I was flattered when my invitation to Mother India’s house for dinner was accepted. I’d only asked her out the week before and despite having cost me fifty pounds and two sullen snaps of yours truly for the privilege, I eagerly got ready for my date. Of course I’d looked up her profile on the internet and heeded the advice of many of her former dates, who were mainly positive with only a few caveats thrown in. I’d even bought a book on how to behave and what to do when I arrived. With my bag packed, my cards and wallet safely ensconced in my money belt, I embarked on the 6000 mile journey to this mystical woman that many people have heard of but are reluctant to go out with.
I arrived at the large bamboo, iron and gold gates joining the tall wire fence. It was adorned with various religious symbols, with ॐ at the centre. A few mud brick outhouses with corrugated steel roofs were scattered around the compound and cows wandered freely between the shacks. Banana and palm trees grew in various corners of the gardens and a huge, green, mist topped verge covered the fence at the opposite end of the boundary. I rang the brass bell suspended from the statue of Ganesh, put down my bags and waited.
An hour later the gates automatically opened with an “Aum” sound and I took my first tentative steps into Mother India’s realm. At first I felt the cloying heat and humidity and I immediately regretted wearing my long trousers and shirt. As I walked towards the front door, I had to avoid several cow pats, stray dogs and occasional offers of taxis, tour guides and objets d’art. The house was in the centre of the compound and the walk was harder than it would have been back home. My clothes clung to my body with the merciless sweat of tropical exertion and I found myself stopping to buy bottled water at small wooden shacks on the side of the path. Never once was I tempted to drink from the local taps. I wanted my stomach to stay fresh for my hot date and all that it would entail.
The streets became narrower as I walked to the main house door. The front was identical to face of the Taj Mahal, with sparkling white marble. Behind this impressive and imposing façade, I saw that the rest of the house was made of splintered and chipped wood covered in blue polythene sheets, presumably to keep out the rain I could see strolling in from the far corner of the grounds. Small children were playing in the red soil while their mothers picked stones out of dry rice and swept the dust from one end of the veranda to the other. The children spotted my relatively skinny white frame and rushed over to ask for pens and foreign coins. To both requests, I replied “Nahin!” (No!), a very useful word I gleaned from the back of the Mother India instruction manual.
Arriving at the front door, I noticed no door bell and a pile of shoes next to the marble steps. I removed my sandals, my bare feet padding reluctantly like a desert lizard on the hot stone. The door was wide open with a ragged cloth hanging from the door jamb billowing outwards to greet me. I coughed politely. No answer. I coughed again. No answer. I threw a hello around the curtain and then I heard some faint footsteps slapping purposefully from inside. As they increased in volume, I stood up straighter and made my grin wider without seeming sarcastic. The curtain was peeled back and a tiny, filthy, wrinkled old lady emerged at about chest height.
“Namaste,” she said in a withered voice. “Please come in and have some chai.”
I removed my shoes and added them to the pile, noticing a hole in one of my sweaty socks. I curled my toes to hide my shame and limped towards the dark sitting room where the old woman handed me a tray containing an earthenware cup. I sipped the contents and sucked the sweet, milky pseudo tea syrup off my teeth. The drink was surprisingly refreshing for such a hot, sweet liquor and I nursed it while I waited in silence as the crone shuffled off behind the curtain. I looked at my book, and it’s publishing date, and found that Mother India looked nothing like this old lady, and I felt a sense of despondency creep from within.
Another 30 minutes passed while I flicked through my temporary bible looking for optimistic deliverance, when I heard firm footsteps above the noise of the whumping of the ceiling fan. I looked towards the bead covered door at the opposite side of the room as a roving shadow emerged. A plump, pleasant woman in a silk rainbow coloured sari emerged with a sideways glance and a huge grin. Her bare feet possessed the floor, leaving clammy prints as she manouvered her way towards me. I stood up as she greeted me, standing at arms’ length, hands as if in prayer:
“Namaste. Welcome to my home. I have many things to share with you and many stories to tell. Are you sure you are ready for the truth and all that awaits you?”
I felt a surge of exhilaration and dread as I replied the only way I dared:
“Yes. Please lead on.”
And then we walked, arms linked, into the next room…