bhajan’s and boys
part 3: souls sung clean
This is it. The final installation of “bhajans and boys.” It’s called: Souls Sung Clean.
Here’s a description:
A girl grows up Indian in San Diego, California, where she is one of 3 Indians in a high school graduating class of 1000. It’s as awkward as it sounds. As a teenage child of immigrants, she is ricocheting off cultural walls and intercepting a dizzying array of sexual signals. When she goes to Thursday night bhajan at the Trekanand’s house, she manages to find a precious pocket of clarity in confusing times.
Here’s what I’m doing now
I’m writing to you from the Upper West Side. I’m at the Barnes and Nobles by Lincoln Center and the Juliard School of Music. Fall is in the air, jackets and matching boots are out of the closet. 5th Avenue is crammed with shopping bag toting tourists and teenagers all grown and toothpick leg skinny. I walked here from the New York Public Library, the main branch, with the lions. Walked clear through Central Park, which was Sabrette hot dog and Strawberry Fields dreamy. Made it to the famed Magnolia’s Bakery, where their red devil cupcake reminded me how very good sweetness can be.
I used to come to this Barnes and Nobles when I was a teenager. Peer down from this very table at the yellow cabs sailing by on Broadway. And now I’m back, on my own terms. New York City.
Coast to coast.
I grew up in San Diego but always knew New York City was where I would end up. Did you ever get the sense that you were being directed? My whole life I’ve had a voice inside that said go to Gotham, live in Brooklyn. God help me, I am following that voice.
New York City has a lot to do with music. Just like this last installation of “bhajans and boys.” I’m talking the saxophone player at Columbus Square, the do-re-mi sound of music on the carousel in Central Park, the tunes pumping out from every store, each pair of high heels on the sidewalk, the late dropping leaves fluttering bright yellow in the crisp breeze. Music, sweet music.
I hope you enjoy it. My next post will be on Monday, come back and visit then.
Part 3: Soul’s Sung Clean
By” roopa singh
Anti’s, my mom included, are like Lords of the Food. They can chop faster and whip up dishes quicker than any Iron Chef. Getting into my mom’s kitchen was harder than getting into Narnia. She was so quick, hundreds of recipes in her blood, and thousands of spices mentally cataloged and just a whirl away. Mom kept her spices in glass jars and plastic test tubes. They were both clear with a good, tight lids. Yeah, even the test tubes.
Both of my parents are scientists. I grew up in labs with centrifuges and petri dishes full of green lit jells sporting cooked DNA on top. So our spices are stored in test tubes. And my first toy was a molecule building set. It was my nerded out version of legos.
Mom had patentable systems for what to do with the used thel, for keeping the stirring spoons from dripping on the pristine stove, and for micro-managing all four dishes sputtering on the stove. Mustard seeds, cumin, onion and garlic lay the foundation. Those were just the first four ingredients for the chòk.
She also had a system for dealing with me.
“Mom, what’s this one do?”
I’m holding up a plastic test tube full of hing. That peppery, gas-reducing masala unfortunately named, “Assfoetida,” in English. Hing is so potent you only use it in undetectable, spec of dust amounts. Mom looked over at me and assessed potential emergency.
“Roopa, did you clean your room?” She was distracting me, I knew it.
“Hell no.” And I meant it, we went through this like every day. What did she care as long as the rest of the house was cool?
“What is this nonsense, go clean, GO!” It was the glare in her face that turned me right around towards my war zone of a room.
And Mom goes right back to breakneck speed on her stovetop wheels of steel. But while my mom cooks like a banshee, she eats like a sloth. I mean it. Mom eats so slow, guests at the table start getting nervous. My mom eats slow enough to challenge established social conventions around a group meal.
As she carefully breaks off a piece of roti around halfway through her meal, Mom inevitably shrugs her shoulders and declares, “I Eat Slow.”
Like anyone didn’t notice.
As though someone might dare contradict her.
My mom has made that announcement at every meal of her life. That’s 3 meals a day over a 60 year period, meaning she’s said “I Eat Slow,” or variation, “What can I say, I Eat Slow” at least 65,000 times.
But she didn’t give a damn. Mom knew how to enjoy a meal. Finger licking, plate licking good. If the food was banging, which it often was when she was cooking, you wouldn’t even need to wash her dish.
The arc of songs had risen to its call and response heat. Beats went double time on a prayer. Prem Uncle’s call was responded to by a crowd of full throated harmonies. The room of scientists, and teachers, and Avon ladies, and engineers, and accents, and citizenship, and families far, far away always melted at this stage of bhajan. We had changed into a room of devotees.
Devoted to song.
Singing our souls clean all night long.
Incense smoke and candle light danced between the notes. My mind’s eye filled with tears. I’d fucked a boy. Which was a good thing to do.
Then why did it feel like this? Why didn’t I tell Zoya and Soraya to stay with me that night? Who cares. Who cares about friends, and who cares about fucking some dude.
Me, I did.
The glow from god’s corner burnished my face gold. There were no tears, but there was music. And I realized I wouldn’t take back what I did. I just wish I could know how to feel about it. Proud? Ashamed? Cocky? Sad? Happy?
I would be bragging about it at school the next week. But tonight, it was velvet dark in the room, and I rested my weary teenage soul on the melody.
A few years later I would be in Jaipur, India, bent over, pinning my sari tight next to my aunt, Shashi Mausi. It was my counsin brother Anshul’s wedding. Me and Shashi Mausi were the only two left in the room. It was a big space the wedding family had arranged for all of us—Mausa’s, Mausi’s, cousins—to sleep in and use as our dressing room to get all gussied up in for the sagai, mehndi, ladies sangeet, shaadi, shaadi reception, sending off the groom, sending off the bride. Getting dressed was a big deal.
Shashi Mausi was my favorite. She had a wide smile and the sweetest, most wicked laugh in the world. Her hair plait was thick as a rope, and she danced snake-like, one arm up, hand cocked and aimed, every chance she got. Shashi Mausi had been helping everyone else make their pleats sharp. So now it was just me and her.
Which was good, because I was feeling sensitive about my wedding outfit. It was a gorgeous sari, edible pink and parrot green contrast. But I was pushing convention and wearing a black halter. Which meant my tattoo showed, emblazoned across my back. Love on one shoulder. Hate on the other. And a spider in the middle, weaving a new web of balance between the extremes. I finished putting on my sari and stepped back to assess in the mirror. I thought I looked beautiful, grand even. But what would everyone else think? I looked at Shashi Mausi, eyes dubiously asking for her opinion.
Her eyes twinkling and her mouth twitched, she was telling me that I was gorgeous.
My heart rushed with love. Confused by all the emotion, I began talking. We spoke in Hindi. I told her how I’d always dressed in my own style, even when I was young.
Shashi Mausi stopped me quick, “Roopa, not when you Were young, you Are young.”
And though I hadn’t cried for years, I burst into tears. No one had ever pointed that out.
About being young, but never feeling like it.
Shashi Mausi sat down next to me, and wrapped her strong arm around the broad line of my shoulders. She held me till we laughed and laughed.
The tambourine seared through me sharp as thistle, the tabla beating where my heart had stilled, drumming away the fear in the night, Prem Uncle, Sheila Anti, and Deepak pivoted the song gale to a cool, stretched out breeze.
Jai Ram, Sri Ram, Jai Jai, Ram ah ho.
The Trekannand family led us slowly, with deep breath songs, all the way towards aarthi, when flames would be held before god by every pair of hands in the room, rolling, circling clockwise in homage. When the bowls full of fresh fruit, warm sweet halwa, and hot salty poha would human conveyer belt onto small paper plates into every mouth in the room.
Our souls sung clean. It was time to grub.
Om Jai Jagadisha Hare, Swami Jai Jagadisha Hare.
That’s my cue. I gather courage and my fallen asleep long legs and make up my mind to help with the prashaad. “If the other girls are doing it, I can do it,” I reminded myself. I concentrate on getting up gracefully. I imagine walking forward like a quiet stream of godly silk.
My chuney gets tangled up between my steps. Great, I thought, yanking it back around my neck. Maybe everyone’s eyes are on me. All the Anties and Uncles seated on the floor in the middle. All the Nana’s and Nani’s on that sofa along the back of the room. All those perfect Indian kids, their limbs probably still aching from bharatnayam class, heads still swimming with Hindu Sunday school lessons.
Maybe they were all wondering what my overflowing lamba chora frame was doing. But I kept walking towards the altar, intent to put my hands to use in service to god.
I gingerly stepped between still singing bodies towards god’s corner, passing the backs of Aunties, little kids, and that one Uncle who always sat ramrod straight, right up front.
I reached the glowing corner without another hitch, and sank down between two aunties, their fingers already flying. Fruits being cut, served, and pass the plate, halwa spooned, served, and pass the plate, grapes plopped, and pass the plate–to me!
Oh shit. My turn. Okay, okay, I consider the lay of the land. A bowl of kishmish is in my territory. It’s so beautiful. I reach in and palm a small handful of it, careful to keep equal parts almond, cashew, and golden plump raisin.
The Anti to my left is already reaching for the plate. Drats. I pour a pretty sepia pile onto the plate, admiring the way a color wheel is emerging step by step. Triumphant, I pass the plate to the Anti on my left. The next plate to be filled is already in my hands.
I look up at the gods, willing myself to catch the rhythm of service, of langar. Me and the Anti’s and other girls, we serve and settle into our roles. “I Serve Slow,” I wanted to announce. But I stayed silent, and did my best to relax into this, my very own pace.
Come back Monday for more.