The main temple bell at the entrance to the inner sanctum rang in a disorganised syncopated fashion, from the hands of worshippers that reached out to clang the knocker. In the small vestibule, the resonant tintinnabulation provided me with the mental distraction to the endless chant of the Brahmin priest. I had invited my Australian work colleague, Braden, to witness the ritual, and both of us were beginning to shift periodically to ease the pins and needles in our bottoms, from sitting cross-legged for so long on the cold flagstone floor.
Gathered around the sacred fire, the Brahmin priest intoned mantras, and at intermittent moments in the chant, he would spill some ghee onto the flames, then sprinkle me with sacred Ganges water from a small brass pot. All this was a concession to my parents, to appease their very traditional beliefs, and assuage their misgivings of what I was about to do.
‘Ashok, my son, you don’t need to do this,’ my father and mother had pleaded.
‘Pitaji, Mataji,’ I replied respectfully with my palms pressed together; ‘when the foreigners come to work in our country, we expect them to respect our cultural traditions and adjust.’
‘But you will pollute your soul my son. It will bring you bad karma.’
Finally, when my parents saw I would not be dissuaded, they accepted my olive branch to undergo the rituals of purification before and after my trip to Brussels.
What had occasioned this turmoil arose from an invitation to the non-government organisation where I was employed. The European Commission had provided a substantial grant for a trial village development program, which had a focus on teaching community planning methods. After the first two years of the project, Braden and I were selected by the Board to present a progress report to the Human and Economic Development Committee of the Commission.
With this being my first trip outside my own country, I confided in Braden that I would forgo my strict vegetarianism, to experience as many aspects of western culture in the short time available. Now, with the ritual out of the way and my parents somewhat appeased, both of us flew out to Brussels on Air India.
Our accommodation was a medium-priced hotel in the centre of Brussels, and after resting up from jet lag, Braden suggested we take in the sights of the Grand Place with its magnificent guild hall buildings. Although it was mid-winter and very cold, it did not dampen the thrill I felt at being in this beautiful square. However, as someone quite accustomed to the chaos of Mumbai and Delhi, I was somewhat unprepared for what happened next as we stepped into a side street to find a place for dinner.
‘Mind your step!’
The urgency of Braden’s alarm was accompanied by him pulling heavily on my elbow, which brought me to a stop.
Looking down, I saw a small defiling pile at my feet.
‘Shukriya Braden,’ I said in Hindi; ‘wow that was close. I would never have thought to see that in a European city.’
There before our eyes was a scattered minefield of frozen dog turds, half-buried in the snow–covered pavement. Silently I recalled to mind the mantra for purification as we dodged the offending objects down to the next corner, where there was a restaurant. Upon entering, it became evident to both of us, that the people of Brussels had a particular affinity with their pets, and that even dogs were allowed to sit at restaurant tables with their masters.
With my sensibilities and appreciation of all things from the West suddenly shaken by what I had witnessed, I wondered if I could continue with my experiment in cross–cultural immersion. When the waiter arrived, I looked for something recognisable on the menu. Braden ordered escargot. It was a dish he was eager to try. Finally, among the menu dishes written out in both French and Flemish, I spied a dish with an easily pronounceable name in English: Sandwich Américain.
While we waited for our dinners, Braden and I rehearsed the plan for the presentation of our report in the morning. Then with a flurry, the waiter arrived and laid our dishes on the table. This time my resolve to go on with my experiment collapsed.
‘Braden, I can’t eat this. Is it a joke, or is this what people here really think Americans like to eat?’
Across the table, Braden gave me a shrug of the shoulders as he took another mouthful of his escargot. The plate set before me of minced raw horsemeat on toast, with a meagre salad on the side, finally undid me.
‘Here Braden, you have it.’
He looked at me and smiled at the unexpected offering of a second meal.