Asha Sundararaman is a saver of the world by day where she puts her Master's in Diplomacy to good use dealing with medical volunteers and a DC-10 aircraft. By night she is a writer, singer, and actor and sometimes all three at once. She is currently in a complicated relationship with New York City.
“Leela, are you ready?” my mom shouts up the stairs at me.
“Hang on, I’m coming,” I call back.
We meant to leave by 7 am and it’s already 7:30. Oops. I grab my duffle bag off the bed, swing my dupatta over my shoulder and make a dash for the staircase. I take the steps two at a time. Downstairs my grandmother’s maid is cleaning up the remnants of our dosa breakfast. As I pass her on my way out the door, I grab another one from the container she’s about to put away. She shakes her head at me, smiling.
I climb into the first SUV, the one my uncle’s driving, and plop down next to my cousin. My uncle navigates the car out of the driveway and onto the main road. My grandmother’s driver, in the car carrying my parents, my grandmother, and my aunt, follows.
My cousin looks at me curiously.
“What’s with the salwar Leela?” he asks.
“To blend in, of course. I have to look like a proper TamBrahm,” I say.
“Then you should have worn a sari,” he replies. “Now you just look like a Kashmiri.”
We both laugh at the old joke.
Through my window I watch the city pass by. People pile into share autos on their way to Thiruvanmiyur and Adyar. Men with their dhotis hiked up to their knees chat with each other next to store fronts. Humidity hangs heavy in the air, coating everyone with a perpetual layer of sweat. It’s a typical July morning in Chennai.
My uncle turns off East Coast Road towards the highway. We’re doing what I like to call “the temple tour” again. It’s a favorite of my family. A few years ago, we drove from Bangalore to Mysore, stopping at all the temples and palaces along Mysore Road on the way there, as well as any we hadn’t already hit on our way back. By the end of that trip, my cousin and I had decided we’d had enough spiritual karma to last us for at least two years, perhaps even three. And here we are again, about to generate more karma for ourselves, on our way to Trichy, and the Sri Rangam temple.
Years ago, when my great-grandmother was still alive, she used to lecture us about Sri Rangam, telling us it was (and still is) the grandest and most important of the Vishnu temples. My memory of the temple is hazy, but I’ve being reading up on this architectural wonder, so much so that I can clearly make out the forms of the seven enclosures and twenty-one gopuras – the colossal tiered towers, which mark the points of entry to each enclosure – every time I close my eyes.
Since it is the largest functioning Hindu temple in the world, I figure we should get about five more years of karma. At least.
It’s been twenty years since we’ve made this trek. Usually we stick to the sunken temples at Mahabalipuram or just the usual local temple in Chennai. But this year my grandmother decided we should go home. To her ancestral village near Trichy, where they had lived before her father moved to the big city. She also wants to show us the statue that her family gifted to the temple nearly a hundred years ago, which still stands somewhere within the seven walls of this sprawling, one hundred and fifty-six acre temple (except she can’t remember where exactly, so it could be a long search).
We hit the outskirts of Chennai and I sink back into my seat remembering our last visit to Sri Rangam as the noisy, crowded city dissolves into villages and fields outside.
My daddy’s moustache is twitching. It does that when he gets mad. He’s angry at the brown man in the dhoti with the string on his chest. Usually daddy’s voice gets loud too but not this time. This time his voice is strong but low. But I know he’s mad because his moustache is twitching.
I wish I could understand what daddy is saying. He’s talking in his language. All the sounds are running together in my head.
The man in the dhoti has a circle on his head that has no hair. It looks like it’s on fire. I imagine he’s on fire. If he was really on fire then daddy wouldn’t be talking to him and we could go into the temple.
I want to explore the temple, but mommy is holding onto my hand. I try to get away, but she’s hanging on tight. I look at my little brother. Pahtti is carrying him so he won’t run away from us into the crowds of people, I think. He’s looking up at the faces on triangle-shaped thing. I look too. This temple is so old that some of the stones are missing some color. I can’t see all the way up there, but I think some of the faces don’t have noses either. I’ve never been to a temple this old.
I try to pull my hand out of mommy’s again, but she won’t let go. She looks down at me and says,
“Stop it Leela.”
She looks tired. Why is she tired? Daddy and the man are still talking. When will they stop? I hear daddy say the word punnu. I recognize that word. Is he talking about me? Why is he talking about me? The man in the dhoti points at me and then he points at Mommy. I look up at her, but she isn’t looking at me. She’s looking at Daddy who’s looking back at her. I see her head move just a little bit, as if she’s telling him something without saying anything. Maybe she’s psychic.
Daddy turns back to the man and starts talking very strongly again. Mommy sighs. I look around and see that people are watching us. I pull on Mommy’s hand.
“Mommy, can we go in now? People are watching us.”
“Daddy’s talking to the man so he can let us into the temple, honey. Don’t worry about the people, just ignore them.”
“But they’re staring at me.”
“I know sweetie, just try to pretend they’re not there.”
I close my eyes and pretend Mommy, Daddy, Amit, Pahtti, and I are the only people at the temple. I can go wherever I want. Pahtti can pray. This makes me smile. Wouldn’t that be fun?
I hear English and open my eyes. The man is looking at Mommy and saying:
“No, no whites. They can’t go in. This temple is for Hindus only.”
I look down at my skin. Is it white? I put my arm next to Mommy’s and examine our colors. Her skin is pale and slightly pink, but mine looks yellow. The man must not be talking about me.
Daddy says something in his language and the man walks away.
Daddy comes over to Mommy and whispers in her ear. She nods. I look up at Mommy.
“Can I go in now?”
“No, we have to stay out here.”
“Because the man said so.”
“He said no whites. I’m yellow.”
Mommy smiles and shakes her head.
Pahtti puts Amit down and takes his hand. They start to follow Daddy into the temple. Amit looks back at me and says:
I look up at Mommy.
“Can I go?”
“No, Leela. We have to stay here.”
“But Amit is going. If he’s not white, I’m not white.”
She gives me her “don’t ask me any more questions” look.
Pahtti and Daddy pull Amit away. I sit with Mommy outside. It’s not fair. Amit is just as white as I am. Except maybe he’s a little tanner. I stare at my skin, willing the sun to darken it. And I wait with Mommy for them to come back.
I open my eyes to find our car pulling into the dusty parking lot of the temple and realize that I had managed to sleep through the entire ride.
“Somebody’s up early today,” I hear my cousin joke as I step outside the car, rubbing my eyes to take stock of the surroundings.
Boys shout nearby, trying to get tourists to buy their wares. Buses full of tour groups unload their passengers: people of varying shades, some carrying large cameras, looking vaguely out of place. I stare up at the colorful gopura rising towards the sky. It’s even bigger than I remember from twenty years ago. Behind it, I see more gopuras emerge, marking each subsequent enclosure. I follow my family nervously towards the entrance. Will I be allowed in this time?