Sri Ram, Jai Ram, Jai Jai Ram. Who is the old, white man with prayer beads in his hands? None of us know. He pauses his chanting only to use the restroom.
We are the patrons of the Shiva Murugan Temple. Most of us are South Indians from Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka. We are engineers at Westinghouse and Alcoa, doctors at U Pitt, professors at Carnegie Mellon. Some of us came in the ‘60s and ‘70s, but most of us came in the ‘80s. The Mayor likes us. Every year on Diwali, he gives us special permission to launch fireworks. The history museum has a section on us. Only half a display case, but a permanent exhibit. If you visit Pittsburgh, you must not miss our temple. It is clearly visible from Interstate 376 as you drive through Monroeville. The carved white spires, chiseled by artisans we brought from Madurai, are unlike anything else in America. Our cafeteria has fresh tamarind rice and sambar rice daily, for only a one-dollar donation. On Sundays, we have ladoos. The lemon pickle is free. Our chef is the real thing. His name is Ram, and he is from Rameshwaram.
We were the first to build a Hindu temple in America. Others might not have seen this steel city as a holy one, but it sits at the junction of three rivers, and nothing is holier than fresh water. That is why, in Pittsburgh, the meeting point of the Ohio, the Allegheny, and the Monongahela, we built America’s Tirupati twenty years ago. The donations came from Indians all over, as far away as Seattle, Anchorage, Belfast and Fargo.
The white man showed up here just over two months ago, at the start of the summer holidays. He sits in a metal folding chair in the lobby, at the bottom of the stairs that lead to the sanctum. He is always off to the side. He is in nobody’s way. Every day, he wears jeans and a
T-shirt bearing the name of a different technology company. They look like free shirts, the sort college students bring home from career fairs. Around his neck he has a sweatshirt, which he puts on when a draft blows through. He does not look like a techie but perhaps his son or daughter is one. In his hands, he holds wooden beads the color of milk chocolate, strung together on white thread. He chants, Sri Ram, Jai Ram, Jai Jai Ram. He does it softly, but it is a nuisance.
The Hare Krishna temple is only a hour and a half away in West Virginia. That is where the white people go. We cannot, however, rightly ask this man to leave. He is doing nothing wrong and our doors are open to all. This is a policy that is stated in our temple brochure.
Neela takes the SATs for the second time, at the high school one town over, in Monroeville. She hopes for scores that will at least get her into Penn State. She would like to study International Affairs. Maybe join the Foreign Service afterwards and travel the world. This is her current dream anyway. Her father says it is fine. Her mother urges her to consider engineering. Neela’s present SAT scores and grades suggest that this may not be the right choice for her.
“Okay, do well kanna,” her mother says when she drops her off for the test. “Remember to stay calm and do your best.” Neela finishes the exam around Noon, exhausted and unsure of whether her best will be good enough. Her mother’s shift at the hospital is not over yet, so her friend Colin picks her up. Together, they go to Monroeville Mall and smoke cigarettes in the parking lot. This is something they do once a week. Afterwards, they throw the butts on the ground and stomp on them. Then they walk back and forth along the mall’s two levels, hoping to spot Tom Hanks Not The Actor, who is Colin’s crush and the school’s star lacrosse player. “Fuck this. Tom Hanks Not The Actor is definitely not here,” Colin says. “I’m going home to see if anyone’s on IM.”
When he drops her off, Neela gives him a peck on the cheek. “Don’t waste too much time lusting after him,” she says. “There will be others.”
Today is the last day of summer. Tomorrow is the first day of school. Soon, the homework will pick up and Neela will be busy with college applications, essays and drama club during this final year of high school. She is a motivated student, though unlike the other Indian and Asian kids at school, she does not like to show it. She takes only two AP classes, not six. She studies, but only when interested. She does not take classical Indian dance at the temple, or play the violin, or dedicate herself to a sport. To her mother’s chagrin, she runs, but only for fun. She and Colin are set designers for the drama club, a role Neela’s mother feels takes too much time and has too little return. “Nobody will recognize you for background stuff,” her mother says. Once the school year starts, Neela knows that she and her mother will fight about all of this. But today, there is nothing to worry about. She is free and the rest of the day is hers to enjoy.
On the kitchen counter, she finds a plate of steamed idlis covered with saran wrap. In a small Pyrex with a blue lid, there is green mint chutney. The food was not there when they left the house in the morning. Her mother must have come home during her one hour lunch break and prepared it. There is a note scrawled on a yellow Post-It, placed in between the plate of idlis and the bowl of chutney.
Dad called from Sedona. Here is his hotel number. Call him. Wants to know about SATs.
Neela sprinkles water on the idlis so they stay soft and fluffy. Then she shoves the plate into the microwave. She eats standing at the kitchen counter, breaking idli pieces off with her fingers. She dunks each piece into the tangy chutney. She gazes at a family portrait hanging on the wall in the living room, above the sagging brown love seat. The photo was taken at Olan Mills when she was twelve, when her unplucked eyebrows met in a V. In it, her mother is wearing a sari the color of cantaloupe flesh. Her father is wearing a blue pinstriped shirt. Neela is wearing a red velvet dress. She studies her father’s image in the picture. Then she goes upstairs, peels her jeans off and puts on running shorts and a sports bra. She pulls her long, silky black hair, one strip streaked bright blue, into a thick ponytail. Then, Discman clipped to waistband, she slips in a Verve CD and leaves the house running.
Afterwards, she sits on her parent’s bed, sweaty, pillows propped against the headboard, and drinks a can of Mountain Dew while she watches reruns of “Friends,” “The Cosby Show” and “Hangin’ with Mr. Cooper.” None of the shows make her laugh, but she watches anyway, delighting in her laziness, kicking her socks off with her toes halfway through the first show.
Neela’s mother is a nurse in the cardiac recovery unit. She works twelve hours shifts and will not be home until nine in the evening. At eight, Neela makes herself a turkey sandwich, pours potato chips into a bowl and looks at her mother’s note for the second time. She crumples it into a ball. The phone rings. Neela sees the number on the caller ID and knows it is her mother.
“I’ll be home soon, kanna,” her mother says to her.
Ten minutes later, while Neela is eating the last few bites of her sandwich and licking mayo off her fingers, the phone rings again and the caller ID says Arizona. Neela ignores the call. At ten to nine, she hops in the shower.
When her mother comes home she tells Neela she going to the temple the next day. “For the night puja,” she says.
Her mother goes to the temple at least twice a week. Once on a weeknight and once during the weekend. Neela has not gone for six months, not since her father started his national tour.
“Why don’t you come with me? You won’t have homework on the first day of school,” her mother says. “Did you call Dad?”
“I’ll come with you to the temple,” Neela says. Her hair is still wet from the shower and it drips onto the kitchen floor.
Sri Ram, Jai Ram, Jai Jai Ram. We do our best to ignore the white man with the prayer beads. He always has a smile on his face. He does not look rich or poor. He is just an ordinary, old, white man you might see standing in the checkout line at Giant Eagle or buying screws at the hardware store. The white man’s hair is white too, and he is losing it. Several weeks ago, when it really became noticeable, he started wearing a brown, wool beret.
Neela’s mother parks her gray sedan in the temple parking lot. They enter and walk right by the man. Neela sees him sitting in the lobby for the first time. Her mother ignores him.
“Who is that?” Neela whispers, as they climb the steps that lead to the inner sanctum.
“That man? We don’t know. He comes every day and sits there.”
In the sanctum, Indu Aunty is singing a lullaby. The priest is rocking the Goddess Lakshmi to sleep in a cradle. One by one, he will rock each God to sleep as Aunty sings. Neela thinks she could fall asleep herself here, surrounded by the idols. Each God here has a duty, to create life or destroy it, to shower wealth, to provide knowledge, to push away evil. The elephant-headed Ganesha removes obstacles. Neela imagines herself next to him, curled up in a cozy ball. After every God is put to sleep, the priest comes around with balls of sweetened semolina and fruit.
“How are you?” he asks Neela. He speaks in Tamil. “Long time you have not come.”
Neela puts on a smile.
“I was busy,” she replies, in English.
The priest gives two apples to Neela’s mother. “One for him,” he says.
Neela’s mother nods.
“Thank you,” she says. “He will be home soon.”
After the puja, her mother walks to the car but Neela stops to use the restroom at the bottom of the stairs. Afterwards, she walks by the old man to get to the front door. It is closing time and the lights throughout the temple are slowly being shut off. Neela’s body tenses and her arms turn cold. She passes the old man and then hears footsteps coming towards her. They grow louder and she walks faster, anxious to get outside quickly. But she is not fast enough. Before she reaches the temple’s main door, she feels a palm on her shoulder. She turns to face the man. The hand on her shoulder also holds the prayer beads. His other hand is in a fist. Neela does not breathe. She wonders whether her mother will come back in looking for her, or whether the priest upstairs will hear her if she screams.
“You dropped something,” the man says. Up close, Neela can see the wrinkles on his face, like cuts that have healed. She sees, too, that his cheekbones are gaunt, that his skin is loose. He opens his fist and shows her an earring shaped like a maple leaf. Neela picks it up.
“Thank you,” she says.
“Have a good night,” he replies. “It’s almost time for me to go home too.”
Neela wakes up and gathers her books for school. She stuffs them into her backpack and zips it closed. Her father is due back tomorrow, on a flight that will arrive early in the morning. She spots a red flyer sticking out from a stack of papers on her desk. It says, “Spiritual Leader and Scholar-Mystic returns to Pittsburgh for Special Seminar.”
During study hall, her last period of the day, Neela reads her biology book. Tomorrow’s quiz is on amino acids. She yawns. Colin, who is sitting behind her, tugs her hair. Neela shuts the book and turns around.
“Hey,” he says. “Tom Hanks Not The Actor touched me today.” His grin is wide. His eyes tease her.
“He doesn’t even know who you are,” Neela says.
“I was walking down the hall and our arms, like, grazed,” Colin says.
“Shut up,” Neela says. She laughs too loudly and Mr. Bryer, the study hall teacher, calls out her name from the front of the room.
“Miss Prasad. Mr. Tupper. Study Hall is a silent period.”
Colin turns around and Neela opens her biology book again. This time it falls to a chapter deep within the book, one the teacher will never get to. There is a picture of a rooster on this page. Neela reads the text, about a strange phenomenon observed in chicken coops. When no aggressive male is present, one hen acts as the rooster, the book says. The hen metamorphosizes and grows fierce talons and wattles under her chin. Eventually, a red cockscomb emerges from the top of her head. The other hens might ignore her at first but when she crows, they accept her. The transformation is complete and irreversible. “Spontaneous sex reversal,” the book says.
When Neela comes home from school she notices that the family portrait in the living room is gone. In its place, there is a picture of her father, framed and hung. His hair is long. His beard is unkempt. He is wearing his saffron colored robes.
Neela walks into the kitchen where her mother is boiling a large pot of tomato rasam and twisting black pepper into it with a grinder. Neela can smell the pepper, cumin and chilies boiling in the watery soup.
“I found cigarettes in your laundry,” her mother says, without turning around. “How will you ever get anywhere? Wasting your time with that Colin?”
“Where did you put the picture from the living room?” Neela asks. “The one of all of us?”
“It’s still there,” her mother says. “It’s in the corner by the fern. I took it down yesterday. I thought Dad might like to see this one up.”
“Of himself? Instead of the one of the whole family? I can’t believe you.”
Her mother sighs as she stirs the rasam.
“Your father cares about us, Neela. He wants you to go to college, to do well at whatever you choose.”
“Do you even feel like you’re married to him?” Neela asks. “He’s never here.”
“He needed to do this,” she says. “He has his dreams, just like you have yours.”
Neela’s father arrives while she is still sleeping. When she wakes up, she hears him talking to her mother downstairs. She hears laughter and her mother’s girlish giggle. He is only home for a few days. On Monday, he will leave to do a workshop with some sort of hippie farm outside of Boston.
By the time she gets dressed and goes downstairs, her mother has left for work.
“Hi Dad,” she says. She reaches for the box of cinnamon squares that sits on top of the refrigerator.
“How was your flight?”
“Good. How are your classes?”
“How are your teachers this year?”
“Theatre starting soon?”
“Yes. Colin and I are head of set.”
Then she leaves, holding a banana in one hand, waving to her father with the other.
When she gets home from school, her father is out. “He had a private session in Fox Chapel,” her mother says. “He will be back for dinner.”
In the evening, Neela and her parents go to a Malaysian restaurant they all like called Spice Island Teahouse. Her father is not wearing his saffron robes. He has changed into the clothes Neela once associated with him. A button down shirt, slacks, and Velcro sneakers.
“Velcro is the most amazing of inventions,” he was fond of saying, when Neela was little.
When they arrive at Spice Island, they bump into Neela’s old friend Maisie, who is leaving with her parents. Maisie and Neela are no longer close because Maisie is popular, a tennis player who hangs out with Tom Hanks Not The Actor. In middle school, Maisie and Neela liked to knit scarves together. They had sleepovers and practiced putting on their mothers’ make- up. They still share a familial intimacy that neither one ignores when they meet in passing.
“Oh, hi Neela,” Maisie says. “Haven’t seen you at school yet this year. No classes together.”
Maisie’s gaze shifts to Neela’s father. Neela sees her staring at his long, straggly beard, at his knotty hair. Aside from the clothes, there is little sign of the college lecturer Maisie might remember.
“Nice to see you Mr. Prasad, Mrs. Prasad,” Maisie says, her voice wavering. She looks at Neela. She is incredulous.
“God bless you Maisie,” Neela’s father says.
Neela refuses to attend her father’s event at the community center in the city.
“But you must support your father,” her mother says. “He came here to do this.”
“Oh, not to see us?” Neela says.
“It’s okay Praba,” her father says. “We should not force her.”
Then, turning to Neela, he says, “Neela, of course I am here to be with you both. This is our home.”
Neela goes for a run and takes her time, running up and down the hills of her neighborhood and then down to Ferri’s, the grocery store where Colin works. She buys a smoothie.
“It’s on the house,” Colin says, when she tries to pay. “I’m allowed one a day and I sure don’t need it.” He pats his generous belly.
“Anything new with Tom Hanks Not The Actor?” Neela asks.
“No,” Colin says, pouting. “I heard that he might ask Alice Chang to Homecoming. What I would give to be Alice Chang.”
When Neela gets home, her father is gone.
“He had to go early and set up,” her mother says. “I should be helping him, but I said I would bring you.”
“No!” Neela shouts. “I told you already.” She walks upstairs and slams the door to the bathroom. After her shower, Neela hears a honk. She peers out of her bedroom window and sees her mother sitting in her gray sedan in the driveway, looking up at her. Eventually, Neela walks out, huffing as she clicks the seatbelt into place. She pulls the hood of her gray sweatshirt over her head. Her mother is wearing dressy slacks, a silky, light blue shirt and white pearls. She looks pretty and young with make-up on. Her hair is half up, as if she is going out somewhere special.
“Thanks for coming,” she says to Neela.
“Do you like what he’s doing?” Neela asks. “He makes even less money than he used to.”
“It is not about money. I want him to be happy.”
At the event, Neela’s mother sits in the front but Neela does not join her. She sits, instead, in the very last row.
“I have incarnated on the Earth many times as a saint or sage of nearly every religion to relieve the suffering of humanity,” her father says. “Suffering is optional. We have the choice to relieve ourselves of it.” Neela slumps into her seat. He looks confident. So sure of himself as he speaks to the audience. Once, he makes eye contact with Neela. His eyes linger for a second too long and Neela looks away, unwilling to grant him the intimacy. There are sixty people in the audience, Neela estimates. Almost all are white. Two are black. One is Asian. In front of her there is a bearded man with three bags at his side, two are plastic and one is a cloth duffel. In the bags, Neela sees clothes, books, hats and the tip of a toothbrush.
Neela cannot stand to pay attention to what her father is saying. She hears it single words.
Belief. Positivity. Mumbo.
She steps outside. She does not want to watch while people line up to meet her father after he is done speaking. She knows exactly what he does, how he places his hand over their heads to give his blessings. In the corridor, she sees a donation box stuffed with cash on a folding table. The middle-aged blonde woman minding it smiles at Neela and, not knowing who she is, offers her a book. It is Neela’s father’s self-published, self-help guide.
“They are free,” the woman says. “A ten dollar donation if you would like.”
“We have a copy at home,” Neela says. She takes a cigarette out of her purse. The woman’s eyes stick to it and stay there until Neela says, “Don’t worry, I’m going outside.”
After she finishes her cigarette, she throws it on the ground, the same way she does at the mall and then goes back inside. Her mother comes up to her and asks her where she has been.
“We need to help clean up, Neela,” she says. “You smell terrible. All this is that Colin’s fault.”
Neela and her mother put the folding chairs away and sweep the room while her father puts his books and the donation box in the car.
When her father started holding sessions three years ago, nobody came. Then a few people started attending and he was exuberant. A month later, he quit his job, declaring that he could not be a poor scholar of religion at the university any longer. A permanent teaching position was never going to come along.
“My income covers the mortgage. Please don’t worry,” Neela’s mother said to him.
“I need a change,” he said. He wanted to be a businessman. Religion was the business he knew, he said, the one that he had studied from its very origins.
When Neela was twelve, the same age she was when the framed family photo was taken, her parents took her to Disney World. She begged for the trip after seeing commercials on television. Her mother said it was too expensive. “We can do it,” her father declared. “We will drive there to save money. It will be worth it.” On the first day of Thanksgiving Break, Neela’s father took her out to the driveway in her pajamas.
“Get in,” he said. He and her mother had already packed the car.
They drove to Florida on snowy roads, sometimes with chains on their tires.
When they reached, her mother found out that if they went on a tour of a time-share they could get free tickets to the amusement parks.
“No hanky panky,” Neela’s father said to the woman doing the tour. “We just have to take the tour and then we get tickets, right?”
“Yes,” the time-share lady promised, smiling. Her white teeth and shiny heels gleamed in the sun. The tour took a whole day. There were walkthroughs of three condos, followed by lunch at a golf course and long sales pitches. By the end of it, Neela’s father declared that they should have bought the tickets themselves.
“They stole our time,” he said.
Neela loved Magic Kingdom. For two days she ran from ride to ride. When Princess Jasmine appeared, she posed with her, awestruck as if she were six-years-old.
One evening, Neela and her parents went to a Mexican restaurant called El Mundo, halfway between Magic Kingdom and their hotel. Neela saw Captain Hook there, putting a spoon of ice cream into Princess Jasmine’s mouth. The princess squealed.
Neela pointed this out to her parents and her father smirked.
“You know those people are actors with real lives, don’t you?” he said.
“It’s just a costume,” her mother said. “Don’t you know Mickey Mouse is a woman?” Her father threw his head back in laughter. Her mother’s eyes were lit. Neela still remembers what her mother looked like at that moment. Light and lively. Beautiful.
Now, in the car ride home after her father’s lecture, Neela pulls her gray hood over her head once again. Her father is talking to her mother. He is thrilled about the evening’s turnout, about the six books he sold. It makes Neela blush from the pit of her stomach when she thinks about what her father is doing. Dressing up like the actor playing Captain Hook. It makes her blush and it makes her angry.
When Neela comes down to eat cinnamon squares, she finds her father sitting cross-legged on the couch. His portrait hangs above him. Her mother is at work.
“Come,” he says. “Let us talk.”
Neela sits cross-legged on the patterned Persian carpet in front of him. “Pretty earrings,” he says.
“You bought them for me. Maple leaves from Quebec.”
“Oh yes,” he says. “I bought this for you in Sedona.”
He hands her a box. She opens it and pulls out a smooth sphere made of red rock.
“The rock formations there are stunning,” he says. “The Gods live within them. I am sure of it. You see them as the sun rises and sets, their faces smiling at you under the light. It’s like…”
He stops. She knows he is worried that he might have upset her.
“It’s fine,” she says. “Preach to me.”
“It’s just gorgeous there,” he says. “I’d like to take you someday.”
“You know. You don’t have to do this. You could stay at home. Or you could do what you used to do. I could get a job at Ferri’s if we need money. Colin makes $5.50 an hour.”
“Neela,” he says. “Your mother is able to cover the mortgage. I am building my business. Yes, it will take time to become successful. But listen to me. My heart is in this work.”
He reaches out for her hand but she pulls it away.
“It’s good for me and it’s good for the people,” he says.
Neela looks at her father, dressed in his cotton pajamas. In the framed portrait above him, his palm faces forward, offering blessings to anyone who looks his way. Neela wonders whether this version of her father hangs in the homes of any followers. If not, would it someday?
“You’re a fake. You know you’re a fake,” she says.
Neela’s father shakes his head. “I’m sorry you think that,” he says. He stands up and reaches for her again but she steps back. Her eyes fill up like pools. Her father and the framed picture of him are both blurry now.
“Neela,” he says.
“Good night. I’m very tired.”
Neela’s father is gone before she wakes up. A taxi takes him to the airport and he boards a plane to Boston. From there, he will take a bus to a small artists colony to lead a discourse. The plane is nearly full. The only empty seat is next to him. He is happy for the space, though he would not have minded some company. From his wallet, he pulls out a photo of himself and Neela. They are standing in the lobby of the Carnegie Library in Pittsburgh. He and Neela spent hours there when she was a child, checking out children’s books and doing research for his thesis.
Neela is just four years old in the picture. Her hair is in braids. He is twenty-seven, a graduate student on the brink of getting his doctorate. He looks tired but happy. His appointment with the university, as a part-time lecturer, had started shortly after the picture was taken, when it was clear he had no other job offers.
“It isn’t much but it’s yours as long as you’d like it,” the head of the department had said.
Neela had loved going to the library with him back then. It was a grand place, with its domed ceiling and marble stairs that led up to a room of books for sale. In the lobby, Neela would fall to her knees and run her fingers over the intricate tiles.
The photo of him and Neela has the corner torn off. He wonders if the negative still exists in a box in the attic. There is painting of Andrew Carnegie in the picture too. He and Neela are standing directly under it. The industrialist is dressed in a suit, standing as erect as a preacher, with a book underneath his arm. “They called him a robber baron,” he had told Neela then, though she had not understood at all. “He took people’s money and then gave it all away.”
Autumn is rapidly making its exit. The leaves have turned orange and brown and fallen to the ground. We expect it to snow next week. On the news, they say the Ohio, the Allegheny and the Monongahela will freeze over.
The man is gone. He is dead. He was a retired schoolteacher from West Lafayette. Somebody saw his obituary in the Post-Gazette. Somehow, they recognized him from the grainy image. In his final days, he found comfort in a new kind of spirituality, the paper reported. “He went to the Shiva Murugan Temple every day.” It was a cancer of the blood and once it started spreading, he wanted nothing but to spend his last days at our temple. His son called us from California and spoke to the temple secretary.
“Could we hold the memorial service in your hall?” he asked.
We discussed it amongst ourselves. Half of our board was against it but our chairman had the last word. “Sounds fine to me,” he said. “As long as the family pays the five-hundred-dollar rental fee.”
None of us attended the memorial but the family was respectful of our space, our janitors told us. The man’s son, someone who did well in Silicon Valley, wrote us a check for ten thousand dollars.
“See, good things come to good people,” the chairman said at our last meeting, his smile smug. He spoke about the new expansion, how we could now afford to bring craftsmen from India here once again, to carve new deities and build their abodes out of stone.
The chairman is proposing that we name the new wing after the old, white man with the prayer beads. We will need to take a vote. Whichever way it goes, we will always remember the old man, that schoolteacher from West Lafayette who chose to spend his last days with us. Sri Ram, Jai Ram, Jai Jai Ram.
Sindya Bhanoo is a fellow in fiction at the Michener Center for Writers in Austin, Texas. She was formerly the Observatory columnist for The New York Times. She has also worked as a reporter for The Washington Post, The Baltimore Sun, and The Industry Standard.