Posted by: gdevi | March 21, 2011

” A serious house on serious earth it is”

Our good neighbors asked if they could take Dayani to church with them this Sunday; she is good friends with their daughter, a sweet little girl, and we thought, why not? Her exposure to Christianity has so far been Jesus Christ Superstar.  So Dayani went to church for the first time this Sunday. Before she left, I told her that the church is just like a temple but with additional speeches and lessons about life. (Real Hindu temples–not the ones in North America–are quiet.) I told her that if there was anything that she heard or saw that confused her and she didn’t understand she should ask me or dad. Dayani liked going to church; she already speaks of “our Sunday school teacher.” So what was it like honey, I asked her. Well, it was fun, she said. Did you know that there was flesh and blood? she asked me.  I mean not real, but the body of Christ and the blood of Christ. They didn’t give wine to the kids, we had grape juice, I think, she said. They spoke about angels and how they worship Christ. And then we had Sunday school for the 4th graders and 5th graders; it was a lot of fun. There were these boys there and one boy had very long hair and they were just like the boys in the school but they didn’t laugh when they heard the word “butt.” Really, honey? I asked. Why were they speaking about “butt” at the church? I asked. No, not that “butt”, but the word “but” that sounds like the other “butt.” You know in school they would laugh if a word sounded like another word. Oh, okay, I said. There was this little girl there in the little kids room, she had tiny tiny hands, and her fingers were like buttons, Dayani said. She loved me and wouldn’t let go of me. She said, I love you to me so many times, Dayani said. That is nice, honey, I said. It was so much fun helping out at the little kids classroom, Dayani said.

I was trying to remember what it was like for me to visit a church for the first time. I grew up in a neighborhood where we had several Christian and Muslim neighbors, along with Hindu neighbors. When we were kids there was this lovely Christian family right next to our house; father, mother and a sweet little baby boy. I must have been 12 or 13, and this baby must have been maybe 8-9 months old? Just the sweetest little baby boy; I can see Maurice Sendak drawing him. Just a chunky little baby boy. We used to go down to their house and bring this baby boy back with us to our house and play with him. His name was Matthew–we all called him Maathukutty–little Matthew. I would walk around with him; he would sit on my hips and I would show him the plants the birds the trees the sky and he would look at everything and laugh; he never cried or missed his parents. He would stay in our house for hours; we all loved him.  My parents, Appu and I. Then Elsa, the mother would call over the compound wall, Gayatri, can you bring Maathukutty back? It is time to feed him. One day, my grandmother, my father’s mother, who was a sweet woman, but who had the old-fashioned pecking order ideas about castes and religions, visited us. As usual Maathukutty was in our house and sitting on my hips, and ammumma asked me, Gayatri, who is this baby? Oh this is Maathukutty, I said. Elsa and Abraham’s son. Why are you walking around with a Christian baby, ammumma asked. Really, ammumma, I said. Really! Here why don’t you give him a kiss?

All of our Christian friends were more religiously observant than we were; we maybe went to the temple once in six months. We lighted the lamp everyday; that was that. But Sunday mornings, our Christian neighbors all went to church; it was beautiful really. On Palm Sundays, they would come back with tender green palm leaves in their hands. It was beautiful. I loved eating at my Christian friends’ houses; they are great cooks. I found the church services theatrically arresting in their music, sermons, and liturgy. The oldest Christian church in Kerala belong to the Syrian Christians; Kerala Christians believe that the Apostle St. Thomas came to Kerala in 52 AD and converted the Hindus to Christianity. Our Syrian Christians are thus descended from the original converts by St. Thomas. The Syrian Christian liturgy in Kerala is still in Syrian. The Syrian Christian churches, the Portuguese who brought Catholic churches that came in the 15th century–everyone came to Kerala because it was by the sea!– the Protestant Churches that came in the wake of British colonialism. The churches are all different.  They are all very very different, with the Syrian Church being the most beautiful to me with its whitewashed spare look from the outside. Serious buildings, they are. The light falls on them a certain way, highlighting the wrap-around verandahs, the tall round columnar posts, the big tall black varnished wooden doors, the palm trees in the swept courtyards.

I stare into space when I am inside a church;  all kinds of unplanned thoughts come rushing to me, mostly about why people come to church.  Perhaps that is what these sacred spaces are meant to do for us; it gives us this palate of pregnant space, the big sky, filled with god knows how many events of human scale,  how many sorrows, how much advice, how much support, how many prayers, how many moments of thankfulness. I agree with the poet; to believe is to know the seriousness of this our earthly life.

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