The Drums of Heaven

Back in Delhi…Time to find some good food!

After a little research I found a restaurant/wine bar called The Drums of Heaven located in the Green Park market district of south Delhi. The waitstaff was extremely accommodating, taking group photos and tipping us off to the happy hour specials. Specializing in Chinese cuisine, the menu was extensive, the descriptions sounded appetizing and the waiters were helpful with suggestions. I ordered a baby corn spring roll with sweet chili sauce and the claypot chicken for the main course. At home I don’t go out for Chinese often, but I have to say my meal was extraordinarily tasty. The chicken came with a perfect ginger glaze. Texture is key for me, and we had great variety on the table. Plus, everything was served piping hot and stayed that way in the clay pots. From other people’s dishes, I also got to sample minced lamb pot stickers, crispy sizzling jumbo prawns in dragon sauce (sooooooooo good) and some scrumptious veg noodles. We never did find the nearby wine bar, It’s About Us…, but that’s okay, we regaled the night away at Drums of Heaven well into the midnight hour.

A sizable contingent of the group dined at Drums of Heaven. My eyes are closed but I'm smiling.


10 Lakh Town

The Fulbright group descended on the city of Madurai today, home to Lady Doak College, a progressive international institute for women. We caught a sleeper train from Chengalpattu, not from from Chennai. How to properly board the train was the subject of much strategizing for our group of 17, building up an air of worriment and tension, which I’m happy to say never spilled over into ardent aggression. The group is strong, experienced, knowledgable. As one member pointed out, if there is any fault with the group, it’s that we have too many chiefs.

This marks the halfway point of the trip, and for the first time our group is divided, physically that is. Eight of us are staying at Lady Doak, while the remaining nine are staying at a hotel that I can’t remember the name of, but I do recall that it has a rooftop patio with a bar, great food, wine–I said WINE–and from what I’ve heard, a great view of the moon rising over Meenakshi Temple in the distance. Those lucky ducklings.

Everyone was so tired after the ordeal of the train that nearly all of us elected to take an afternoon nap after getting oriented to the new surroundings. This was lull in the trip for many of us, a much needed pause, not least of all for me. Before I rested I wanted to see some of the city. I dropped my stuff at Lady Doak and accompanied the rest of the group by bus to the hotel. I insisted on taking a piping hot, freshly poured cup of coffee with me on the bus, which I sipped from a dainty little glass mug, while the rest of the group placed bets as to whether the bumpy ride would send scalding java to my face. Well, Robert thought it might scald something more precious even than that, which caused me to hold the cup off to the side. But alas, the caffeine hit its intended target, and the continuity of my family lineage is still possible.

The lobby of the hotel struck me as ritzy, and through the window I could see a communist party headquarters across the street. I was sure I’d seen a hammer and sickle somewhere in Delhi, too. I know the communist party is active here, especially in Kerala, which is probably the first state I’d like to visit whenever I return to India on my own. Aside from that the street was lined with fruit sellers, provision stores, noisy motorbikes and lots and lots of people. Needless to say, I was already getting jealous of the other group’s good fortune in landing at a hotel with such great amenities and surroundings.

The managerial staff was friendly and struck up a conversation with me. I asked how many people lived in Madurai. “Ten lakh, sir, ten lakh,” said the manager, checking the faces of his staff for conformation. Doing the remedial math in my head I figured that meant about a million. I’m still getting used to the terminology used for large figures, like “lakh” and “crore.” What I had thought was going to be a smaller town was actually a sprawling city with its own slums and hybrid patches of urban/rural landscape.

On the way back to the guesthouse at Lady Doak, I took in the sights: a tribe of goats, whose dexterity is becoming more and more evident to me as they hoist and jockey themselves into unimaginable positions, fishing banana peels from a culvert corroded with discarded slop (more on this later); a rickshaw packed like a clown car with at least seven or eight people crammed into every available cubic inch of space; and, finally, the anomalous sight of three men arguing in the street, gesticulating wildly, laying hands but inflicting no harm. This last one really surprised me. Indians are a pacifistic people in my experience, at least in the public realm. To this point, the most conflict I’ve endured from the locals is a stiff wag of the finger for charging my laptop at a “cell phone charge only” socket in a railway station waiting room. Anyway, the incident on the street got me thinking about people in general, and how we treat each other, stranger to stranger, friend to friend.

Though affection is not commonly expressed between the sexes in India, there is ample evidence of brotherly, sisterly, and all-in-all familial love in each reach of this country. The hospitality I’ve experienced here is truly unrivaled. That’s a difficult statement for me to make considering the soul-charging goodness I felt during my three years as a teacher in Hungary or the royal treatment I experienced while tutoring at summer language camps in Italy, feted like a lazy king for my services and then given time to rest, always treated like a family friend, fondly addressed as one of the ragazzi. I was a distict member of a community, several communities, in those places, and the kind people involved will always have a claim on my heart.

My experience in India is different, more detached, more nomadic as we move from place to place, yet in every situation I am amazed by the sincere and personalized kindness I feel directed at myself and all the other Fulbrighters. Every single NGO, office, classroom, creche or self-help group we’ve visited has pampered us with tea breaks, biscuits and other refreshments, often infusing cultural value into these hospitable exchanges, with the utmost attention to our comfort, with one stark exception: our visit to the American Embassy. I’m not going to use this space to rag on my country, but I’m going to be honest. There, as American citizens, we were given stern, rigid, altogether mirthless treatment by the personnel, i.e. by other Americans. Even the agents we met with for the presentation and discussion, though passably affable, seemed in their lofty positions to keep at a distance from us lowly educators. Never even an offer of water. I have to wonder what that says about my own culture. Perhaps its the plurality of cultures in America, the blending of all into one, that leaves us with no set way to receive strangers, or to treat strangers as friends in a true sense.

The fifth residence so far on this trip, Lady Doak has opened its doors to me and seven others with the greatest compassion. I’m looking forward to exploring the city of Madurai and its unique culture through the Meenakshi Tempe visit tomorrow and the cultural evening planned for Monday at the college. I hope the group bounces back from the rough journey it took to get here. I know we will, and I know we’ll do our best to glean what new knowledge we can from this ten lakh town.

Happy Travels in Kanchipuram

Three human machines thundered down the grainy rubble-strewn road of the old Indian town known for its silk. Artist, Natalie and I went for an early morning run in Kanchipuram today. All of the normal sights greeted us: cows with painted horns pulling carts, motorbikes with two too many passengers whizzing past at alarming speeds, roosters clucking closer to the outskirts of the city center, the occasional dog missing half an ear, etc. I’ve been taking lots of pictures of garbage lately for my planned essay “Up Shit Creek” (keep your eyes peeled) and must admit I had to cover my mouth several times to stop myself from inhaling noxious fumes. Oh, and then there’s the dust. A team of old ladies, dressed in traditional clothing but each with a different color, almost like octogenarian Power Rangers, swept the road with seemingly synchronized movements using those ubiquitous bundles of sticks that seem to serve as brooms around here. All in all, I love this place.

The main drag near our hotel.

Kanchipuram encapsulates everything that I imagined India to be before I ever set foot here. You have the hybridization of urban and rural life, the vibrant pulsating rhythm of the townspeople, the overbearing odors and waste of too many people (and animals) living on top of each other, the charm and hospitality of the working person. Good people abound in this place. The textile industry is in full flourish here, and nearly three-quarters of the nearly 2 lakh population are associated with the silk trade in some way. Today, in fact, I toured a factory where thread is prepared and saris are made. I was amazed to discover that a single sari takes two weeks to make. After that I visited the shop where all the textile products are sold, where I bought jibbas, a lungi, and several unique gifts for friends and family, all at an unbelievable value. The staff was so helpful and kind, finding us the best fabrics and offering orange soda and bananas.

A factory worker explains the thread and patterns used in the production of silk saris.

The sari-making machine!

The final products on display in the lofted store above the factory in which they were created.

Female construction working sporting a lovely green silk sari.

Strong women in delicate saris doing intensive labor.

Last night, when we got into town I (as well as about 9 other people) followed one of the participants, Rob B. (check out his highly entertaining “Harmless Fool” blog), as he went on a quest to find batteries for his cameras. The stimuli of the city was so overwhelming and visceral that I didn’t know what single thing to focus on for a pictures so I just recorded videoclip after videoclip with my Canon Powershot. WordPress is greedy and demands money in order to grant bloggers the ability to post videos (and music) so I’m trying to find a way around that. If anyone has any ideas, or knows a better place to blog, please let me know, because the video footage would tell the story of this city better than I ever could…

A tame example of a trashy lane.

Ganesh watches over Kanchipuram.

Slowly adding YouTube videos, which seem to take forever to upload. This first clip features the electrical wires and a little street life of Kanchipuram:

As we were walking through Kanchipuram I tried to document the congestion of traffic in the narrow streets. This video features a cow ambling down the road, and as I later discovered upon closer inspection, a eunuch making unwanted eye contact with someone from my group.

One Road: Measuring Poverty and Hunger in the North and South

Last night was the first time I’d found myself alone since I’ve embarked on this journey through India, and I probably needed it. The last two weeks have been so packed with adventure and new discoveries that I needed some time by myself simply to begin processing all of these unique experiences. Earlier in the day, after visiting the sites at Mammalapuram, the Fulbright-Hays group spent the afternoon—our first afternoon of relaxation since the beginning of the trip—at the Ideal Beach Resort. We walked the shoreline, waded in the water, got pounded by the waves and ended up in hammocks for a welcome siesta. Responsibility took over when we reconvened for our planned discussion of the last two weeks. Our program director, Aditi, wanted us to discuss the observable differences between our experiences in North and South India. In the roundtable discussion on the beach it was posited that the visibility of the poor in the south is less than that in the north. I wondered if that was really true. The streets of Delhi offered endless evidence of poverty and hunger, but I wasn’t sure yet about the south, and I felt I needed to know Chennai better before I could make up my mind.

One of the presenters at the NGO’s my group has been visiting had discussed the difference between hunger, as we may know it, and extreme hunger. Going hungry for 12 hours, he’d said, was not exactly “extreme” as it is a reality many Indians are living with today. Since I’ve been in India, I’ve been thoroughly amazed at how people not only survive, but maintain their own personal happiness with so little in the way of resources. While contemplating dinner—it had been a long day of sightseeing and discussion—I began to meditate on hunger.

It’s easy to go out and order food at a restaurant and be served and sated with exotic cuisines, imbibe intoxicating beverages, lose yourself in the pleasures of taste. As any of my friends and family know, I am the ultimate food lover. Wherever I go I seek out the unique, the authentic, the traditional, the groundbreaking in food and drink. As I thought about the poor of India, those who might scrape by with one meal per day, and a meager one at that, I figured I could skip a meal and instead feed on the city street. Like a Jainist, I would not take, but only accept, what sights the night gave me, what smells filled the air, what sounds might enter my ears and cloud my brain for a time, as I walked the streets of Chennai, formerly Madras, to get a better feel for this new place. I would scour the streets on an empty stomach, engorging my soul on whatever lay in my path.

Before you go on thinking what a noble pursuit it is to go without food for a night while contemplating the poor and hungry in a vibrant, populous South Indian port town, let me break that spell—I stopped for ice cream. After leaving my hotel and dodging rickshaws and motorbikes to cross the street, I spotted a little ice cream parlor, lighted and jolly, that I just couldn’t pass up.

When I entered, two girls dressed in jeans and pretty blouses inquired about one of the contents of the ice cream flavors. I told the ice cream baristas that I knew a little Hindi and even littler Tamil. Luckily, everyone seems to understand English, or in any case they are willing to give an encouraging side-to-side shake of the head in response. I scanned the frosty display cases, trying to assess the varieties of ice cream behind the glass. Fig & Honey grabbed my attention, so I ordered a scoop, and momentarily forgetting the whole purpose of my walk into the city night, I ordered another that I just had to try called American Delight.

Using the little red plastic spoon I sampled each flavor, got a handle on the flavors in my usual way. For the curious, the more patriotic scoop contained tiny bits of fruit and chopped nuts, like a fruitcake. As I was enjoying the pleasure of eating, staving off hunger for another span of time as so many Indians are not often able to do, I got the idea that I might walk to the beach to see what I could see. We had passed by the beachfront earlier in the morning, en route to Mammalapuram, and from my aisle seat on the side of the bus opposite the beach, all I could gather was a fishy smell.

I really had no idea where I was in relation to the water. I had no map, no compass. All I carried with me, besides my clothing, was my wallet, a notebook, a pen and an umbrella (rain had been falling earlier that evening, though the clouds retained their water for the rest of the evening, as it turned out.). As per usual on this trip, I also had my camera, which I didn’t really plan on using. From one of the workers at the ice cream parlor I gathered that it was a 3 km walk to the beach if I continued straight down the road. I thought what a nice litmus test it would be to gauge whether the people in the south had it any better than the people in the north by taking a lengthy but not-too-long walk down one road at night, while the city settles to sleep. I’d had the experience in Delhi, and now I could see about Chennai. The helpful ice cream seller told me to go straight down the road until I saw the statue of Gandhi. Then I would find the beach.

I went out to feel the pulse of the city, and Chennai certainly is alive. Leaving the parlor, I thought about all the English I’d heard while nibbling my ice cream. It’s funny, most of the evening I didn’t encounter anyone who I perceived to be non-Indian, yet every snippet of conversation I overheard was conducted in English. A young man in a red polo shirt stood near the doorway, coordinating plans with his friend over the phone; some girls requested all sorts of specialty toppings for their shared sundae; three older men in slacks and dress shirts balked, as I had, when the waiter informed them there was no coffee or tea. All of this in English. I started to wonder whether my chart readings would be accurate, with all the English words wafting through the air. I wondered if Chennai simply had a lot of summer visitors, pilgrims to the sea and sandy beaches.

Surely an anomaly on the streets of Chennai, I wrote as I walked, pocket-sized notebook in hand, the act itself becoming increasingly difficult as the cheap pen I’d acquired at the UNIC repeatedly came apart in my hands. It was around 11:00, the closing time of the ice cream parlor. I made note of what I saw as I walked in the direction of the beach.

A man lay asleep on the flatbed cart attached to his bicycle, without so even a thin sheet to cover him—not that he needed it in the hot night—his dog curled up on the pavement beneath him, in peaceful slumber. Further along, a man in his lungi and maroon shirt rested by the side of the road, his head tucked into his chest facing the low guard wall beside the road. Not half a block further another man lay supine on the ground, his sidewalk bed only steps away from a nighttime security guard attentively watching his building.

I continued to walk, knowing nothing, my mind a blank, fingers furious scribing everything.

Another minute’s walk brought me to a shrine of Ganesha. When I had stepped up onto what I thought was the platform of a bus stop, I noticed the idol framed by a colorful arch above a green-gated compartment stocked with gifts for the deity. Out of respect I kept a distance–frankly, I didn’t feel like removing my shoes–but I would like to have seen whether some passerby had left an assortment of sweets, ladoos, for the god. Interestingly, a tree trunk emerged through the polished floor and exited through the canopy covering the shrine. A yellow bucket of soapy water squatted beside the tree, in place for some kind soul wishing to clear the scuff marks from the marble floor.

Onward I walked. Five friends, rickshaw drivers I assumed, judging by the vehicles parked in sequence along the road, reclined on the sidewalk, shoes removed, sharing quiet conversation and laughter.

At the next cross-section, set in the wall of a corner shop, my eye darted to gold-emblazoned statuary, again a dedication to Shiva’s beloved son, the elephant-headed protector Ganesh. I started to feel like maybe he was watching out for me.

A bus-stop bench served as a bed to yet another homeless denizen of the city. Walking briskly past him, I nearly stumbled on another man situated “Indian-style” on the street corner, very much awake as he held out his hand hopeful for an offering. Was Ganesh watching out for him? Who was really watching out for any of us, I wondered, in that moment feeling my own nervousness reaching a peak, descending deeper into an unknown city through the murky night.

I got to thinking about the human spirit, and the feeling, the need rather, for protection. I didn’t feel like praying to Ganesh, or any deity, although I’ve certainly prayed to God in the past, at many key moments of my life. On this particular trip, and on this particular walk, I’d rather have prayed to Aditi or Bhavani or Jennifer—real people with real hearts—if I felt I needed protection. I know they exist, I know they are near, and most importantly I know they wish me well.

Finally, I made it to the statue of Gandhi. All in all, the walk had taken 15, maybe 20 minutes. It was hard to tell for sure because I don’t wear a watch, and, walking alone, I had time only to get lost in reverie. From the other side of the crosswalk I could see people milling about the shoreline and walking up the beach. Silhouettes evaporated into the bright saris of women out for a night stroll, when traffic passed and a flash of headlights illuminated the scene. Two silhouettes remained blackened, however. Poised on the marbletop parapet surrounding the gardens around Gandhi’s statue, two women in burqas, accompanied by a man in head-to-toe white, sat silently absorbing the night, though their enjoyment could not be seen, only estimated.

I sat down on the opposite side of Gandhi, on the other marbletop parapet surrounding the other garden, so I could be alone with my thoughts. A dog slept close by, curled tightly into itself and twitching whenever flies or other winged creatures collided with his snout. I sat watching him for a few minutes, long enough to see his eyes open slightly, then close again into slumber. Maybe he felt me watching.

I sat and wrote for a bit, while others walked and sat nearby. Two conservatively dressed young men escorted a beautiful girl enwrapped in a pale blue and white sari. For a while I mused as to whether they were school chums, or perhaps an elderly brother was chaperoning a first date, as I’d read in a story recounted in one of my books. A rickshaw driver appeared to alternate between patience and restlessness as he waited, parked in front of the statue, for passengers.

High up in the sky, the moon was covered in clouds that appeared like smoke. It’s important to take time to sit quietly and think. I wanted to make sense of this place.

A stray dog ambled onto the steps leading to the statue and crossed its base as Gandhi looked onward, clutching his staff, a hero. The dog came up to me without a sound, looked sheepishly to me for some morsels, for something…food, warmth. I said nothing, did nothing. He went on to the three seated nearby and they shooed him away–“Bah!”—and back to me for one more try. With no hope of a scrap to eat or a friendly hand to stroke his head, the dog trudged away quickly, further down the street and into the palpable curtain of night.

The tourist in me wasn’t quite satisfied with sitting around. I had to snap a few pictures of Gandhi before I left. Capturing the statue in the dark was difficult, and it took a steady hand to get even remotely crisp images.

Originally, I thought I might stroll down the beach to get a last close-up look at the sea, but I never did reach the water’s edge. As I was finishing up my pictures, an officer—I’d noticed several patrolling the beach—kindly informed me that the area was now closed. It was, after all, past midnight.

I entered the crosswalk hurrying past the gilded statue of who I suppose might have been Nehru, though I didn’t stop to look at the inscription. I walked back using the opposite side of the road from which I’d come. Near the beach is some sort of tributary with a bridge leading over it. I crossed this once again, taking in the full bouquet of odors, an admixture of rotten garbage and human waste, recalling for me the streets of central Pest, of all places. LDC or MDC, shit smells like shit.

The toe of my shoe stubbed against an upturning stone tile on the bridge, startling a black cat who had been sleeping on the rail. This side of the street resembled the other, the homeless making beds in soft patches of dirt, on less pliant plastic benches, or atop still firmer stone slabs. These sights, taken all at once as they unfolded before me, should have made me cry.

I counted one, two, three clustered together, a fourth secluded but still near enough to his compatriots. Men lying on the ground deathly still, pinned to the roadside, perhaps, by hunger and exhaustion.

My nerves left me on the way going back to the hotel. I wasn’t frightened for myself anymore. The last signs of commerce were being broken down for the day. A woman boarded up her freshly scrubbed and sanitized food cart. Some work-worn men loaded the last of their wares into a delivery van humming soothingly beside an electronics shop.

It wouldn’t be particularly good reading to record all of the homeless I saw laying in and around the road. The same image seemed to repeat itself all the way down the street, and this was only 3 km. I tried to imagine what the entire road would look like, if I had the energy or the desire to walk any further than my now-familiar perimeter of newly discovered territory.

In the “land of Kubera,” to borrow someone else’s phrase, we call them bums, beggars, vagrants. Of course it’s known that Kubera measures his wealth by the jewels spit out from his mongoose’s mouth, and in America maybe we measure wealth in the same way. I’m not sure yet what applique to award this land, this India. Most would agree that India is blessed with a spiritual currency, and I hope beyond hope that some of that can be spent to afford these people, these destitute homeless laying in the streets, the help that they clearly need.

We fear the homeless. We fear what deprivation can drive a person to do. Mostly we fear we may one day become them. How would you treat you, if you saw yourself laying in the road with nowhere to go, no food to eat, no one to love or care fore you? It’s something everyone should think about.

Passing shrine after shrine, I think to myself: let’s make a religion out of helping people, and leave it at that. No text, no deity, no godhead is needed. Just human compassion. Just people helping people. People feeling for other people in their hearts. It can’t go wrong.

Heading into the hotel, having stayed out much later than intended, I couldn’t help wondering how the scene might look different during monsoon season. What do the homeless take refuge? What will become of them in the future? Who will watch out for them now? When will the real-life Ganeshas clear the obstacles that stand in the way of relieving the suffering of poor and the hungry in India?


Post-script: The morning after my walk, while the bus was being loaded with our luggage as we prepared to move onward to Konchipuram, I talked with some of my newfound friends, some of the heroes who are fighting to end poverty in this world. I won’t write what silly things I said and did to make everyone laugh at me, but it was enough to make Bhavani recall: “Last night, we saw Craig, notebook in hand, writing and walking, and we were like, ‘What is he doing?'” I hope they read my posts. 🙂

Natalayana, the Mustachioed Goddess of Natalistan

The great epic singers, or bhopas, have sung praises to Natalayana for many centuries. She belsses men (and sometimes women) with floral mustaches so they always smell pleasant aromas. Her shrines can be found along rivers, tributaries, and other stinky places all over India, especially in her hometown of Natalistan. Natalayana is also known as the goddess of mangos, which her devotess often bring to her shrine as gifts.

Shiva Temple / The Tomb of St. Thomas (Chennai, Day One)

Last night Jenn, Bhavani, Rob and I ventured out into the city of Chennai. When you ask anyone about the sights in Chennai, inevitably the Church of St. Thomas the Apostle is mentioned, as well as the informally known Shiva Temple, both of which are located in the district of Mylapore, a beautifully designed area by the Bay of Bengal and only a short walk to the popular marina beach.

We asked our taxi driver to drop us first at the Shiva Temple. In a small plaza glutted with parked motorbikes, we deposited our shoes near an old woman who was accepting donations for their safeguarding. The temple itself is so grand and so ornately decorated that capturing it in pictures is an overwhelming task. Please see the illicit photos posted below as evidence of my visit as well as my stupidity. After snapping half a dozen shots, I became aware that photography was clearly not allowed as a sign within the temple entrance clearly stated. I think I might have pissed off some shastis with my brief but frenzied picture-taking. Bhavani remarked that she had never seen so many priests in one place. We really lucked out, as we had come at the prime time to witness a devotional procession. All I could do as my senses absorbed the imagery was to take out my moleskine notebook from my back pocket and faithfully record every detail I could possibly jot down.

A shasti or priest emerge from a shrine to Shiva, overlooked by a small statue of elephant-headed Ganesh, as a crowd awaited patiently beside tables of burning candles and incense. He rang a bell forcefully 5 or 6 times, then went back inside the shrine to bathe the idol in milk. The procession began, and I heard the crowd begin chanting among strands of distant drumming. The sounds of payals (or in Tamil, golundas), bejewelled bracelets adorning many of the women’s ankles, could be heard as a backdrop to the multitude of voices. The men wore white robes tied around their midsections, lungis or dhotis (I’m not really sure about the difference), with buttondown shirts, or among the most pious, no shirt at all. The women remained clustered for the most part, standing near the back of the crown or off to the side in a sea of colorful silk saris, fresh flowers tied into their hair. The most common markings on the foreheads of the devotees were the three white stripes denoting an allegiance to Shiva, as well as a red dot circled in yellow. Of course there were limitless variations, and after an enlightening conversation with Dr. Sheila a couple of days ago, I suspect some of the choices were for fashion only. During the puja or ritual procession, the crowd carried lingam related to the Hindu god Shiva the Destroyer. Notably, I witnessed an iron bull which I later found out was Nandi, the white bull which Lord Shiva rides. Long lines formed for bowls of kresad (sp?) which the devotees ate reverentially while seated on the temple grounds.

A short taxi ride brought us to St. Thomas Basilica, the seat of Christianity in India. After the death of Jesus, when the apostles scattered to spread the Gospel, “doubting Thomas” came to India in 52 AD and was martyred in 72 AD. The Tomb of St. Thomas, located directly behind the basilica houses the burial plot as well as relics related to the saint, such as fragments of bone and the lancehead that killed him.

Rows of pews too numerous to count stretched from the alter to the back of the church, sparsely dotted by an attentive congregation. I sat for a few minutes in one of the pews, noting the beautifully carved armrests and trying to make sense of the babble spilling from the speakers in every corner of the church. Dual voices seemed to be competing for attention, a blend of masculine and feminine utterances that made little sense to me. Most of it was in Tamil, I believe, with the occasional English phrase–a “praise the Lord” here and there–sprinkled in for good measure. A shrine on the far right side of the room, framed in blue neon light reminded me of something from Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet.

The scene outside was peaceful and calm, as patrons lit candles near a shrine, and I even witnessed a bust of Mary being dressed in a silk sari. I walked around the basilica to the tomb. While depositing my shoes in the lobby, I couldn’t help noticing a Santa Claus poised gleefully in a display case.