July 27, 2009
One perfectly fine evening of last week as I was reaching for the lift carrying hundreds of grocery shopping bags and my dry cleaning of two weeks, Papa-ji cornered me. Non-plussed by my obvious hostility to perform small talk, he blocked the lift and despite my loud cries dragged me to meet my new neighbours who, he said, wanted to invite me to their housewarming party.
In typical local fashion, he introduced the couple by ways of heavy economic hypertext: “They are living in Dubai”, Papa-ji said. “They are having a petroleum business”.
Beaming and overweight, my new neighbours requested my presence at their house the coming Sunday. I had no choice but to accept.
My sister was less than amused by the prospect. I tried to cheer her up, describing the mountains of food, the cultural interest, or the fact that if she didn’t come with me I’d lock her in a room with 27 street dogs.
She surrendered. The invitation was for 11am, so at 1pm we made our way downstairs, hoping to have missed most of the festivities. We hadn’t.
Bereft of furniture, the flat was packed with people sitting on the floor or on plastic chairs. A religious ceremony, or puja, was going on. The priest, chanting very loudly, was sitting by a small fire in which he threw things. Although he looked on the verge of a trance, he kept taking calls on his Blackberry Storm. Next to the fire were offerings of fruits and sweets. In the crammed room, with no air conditioning, a fire and dozens of incense sticks, it was hard not to faint.
I suddenly craved the cool, restrained, imposing ritual of Mass.
The fire, the smoke, the fruits and the sweets, the throwing stuff in the flames and putting stuff on banana leaves, people coming and going, the priest shouting, children running around, the whole thing made me feel slightly sick.
That’s when Papa-ji spotted my sister and I. He rushed forward.
“Are you liking this kind of ceremony?” He asked, beaming.
“I am enjoying it a lot Sir, I said. But you see, my sister here – I grabbed Morgane’s shoulder – she has… asthma. So for her it is very difficult, with the smoke and the incense. Isn’t it darling? Are you alright?”
Morgane nodded, producing an inhaler from her bag.
“Oh don’t worry it’s almost over, Papa-ji retorted. When I had my housewarming, the puja lasted all night.”
“Sadly, you hadn’t moved in yet.”
No sound came out of my mouth.
“But I will show you the pictures if you like, next week!”
I feebly smiled.