WHAT’S IN MY BAG?

In an early writing exercise in her book, “The Way of a Fearless Writer,” Beth Kempton asks you to empty your bag and write about its contents. I decided to write about the “god pouch” I have carried in my bag for over a decade, although its contents have doubled. My god pouch is my mobile shrine, my collection of idols and spiritual artifacts. I clutch the talisman when submitting articles for review, walking on a lonely dark street, waiting for tense doctor’s appointments, or when the urge to connect with the powers above strikes. As I laid out the contents of the pouch, a small cloth bag from the Indian clothing store, FabIndia, I realized each one represents a turning point in my life.    

Ganesha: This finely carved metal Ganesha, the Hindu Elephant god, is in an unusually combative warrior pose on one leg. Ganesha, the lord of cool, is usually seen in a reclining pose. He’s also bent forward here and could tip over. I don’t know if this is a manufacturing defect or the result of an accident because a former colleague in India gave it to me more than twenty years ago. We were good friends but fell out due to something he did. But for old times’ sake, I decided to say goodbye before leaving for the US. He was touched and gave me this Ganesha, which was on his desk. That was the last time I saw or heard from him, but it is surreal that we remain connected through this idol. An impromptu gift, which he’s surely forgotten, has become my lifeline.   

The goddess, Mookambika: This figurine is of the goddess worshipped in the Mookambika temple in Karnataka, India. The temple is special because it is one of the few personally established by the Hindu seer, Sankaracharya. Thousands of devotees flock there yearly to seek the goddess’ blessings, especially for their scholarly and artistic pursuits. In the early nineties, I was preparing for the mother of all exams, the Indian Civil Services exam. Passing this highly competitive three-part exam places you in elite governmental jobs. I had another job then and was preparing for the exams with a friend. He was an ardent devotee of the goddess and told me I must seek her blessings before the exams, and I did. And voila, both my friend and I got through the written exams. Since then, I have been a regular visitor to the temple, and no India trip is complete without a trip to the hills of Kollur, atop which the temple sits. It is one of those rare temples where you can feel completely alone despite the thronging crowds.

My trips to Mookambika temple are also memorable because of the people I have traveled with, especially my late mother and aunt. As homemakers, they rarely got a chance to travel, and these trips were a perfect getaway for them. Another attraction of this little temple town is the long row of small restaurants serving South Indian fare. A typical day once we are there starts with the morning prayers at 6 am, followed by a hearty breakfast of dosas, idlis, and coffee. After briefly resting in the hotel next door, we return to pray until lunchtime. Lunch is usually a sumptuous vegetarian thali: a large spread of rice with four or five different curries. Then it’s siesta time (the temple closes post-lunch for a couple of hours). After a nap and a second shower, you head back to the temple after some strong coffee and snacks, usually banana and lentil fritters. The rest of the evening is spent in the temple lounging in the various spots until it’s time for the evening prayers, after which the temple closes for the day. Then it’s dinner time, usually chappatis and curry. You go to bed satiated in the truest sense. Rinse and repeat the next day.  

A Sikh kada (bangle): After I got through the written part of the Civil Services exam, thanks to the goddess’ blessings, there was a final hurdle: the interview conducted in New Delhi. This is no ordinary interview; it is conducted by a board of experts who can question you on anything from history and art to public policy. Luck comes into play here because some boards are friendlier than others and tend to ask questions relating to a specific field you are familiar with. I stayed with my cousins in New Delhi to attend the interview and was very anxious. My young niece suggested I visit the Bangla Sahib Gurudwara, the holy worship place of the Sikhs in Delhi. She said even your wildest dreams come true if you pray there, citing the example of Beant Singh, the late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s bodyguard turned assassin. He is said to have prayed there before his heroic or heinous act, depending on which camp you are on (Mrs. Gandhi did what many Sikhs consider unforgivable: ordering an army invasion of the Golden Temple, the holiest Sikh shrine, to flush out the terrorists wanting a separate Sikh country harboring there). 

I followed my niece’s advice. Once there, I was enveloped by the Gurdwara’s spiritual energy. The simple yet powerful devotional songs (Gurbani) waft through speakers. Volunteers from all walks run the place. They cook the meals that are served free to the visitors, clean the place, collect your shoes, and serve the delicious gooey halva: the Gurudwara’s free offering to every visitor. My prayers worked, I got through the interview, and since then, the Gurudwara has been an essential stop whenever I visit Delhi. The kada, the steel bangle, is one of the five articles every devout Sikh must carry, but non-Sikhs can carry it, too, as an artifact. I bought my cherished kada when I took my late father there on our last holiday together.   

Coin from the St. Patrick’s Cathedral in NYC: 2007 was the beginning of a four-year dark period of my life when everything unraveled in the worst possible way. I lived in Philadelphia then, and my refuge during those days was the famous St. Peter and Paul Cathedral across my apartment. I went there every morning and knelt in the pews as soon as it opened. That quiet, mostly empty, cool, beautiful, myrrh-scented cathedral gave me the strength to face yet another day.  As always, time heals wounds, things fall into place, the dark clouds lift, and I was ready to start afresh in a new job in NJ. As I bade goodbye to one of the cleaning staff who always had the morning shift, he told me their counterpart in NYC is St Patrick’s Cathedral (the closest to NJ). 

Since then, no NYC trip has been complete without a stop at St Patrick’s. It was my center of gravity in NYC. Who’d have thought that a decade later, my dream of living in Manhattan would come true and that I would be just a fifteen-minute walk from my favorite place? During a recent trip there with my good friend, she bought me this coin I now carry in my pouch.            

Writing this piece makes me a tad sheepish about how transactional my spirituality was in my younger days. Moreover, all those do-or-die goals, like getting through the Indian Civil Services Exam, weren’t that important after all because I quit and moved to the US. Thankfully, my spirituality has matured into gratitude for a life well-lived. My trusted god pouch is a collection of my life’s milestones and will be by my side as I hit new ones.       

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