I wonder if it is more than a coincidence that the cloth store’s name that I am looking for, Sri Satyanarayana, is also one of the many names for god in South India. Perplexed that the rickshaw drivers don’t recognize the name of their god when I say it, I try to say it differently. I have made a special excursion to this town in South India to shop and want to get going.
A few days before, I read a daily column that appears in the Hindu Times titled, “Religion”. It tells the story of an evil man, who upon his death-bed calls out the name of his son, Naryana which is also one of the many names for god. The tale points out that simply by saying god’s name, even without any intention or belief great things happen. Though the dying man is a scoundrel, he attains moksha (nirvana) or liberation simply by saying Naryana. This short cut appeals to me but I know that I’m in trouble if I can’t even say god’s name correctly. I wonder if this counts.
The rickshaw wallah continues to look at me with a blank expression. After consulting with two other drivers, I detect a faint glow of comprehension when I say, ” saree shop.” In a cloud of fumes and dust we bounce down the rutted dirt road away from the center of town.
There it is, about two kilometers down the road, the Sri Satyanarayana Cloth Shop, standing bigger and taller than any of its neighbors. To me, it looks like god’s palace and I’ve found heaven.
The gates are open. I peer in. My heart starts to pound with excitement, not because I’m closer to god but because I love to shop for cloth. The marble floor gleams with welcome.
The gatekeeper, cum head cashier and probably owner greets me in English, unusual for such a remote town. Naryana, I think to myself, maybe I really have found heaven. I am directed up a grand staircase to the women’s dept. Even before I reach the top step my eyes dart around the room while taking in all the fabrics that are screaming out to me: “I’m lemony yellow, aren’t I de-light-ful? I’m raspberry red, how can you resist me? I’m the regal peacock blue that you lust after.” I struggle to control my enthusiasm. The shelves are lined floor to ceiling with fabrics. It is as if rainbows are for sale.
For my benefit the fan and lights are switched on. I start at one end of the horseshoe-shaped display and examine everything which is very un-Indian. I make my selection. My cloth is measured and cut, folded and sent downstairs. An employee switches the fan and lights off and I return downstairs to pay.
Pleased with my purchases and god’s name on my tongue, I slowly amble back toward the center of town, on the look out for a restaurant. I see an ice cream parlour but decide against it.
It is lunch time and the stalls and shops are lowering their gates for their siesta. I continue walking, looking at everything with interest. Then my eye catches a quick quiver of movement. A very large, long and wide green snake slithers down the steps of what looks like a closed shop. It practically glides over my feet but stops just short of me and rapidly turns and slithers up the steps of the shop next door. Stunned, I stop, Naryana, I want to say but am momentarily speechless. A man holding a stick comes out of the first shop. Two men come out of the shop where the snake has just entered. No one looks alarmed. And no one pays any attention to me. I have the impression that the snake is familiar and it is only a case of a mischievous and naughty snake. Puzzled and amazed, I continue walking, my hunger mounting.
Back in the center of town I see a sign for the typical “meals” restaurant one sees in South India. These are usually very basic with a small menu. They are not my preference but I am hungry and there isn’t anything else. I enter.
I am the only white face in the place and in f act, in the entire town. Every one watches me with curiosity but I am not made to feel unwelcome. When I smile every one smiles back broadly. I select an unoccupied table under a ceiling fan. To my surprise, the waiter speaks good English. With pride, he tells me that his brother lives in Australia and works for the State Bank of India. I order subji-chapati. The waiter brings my thali (circular stainless steel tray) with five cups on it. Each cup contains spicy liquids in varying degrees of hotness and some cooked vegetables and curd. In the center of the tray is a mountain of rice. Next to the rice are two items that I mistake for puris. The waiter proudly explains that they are a local specialty made from mashed bananas, wheat, sugar and curd. I have never seen or tried them before. They are delicious. The waiter keeps trying to refill my cups but I eat slowly and the spicy liquids don’t much appeal to me. He refills the vegetable cup. I swat the flies away. I am full. At the door I pay what the locals pay and leave, ready for whatever slithers my way with Naryana’s name on my lips.