I was given a five-minute slot for my interview with God. St. Luke ushered me into the Artists Waiting Area and briefed me. “When the bell rings seven times, that door opens, and you walk in. Remember there are atheists, agnostics, Christians and sinners in line with appointments. You are only allowed one question. You’ll be escorted out of the room when your time runs out. No exceptions for Catholics and Artists. You’ll hear the reminder bell at the end of each minute.” And he said nothing more.
“Mine won’t take long” I responded, but he had vanished.
I skimmed through my notes and scored out the unnecessary questions and circled my thesis statement. I would play it by ear, I decided. The bell went ding-dong, once, twice…, I pulled out my handkerchief and mopped my forehead and wiped dry my moist palms on my formal HachiChille outfit. I stood up ramrod stiff in readiness to face him.
“So you want to know where I live and whose God is the real one,” the voice resonated.
“I am a practising Catholic and I attend Mass. I don’t remember, I mean, I never heard you speak to me in the church, I did earnestly pay attention,” I hesitantly responded.
“I don’t live in churches or brick and mortar contraptions, you surely know that.”
I did. Nonetheless, dodging the declaration, my thoughts drifted to a time when I was about six. My mother woke me in the dead of the night, so I thought, to attend the ceremony of the Last Supper. I resisted walking to church in the dark and my mother cajoled me with how Jesus had died on the cross for our sins. I asked my mother if I could change my religion and like St. Luke, she chose to remain silent.
“You didn’t find me that day, I know.”
Was he reading my thoughts?
“Yes, I can do that,” he said while I resumed down memory lane to recall the Last Supper and the sequence of attempts which unfolded thereafter in my search for God.
It was monsoon break, a happy time of the year when Mom took me on a tour far far away from home. On a dawn, I stood before the lofty Madurai Meenakshi temple and felt like a midget. To make matters worse, my temperature had tipped the red line of the thermometer and the guide’s description of the Gopurams seemed chaotic, just like my perception of God. Subsequently, the Pandya’s danced in tumultuous spirals in my head. I felt so vulnerable.
“I know you didn’t find me in that temple that day. I was at the doctors because you had passed out when you got that shot.”
In a jiffy, like that of a monkey, my mind was beyond my sway and propelled me further to the Palani temple. Between the formidable monsoon storms at dusk and the gut-wrenching search for my missing brother of three in the melee, I was devastated. My soul-searching little mind simply asked, “Does he reside at all at Palani, at the abode of Meenakshi, or at that chapel where I had sat down to partake of the Last Supper? With my brother nowhere to be traced, my mother was beyond consolation. The bus coach tightened his grip on me, so I didn’t run loose as well, and fellow pilgrims went on a frantic search down the steps leading to the pond and around and about the temple. And where was he in all this?
“You found me there where your little brother was found safe and dancing in the rain, drenched and happy.”
I was dumbfounded. And he wasn’t going to give up either. That stubborn man was waiting for my rejoinder. Pushed to the corner, and after what seemed like a riotous deliberation in my head, I hesitantly replied,
“You are right. Thank you, Lord”
“You found me again,” he said, and I zoomed into a different memory. I was on my knees admiring the beautiful 18th century hand painted Chinese tiles on the floor of the Paradesi Synagogue. The guide explained that every tile on the floor was unique although it looked the same to me.
“You found me there.”
“I lowered my head in gratitude. The memory of those serene blue tiles is imprinted on my mind.”
“You were little, and sadly you looked for me in places I didn’t live in. I don’t live atop the Tower of Babel or in the tallest of statues, or under gold leaf domes or atop marble altars. I live in the actions of men.”
“Didn’t you find me on your recent trip?” he asked, and I was transported to the Golden Temple, on a trip I had taken as an adult, with a Hindu and a Muslim friend, where I chanted prayers walking around the circumambulatory.
“I was that mendicant who posed for a picture. Taken in by my mystique beauty, you told me that you would paint me someday. Besides I served you at the langar.”
I was in a daze now and didn’t know how to acknowledge him after my disheartening search for him in all these years.
“I was the atheist you met on your travels, on the day when your phone had died, and no one spoke English and you needed to get back to your lodging.”
“I was that kumkum-dotted conductor, who deboarded you from the wrong bus you were in, in an unfamiliar land, and put you on track.”
“I was that illegal immigrant who cooked a meal for you when you were sick with flu and couldn’t retain food, and refused to accept money.”
“I was that Bangladeshi Muslim who paid for a part of your air ticket when the credit card machines at the airport were not working and you were short of cash to get from Halmstad to Stockholm.”
“Wait, I don’t get you.Were you the Atheist and those others and the illegal who helped me?”
“You’ll by and by discern how I work.”
“That for sure, I’ll. But I must say Lord that your ways are weird, and you are indeed queer, I mean, …oh never mind that. I would never have guessed that it was your hand behind all of those …,”
“You’ve met me many times my child. I am usually that stranger, sometimes the Atheist, sometimes the Protestant, the Jew, the Hindu, the Muslim, the immigrant and the Agnostic. Remember, the German girl you met on your way to Berlin? She told you that she had a grumpy face but was always smiling inside. “Same here,” you said to her and laughed. So, did I.
“Remember your back was hurting and you stopped for a stretch on a long drive in Riverbank, and that Sikh family offered you tea and invited you to stay for a meal.”
“Yes, I remember the feeling. I have felt that presence in the beauty of the landscape, in the stillness of nature, in the joyful bark of a naughty dog.I have felt that self-same presence at the hairdressers where she shared her delicious Persian pilaf with me. It was you, wasn’t it?”
“I’ve always been there. You never looked for me in the right places.”
The bell rang the fifth time. I never got to ask him my all-important question which is,
“Why do people fight to build mortar and brick contraptions in your name, fight over the exact location of your birthplace, argue for the supremacy of their religion over the other, justify actions of hatred against…?”
“Hold it child, that’s not one question.”
I looked around but couldn’t see anyone.
“I did use commas Lord, with the question mark glyph at the end,” pleaded my mind.