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Published: June 13th 2013
It was one of the innumerable religious holidays that released workers from their offices. This one, Diwali
, was being held in honour of Laxmi, the goddess of prosperity and wealth, and consort of Lord Vishnu. The cows wandering the streets had been garlanded with flowers, for it was their special day too.Dogs, as incarnations of Bhairab
, and crows, the messengers of death, would also enjoy their special days during the week.
There was a complication this particular year. As a consequence of an obscure astrological quirk, or possibly a miscalculation, the government astrologers decreed, at the last minute, that the correct day for the holiday was in fact the following day. Neither the UN, nor, it would seem, the general public who had already garlanded the cows, had been alerted to this unexpected change of plan, with the result that Kalpana and Frank had been given the wrong day off, and the cows were to enjoy two special days instead of one. Tashi's employer had been better informed, and so Tashi was still at work when Frank arrived at the Lopchan's house.
The ceremonies could not begin without Tashi, since it was his duty, as head of the house, to preside. During the two hours they had to wait, Kalpana talked. She told him how she had met Tashi, and how popular he was, and how no-one could say 'no' to him, and he listened to her complaints about servants, Nepalese Hindus, and unwelcome guests. Every now and then she stopped to feed the baby, or to give orders to their maid, who was giving the house a thorough clean.
“Goddess Laxmi visits the cleanest houses first,” Kalpana explained. Looking at the print of the voluptuous goddess on the wall, with her full bosom and broad hips, Frank speculated irreverently that Laxmi, with her four arms, would not be short of a pair of hands to do the housework in the Vishnu household, if only she could put down from time to time the lotus blossoms she was holding aloft in her upper pair of hands, and, at the same time, give her lower hands a break from having to maintain their symbolic gestures. They moved on to office gossip, and Frank asked Kalpana, nonchalantly, what she thought of Sunita.
“Oh, she's just a make-you-work-in-a-big-office type of girl,” she said with more feeling than Frank thought was warranted. He changed the subject.
As night descended, she placed oil lamps around the flat and lit them. “Goddess Laxmi visits every house, and there must be light to welcome her,” she explained.
When Tashi arrived, the family performed their puja
, or worship, in front of the picture of Laxmi, before which, on the floor, a bowl of money had been placed. They took turns to pass their hands over a flame fed by camphor, and then over the bowl of money, in the hope that the sacred flame could work its magic and bring financial fortune to the family over the coming year. After prostrating herself in front of the altar three times, Kalpana put yellow and red tikka
on the foreheads of the idols, including a small, garlanded statue of the Buddha who could not be left out of Laxmi's party.
Then the fun began. Tashi's friends arrived to drink 'Three Lions' whisky, until they were sufficiently lubricated to go out into the night and sing for the neighbours. People had set little oil lamps on their balconies and in their windows. The neighbourhood was dancing with light. They started off at the house next door. Tashi led the singing of a traditional song about the Diwali lights, jilli-milli,
in order to gain entry. They were let in, and given a glass of 'Three Lions' as a reward for their efforts. And so they proceeded to the next house, and repeated the song and received a similar reward. Verses could be added extempore so the song could go on indefinitely.After the third visitation, the verses began to deteriorate, with bacchanalian and other secular sentiments replacing the religious: 'Let's drink Three Lions'; 'We're coming upstairs' and so on. Tashi danced and grew more and more inebriated until he had to be carried home, and put to bed. He was out like a snuffed oil-lamp.
Kalpana took the opportunity to shyly present him with a leaf plate of nuts, coconut and raisins, a marigold flower, and some pine-needles.
“This is an invitation to become my brother,” she said. “The marigold is God's flower because of its yellow colour, and the pine needles represent the everlasting bond between brother and sister.”
“Of course I accept the invitation. I'm honoured. But why do pine-needles represent the bond between brother and sister?” Frank asked.
“Because they are ever-green.” Tashi turned in his sleep, and they both looked at him.
“Why didn't you wait until Tashi was awake?” Frank asked.
“Oh, he would just make a joke of it. He would say silly things like: 'My! My! Isn't that nice!’ Or maybe: 'Oh! My new brother-in-law is a white sahib!’”
Frank followed Tashi into the fair-ground of dreams, and woke up at quarter past six to find that Kalpana had been cooking the whole night.
His head was turned as far as it would go, and then it was given an extra twist. Something clicked in protest. The barber repeated the manoeuvre in the opposite direction. Another worrying click. Did he know what he was doing? Had he dislocated anything?
It was the day of the bhai tikka
ceremony, the last day of Diwali, when Frank was to be made Kalpana's brother. He had been on his way to the New Road to buy Kalpana a present. As he ambled through the warren of lanes in the bazaar, he heard an extravagant clearing of a throat at one of the overhanging windows. He knew what was coming, but before he could determine which window contained the threat and take evasive action, a glob of phlegm had dropped heavily onto his head. In a state of nauseated horror, he ran to the nearest barber and demanded an urgent hair wash, and since this was a special day, he decided to have a haircut, and then allowed himself to be persuaded to have an upper-torso massage, starting with the scalp. The scalp massage had sent him into a pleasant reverie, and the head twisting routine snapped him out of it. This was followed by some deft slapping of his forehead, and some vigorous pinching of the neck that sent pleasant shivers down his back. The barber's pincer-like fingers proceeded down his body, twisting and pinching and pummelling his arms and his palms, and ended up with his fingers each of which got pulled for that tell-tale click of protest. And then the thighs. “Okay. That's enough.”
He floated serenely down the street looking for a suitable present for his sister-to-be. He passed a drapery shop and the beauty of the Tibetan shop-assistant persuaded him that this was where he should shop. She showed him a selection of saris, and he spent a long time in earnest eye-to-eye discussion with the girl before picking out a rather expensive Japanese sari.
He then went in search of some nice hand-made Nepali paper to wrap the sari up in, but could find none and so had to make do with ugly blue crȇpe paper. He went back to the Tibetan beauty and asked her to wrap Kalpana's sari up, but she hadn't got sellotape, and before he could stop her she began stapling the paper together. He snatched it away and got a Bata shoe shop to tie their Bata string around it - a most unsatisfactory arrangement, but time was running out fast.
Then back to the flat to shower and put on some decent clothes before cycling energetically to the Lopchan's house, by which time he was ready for another shower. Before opening the metal gate, he spied Tashi through a hole preening himself for the benefit of the wife of the young Brahmin living across the yard. She looked entranced. Tashi quickly turned his attentions to him when he entered the yard.
He need not have hurried so much. Nobody was ready. Tashi and Frank sat on the floor and chatted over bowls of chang
, while Kalpana busied herself with the children and the preparations for the ceremony. Tashi told him that, being the goddess of wealth and prosperity, Laxmi was his favourite Hindu deity.
“But you and Kalpana are Buddhist,” Frank protested.
“Well, some of the Hindu gods are also Buddhist gods,” he said pouring him some more chang
. Finally, the moment arrived. Kalpana began with prayers in front of a small idol of the elephant god Ganesh. As Lord of wisdom and remover of obstacles, he had to be worshipped first. And then Laxmi got her turn. And then she sprinkled these holy objects with a water-drenched marigold and set lighted incense sticks around them.
Now it was Frank's turn. He was seated on a mat under the window of their cramped little bedroom. “Before I make you my brother, I have to make you pure,” she said with a playful smile. Intoning a protective spell, she poured a circle of oil and holy water from a copper jug around him as a boundary over which death and evil spirits could not pass. Then she sprinkled grains of rice over him. She explained this was to scare away the negative energies surrounding him. Taking a handful of flower petals, of different colours, from a dish, she placed them on his head, shoulders, knees and hands. Frank was told this was an invitation for the divine energies to come and replace the void left by the departed negative energies. Finally, she circled a walnut around his body and, and then touching it to his head, took it outside.
“Where's she gone?” Frank asked Tashi.
“She has to smash it with a stone. If she does it in one blow, then all the evil surrounding you will be destroyed.” She re-entered the room, and Frank looked at her quizzically.
“Don't worry. I broke it with one hit.”
“Thank god!” he said, half in jest.
“Now, one more thing is needed,” she said. She dipped her finger in some mustard oil and touched the crown of his head, and his ears. “This represents a massage,” she said. “OK. Now you are pure enough to be my brother. Now we must do the tikka
ceremony.” She smeared a vertical base of white rice paste on his forehead, on top of which she dabbed different coloured tikka
powders representing the seven colours of the rainbow - the special bhai tikka
. Finally, she placed a garland of marigolds around his neck, praying for his long life, happiness and continued prosperity.
And then she fed him, starting with a sip of milk, and followed by a plate containing tiny portions of fried egg, meat, rasbula
(a milky Indian sweet), and a piece of sweet doughnut-shaped bread made from rice flour called shail roti,
which she had cooked the night before.
Tashi whispered:“Now you can give her the sari.” Frank presented his sorry package of blue crȇpe paper and Bata string, which Kalpana accepted with a smile but no comment and set to one side. “And now you can touch her feet,” said Tashi. He hesitated.“To show respect to your new sister,” he explained.
And so he touched her feet with both his hands. “Thank you, Frank bhai,” she said. Now he could stay with the Lopchans without giving rise to scandalous gossip.
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