, the teenage boys crack jokes and turn themselves into Michael Jackson, making the teenage girls scream with delight; the young women dance traditional Indian dances, and the young adults perform a serious patriotic play.

At the end of the evening, Swamiji gives his blessing, which I have taken the liberty to paraphrase below:

“All of us have come into this world, with our own inherent nature, but in addition to our nature, we also have the capacity of free action.  Life without industry, diligence, and an effort to become more and more perfect is a crime. But at the same time, life that is only hard work without art is like an animal life; it is brutality. Our lives should be combined with art. Art is the aspect of the human being that makes life more beautiful and meaningful.”

And so, we return to the rasam that is set before us this Christmas morning, as it is every morning by the same saree-clad woman. Her cooking is her art. Her rasam is what India is: colorful, nourishing, and well-balanced.  Each comforting mouthful is wonderfully addictive and a delight to the soul. Its spiciness teaches me to be a bit more adventurous. Every day what has been foreign becomes more familiar. And this Christmas what has been familiar suddenly seems very foreign.

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