LETTER TO A STRANGER
TO THE TAXI DRIVER WHO GOT ME BLESSED
BY MARC FITTEN
When you pick me up in the morning I sense you’re not the chatty sort. You’re all business. I get in the car and we leave. It takes us several hours before we break free from Delhi’s congestion—and what a relief. We drive silently for ten hours. Once or twice you point at something that catches your eye, but mostly I just stare out the window looking at hardscrabble villages and incandescent saris.
The next day you seem more comfortable. The first thing you ask me about is my brown skin.
You are not Indian? Not at all? No Indian at all?
No. I shake my head. Not at all. Latin American. The Caribbean. There really are brown people everywhere.
You consider this. I thought you were Indian.
You make an exasperated sound and open the windows.
Why did you pick the desert? It’s summer, you say. Everyone is going to the hill stations. Kashmir is cooler. You should have gone there. The desert will be hot. Nobody goes to the desert now!
What’s a little more heat, I think? 104°F degrees or 114°F degrees—how much difference is that going to make? I spent the previous week in Delhi watching birds fall from the sky. It was either the heat or the pollution. Maybe both.
It turns out that you are a religious Hindu. You begin to share your good news, and you start pointing out temples. Since I don’t really know anything about Hinduism, I’m interested in hearing all I can—which makes you happy. In the week we spend together I get a crash course.
You explain that there are millions—hundreds of millions—of lesser deities fighting a losing battle, resisting the forces of darkness as led by the demon Kali (not to be confused with Shiva's wife). In fact, we live in the Age of Kali, the Age of the Demon. He's running our plane of existence—has been for a few hundred thousand years now.
You explain that a holy trinity exists—Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva. Brahma is the creator of all life. Vishnu sustains it. Shiva destroys. Occasionally, Vishnu manifests himself in our plane to keep us going, and we know him as Rama, Krishna, and the Buddha. He's expected to return one last time, and when he does, he will battle with Kali and destroy him, and The Age of the Demon will end, and we will enter into the Kingdom of Heaven or The Age of Truth.
On top of that you tell me we’ve been on this road, cycling through these ages endlessly. Forever.
And the oasis town we’re going to—Pushkar—matters because it happens to be the only place in the world where a temple exists dedicated to the god of all creation—Brahma. Brahma himself resides in the middle of the holy lake at the center of Pushkar. He was bound there by his wife as punishment for taking a second, younger wife. A small shrine on a dais marks the spot. The one spot in the whole world where a person is sure to find him.
We arrive on the second day. Pushkar is a more relaxed city than Delhi, and it is certainly a relief, but a billion people are a billion people. I begin to see more westerners. Dreadlocked white guys. Tattooed white girls who look like they take yoga seriously. You point them out to me. Show me where they hang out. You don’t understand when I try to explain that in this context I’m probably just another exotic brown face to them.
They think I’m Indian too.
I spend a week exploring Pushkar on my own.
And then one day you drop me off beside the lake and a man walks up and you tell me to go with him. He escorts me to the shore. Beside us is a family playing in the water. A little beyond them are cows cooling themselves off. On the other side of the lake, the crematoria perch just above the far shore. Scores of Hindu dead are processed there. The lake is brown and stagnant looking. The water is filthy. I look at it and I’m sure I see cholera and typhus. I know I see E. Coli. Look. Right there. What is that?
And in the dead center of the lake is a dais with a shrine to Brahma—the most powerful god of the trinity—the god of all creation. He is stuck there. Stuck in the mud and surrounded by hundreds of millions of people. Gods…we are made in their image.
It turns out the man with me is a monk. He hands me a tin plate. In the plate are flower petals, different colored powders, and a coconut. We sit on the bank and he begins to pray. He dips his hand into the lake and scoops some water onto my plate. He mixes it all into a runny paste and wipes it on my forehead.
Then he tells me to pick the coconut up and bring it up to my head.
I look for you, but you’re not there. Seriously?
He motions to the coconut. He motions to my head. I do what he commands. He nods and prays some more.
Then he says to me. You must drink from the lake to finish the ceremony.
I point at the family. I point at the cows. I point at the crematoria. I shake my head. It’s dirty! As in, we’re way beyond the five-seconds rule.
He points to Brahma’s shrine. It is Brahma’s lake—the god of creation. It is a holy lake.
We’re at an impasse. I’m holding the ceremony up. However, having been in India more than a week now, I’ve come to understand that everything is negotiable. I ask him if I can flick a drop in, if that would be enough. It is a holy lake, after all. He considers this and says, Yes. You may.
I dip my index finger in the lake. I pull it out and flick a drop at my face. It misses my mouth and hits my nose. It seems to do the job though. He starts praying again and when he finishes he ties a ribbon around my wrist.
He stands and smiles and says, You will leave an offering now.
Sure. Of course.
Please leave $250 dollars with the cashier.
My instinct is to push him in and disappear in the throngs of people.
No, I say. Impossible.
He’s shocked, maybe insulted. But you completed the ceremony.
And it was lovely.
Is where his wife left him.
But you must leave an offering! I will be praying for your ancestors for the next six weeks. That is what you are paying for.
Knowing my ancestors, I laugh at this. They would haunt me on principle.
Different gods, I say. How about you just pray for them for the rest of the afternoon? How much would that cost?
He considers this.
$60 dollars. U.S. dollars, not rupees.
I agree and he seems happy. He walks me...to the cashier’s booth.
I pay and there you are again. Smiling. Beaming, in fact.
Are you happy? You ask.
The monk wanted $250 dollars!
You seem shocked. You shake your head and agree it is too much. You’re happy I negotiated and seem pleased with $60. We laugh about it.
Thank you so much, Raj. The monk, the jeweler, the carpet seller—I bought something from all of them. I hope your commission was fair.
And finally, when we leave Pushkar, we cross a bridge. You shout excitedly and stop the car.
Come look, you say.
I walk with you to the side of the bridge and we look over. The creek was low. There was nothing but puddles and muck and mud. A few flowers bloomed.
What is it? I ask.
Do you see? Do you see? Lotus flowers! They only grow in filth. The dirtier—the more beautiful the blossom. Look at how beautiful they are. Look at how many!
The flowers were scattered below us. Ancient symbols of potential and promise. And they really were beautiful!
And they were free!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Marc Fitten is a novelist and essayist based in Atlanta, GA. He's written for The New York Times and his books and selections have been published by Bloomsbury, DTV, Flammarion, Neri Pozza and Beacon Press. He is currently working on a third novel and a travelogue. He is a restless fellow who likes to travel, but you can keep up with him on Instagram.
Header photograph by fancycrave