The dusty ambassador bounced down the dirt track. It was supposed to be a road, but I couldn’t tell the difference between the track and pitted field of dry grass edged with half-constructed flats in the distance.
Bangalore wasn’t the garden city any longer. I had pictured a leafy green place from Vivek’s childhood stories, but the tech boom and population growth had changed the city irrevocably. And indeed, over the next 15 years, every time I would visit, I wouldn’t recognize where we’d stood before.
But today, we were piled into a wreck of a car, rattling across a field to meet a guru that my mother-in-law revered. It was hot, dusty, and I was fretting over whether I should have worn western clothes, the threads of the new salwar rough against my neck. But I was half sure the trip was to show the Guru how Amma’s white daughter-in-law was a proper south Indian wife, so I swallowed any thoughts about cultural appropriation and concentrated on staring out the window.
Vivek’s cousin Srini was in the front seat, directing the driver. We turned left, skirting a ragtag soccer game, children laughing and calling to each other like magpies, and the car slowed, pulling in next to a whitewashed stone hut with a rusted metal roof. A young woman in a pale blue sari and bare feet stood in the doorway.
We clambered out of the car, Vidhya, her mother, Vivek, Srini, and me. The soccer game came to halt, and we were surrounded by a gaggle of 8 and 9-year-old boys, all fixated on the white girl. Our unorthodox entourage chattered away as we approached the house and saw an elderly man emerge from the shadows. His dhoti was as white as his long beard; his skin, brown as a chestnut; his dark eyes sparkling. Straight out of central casting, I thought.
“Come in, come in. Welcome,” he said beckoning us into the house.
The young girl pulled a few plastic chairs from a room deeper in the cottage and gestured for us to sit. The room was painted the now-familiar medicinal green, a color you’d find in the U.S. in doctors’ offices, hospitals, and VFW halls, but it was everywhere in India. From airport lounges to living rooms to roadside Dabbas, always paired with the harsh blue light of fluorescent bulbs.
The conversation flowed around me. In and out of Kanada, Tamil and English. I nodded when Vidhya nudged me and sipped my tea. Everything was fine until it was time to leave.
Vivek’s mother stood up and we stood in a half-circle around her, facing the sitting guru. He would bless us before we left. I shifted my weight from one foot to another, not knowing what was expected of me. Methodists don’t have gurus. We’re barely comfortable talking about God. Our last stand as a church had been the banning of styrofoam plates for church dinners, and here I was, sunburnt and awkward about to be blessed and return the blessings of a Hindu holy man.
His voice thrummed in the room, the heft of Sanskrit echoing like a bass drum in my chest. Vivek’s mother was motioning to me. Hand gestures like wigwam semaphore and I had no idea what she wanted. She motioned forward and down with her hand towards the sitting guru, looking from me to him. I froze, unsure. Did she want me to sit in his lap?
Like some slow-motion dream, I imagined myself perched on his bony knees, asking the Desi Santa Claus for a long and happy life. And I think I must have pivoted slightly toward him, turning just enough for my mother-in-law to blanch. But then I saw, out of the corner of my eye, Vidhya kneel the way I’d been taught, and I brought my hands together as I knelt to the floor, sanctifying like a good Indian girl.