praying with alphonsa
my first days in bangalore were at my friend ravi’s home, which is a tile and marble giant with a sweeping staircase and nine bedrooms and six bathrooms and a rent of $400 US. plus he has a maid and a really good cook named alphonsa.
i met ravi when he visited farley house in ooty when i was there in 2009. tales of ravi’s magic preceded him. “when ravi comes we will have a party!” “when ravi comes we will have a feast!” “when ravi comes, he will bring sweets, and meat, and many good things!”
soon ravi was on his way to farley, and the fact that he was delayed and then delayed again only made everyone’s anticipation more delicious.
the moment finally arrived. ravi was here! but now it was late at night and he was tired and there was nothing wonderful being pulled out from his truck and nothing magical at all happened. i felt like i was six years old again and hiding behind the sofa playing with matches and burning my fingers when someone snuck into the room and i peeped out from behind the sofa and i saw them put a present under the christmas tree and i finally realized that my brothers were right. there is no santa claus.
the next day, however, it happened. ravi turned on his “everything’s possible” charisma and soon everyone was drawn into the vision: a barbecue! we all sprang into action, gathering wood for the fire, setting up tables, preparing food, bringing out chairs, unbending hangers to roast things on, and running to town with ravi in his beautiful car to buy ice cream and meats and sweets and wonderful things. ravi’s magic is for real.
it was so nice to pad down the marble staircase in my jet-lagged state to the kitchen to say hi to alphonsa the cook and find the fresh milk from the neighbor’s cow that she had just pasteurized for my nescafe and delicious things she had made for breakfast waiting on the table.
the thick air of bangalore air smells of two things: smoke and sewer. the smoke is from thousands of smoldering garbage fires, and anywhere is up for grabs as a toilet or urinal — except where there’s a posted sign: “DO NOT URINE HERE”.
jayaraj, ravi’s brother from the boys’ home, took me into the heart of bangalore numerous times on my frustrating but ultimately successful quest for a cell phone (i now have two! — which is very common here). we went on his motorcycle, which was like being in a two-way motocross race that includes trucks, rickshaws, busses, cars, and pedestrians.
i didn’t have a helmet, and after a thrilling trip into the city and back i was stiff and sweaty and looked like a filthy snarly 1960s country western wig had been plopped onto my head.
one day alphonsa invited me to see her house. so when she finished her work at four o’clock we set out for the bus.
as we stood by the side of the road and waited for the right bus, alphonsa said, “would you like to see st. francis xavier’s church?!”
frankly, no, i thought, but i could see how much it meant to her, so i said, “sure!”
then she said, “would you like to see st. mary’s church?!” it seemed like a lot to try to fit in two churches between bus rides and seeing her house and meeting her family and then finding my pre-arranged taxi for getting back to ravi’s house, so i said, “sure!”
“we can pray together… like that.” she said.
“like that” is a very big phrase in india, and it punctuates millions and millions of sentences a day here.
alphonsa works six days a week for six or seven hours a day and makes Rs 4500 per month. that’s less than $100. as we took our seats on the bus, i noticed a number of girls on the bus who were wearing the exact same red and yellow sari. i’ve seen thousands and thousands of saris, and they are never ever the same one twice, so i asked alphonsa about it.
“they go to om shakthi temple,” she said. “like that.”
once we got off the bus we walked through a mid-city park that had fences that lined the sidewalks and kept people off of the grass. alphonsa pointed ahead and said, “just there is st. francis xavier. we’ll go to my house and i’ll change my clothes. and then we’ll come back. ok?”
“ok,” i said.
as i thought about this, i realized that when she said she was going to change her clothes she meant she was going to put on not something more comfortable, but something more special. i looked down at the holes in the knees of my jeans. “sorry i’m not wearing something nicer,” i said.
as we walked by a number of small shops she turned to me. “i buy you new jeans?”
“oh! no… but thank you!” i said.
“four hundred fifty rupees,” she said. “like that.”
a few minutes later she offered again. this st. francis xavier church better be pretty great if you’re willing to spend more than a month’s wages so i can enter without holes in my jeans. they would just have to do, i thought.
finally we came to a doorway in the side of a three-story building. above the doorway was a carved elephant head image of ganesha, the hindu lord of success. we entered and walked along a narrow passage through the three-story building and then between two smaller buildings. we came out to a patch of daylight and her tiny house, which consisted of a string of three rooms. the first room had a blaring tv, a small table, and nothing else.
the next room was the kitchen, from which she produced a folding chair for me to sit on. one side of the kitchen held a gas stove (no oven), a black counter, and a dingy sink. on the other side stretched two long shelves that housed her collection of pots and pans. the largest pot looked like it could hold eight gallons.
beyond the kitchen was the bedroom. clothes were draped over the door. i’m not sure of the sleeping arrangements, but alphonsa has a husband and three children, ranging in age from sixteen to eleven. outside and adjacent to the house were two stalls. one held the squatty potty and the other a cold shower. each had a curtain for the door.
as i waited by the tv, alphonsa put on one her five good saris, which was a deep purple silk with gold borders. she took down her long black hair and then smoothed it back again into a bun. she was ready. i took her picture.
we walked back through the dim passage and to the street. time was running short, so we flagged down a rickshaw. it would be st. mary’s first, then st. francis xavier.
from the rickshaw alphonsa pointed out the om shakti temple where the devotees all wear the same sari. the rickshaw honked and dodged its way through a massive and crowded and noisy market, and then past another hindu temple. soon we saw the tall white spire of st. mary’s basilica.
the noise of the market was muffled by the air of quiet reverence in the courtyard of the church. as we approached the main building, a man kissed and embraced a poster of Jesus.
just as we reached the door, the muslim call to prayer rang out over the scene from the loudspeaker of a nearby mosque. we went inside the basilica and found a pew.
alphonsa kneeled on a wooden bench to pray. i sat on the pew and looked around me.
i didn’t feel at all like praying. but the muslim call to prayer echoing through the basilica tugged at my heart. i closed my eyes and bowed my head and began to pray.
i thanked God for bringing me to india and to this place at this time.
and i prayed for light on my path.
when i finished, all was quiet. the call to prayer was over. i lifted my head and opened my eyes. alphonsa was ready to go.