In the past few decades, I’ve been inside a church maybe two dozen times, mostly for weddings and funerals, a few times to marvel at the soaring nave or the intricately carved chancel of a cathedral, and once or twice just to sit in silence and pray. I was brought up in a tradition that said that I belonged to the One True Church, but that never made much sense to me. My Catholicism lapsed almost 30 years ago at the age of 15. The ending began just after my confirmation, the age when parents of American teenagers tacitly agree they can no longer force their wayward children to attend Mass. It was a process laced with humor in and of itself. I remember my meeting with Father John Mikalajunas, a wonderful, kindhearted priest who was not above twisting an ear or two in order to impart moral judgment in his recalcitrant charges, but otherwise a lovely man. We sat alone in the pews of the modern, semi-circular, St. Thomas Aquinas Church on a Wednesday afternoon during CCD class at some point in the early 1980s. He asked me if I’d settled upon a confirmation name, and I told him I had.
“Xavier,” I said. “I’m going to be Michael Xavier Tallon.”
He beamed with joy and effused about “Francis Xavier, that wonderful saint. Wonderful saint! The children loved him and he loved the little animals! Wonderful saint!”
I hadn’t the foggiest idea of whom he was speaking. I’d chosen the name Xavier for two reasons. First was my nascent political identification with civil rights warriors like Malcolm X. Second, and probably more important, was my teenage fascination with Professor Charles Xavier, mutant leader of The Uncanny X-Men.
That fairly well describes my level of commitment to a religious worldview which even as a teenager I wasn’t much inclined to support. It was all so limited and parochial, and the whole idea that most people in the world are damned for eternity just seemed foolish. Moreover, there were times, like when Father John asked our CCD class to write letters to his friend and colleague the exorcist, that it positively creeped me out. And, yes, this did happen, complete with EXORCISM and DEMONIC POSSESSION spelled out on the chalkboard to help us along. Twenty 5th-graders in a room writing some version of “Dear Father Whatever-Your-Name-Was, I hope you had a really nice exorcism today. Your friend. A Very Frightened Child in Upstate New York.”
But a few of the parables did stick with me. Particularly one that Father John shared with us in a sermon. It was the story of the widow’s mite.
If you’re Christian, you’ll probably recall it, even if you can’t pull up the chapter and verse. It’s a story actually told by two of the Evangelists: (Mark 12:41-44, Luke 21:1-4). Jesus is at the temple, teaching his disciples, fielding questions from the assembled and checking out the rich guys dropping gold and silver into the treasury when an old woman arrives and places two small copper coins (mites, according to the King James Version) into the offertory. Presuming the ridicule to be cast upon her by the rich men, Jesus called his boys into a huddle and reminded them that, “this poor widow hath cast more than all which they have cast into the treasury, for all they cast was of their abundance, but she cast in all that she had . . .”
The old woman gave of her substance, not of her excess.
The central lesson that it is of greater moral worth to give in such a manner made sense to me from the first time I heard it. It’s part of the reason I taught high school in Brooklyn for 13 years, rather than pursuing a more lucrative career. It’s part of the reason a billionaire giving millions of dollars to charity doesn’t impress me very much. And along the way, I learned that this lesson has no cultural boundaries, most profoundly while sharing a meal several years ago with a Muslim friend in the middle of the holiest of Hindu cities on the Indian subcontinent.
And that’s a story worth telling.
By the time I reached Varanasi, and met my friend Pappu, I’d been traveling in India for about a month, though it was my first stop as a proper backpacker. The previous four weeks had been spent with an entourage assembled by the mother of one of my closest friends who had recently died. The family had lived in New Delhi when my friend John was a teenager and his father was the United States Ambassador to India. To say the least, it was an interesting way to travel through the subcontinent. Most nights we were either guests of the Maharaja of Jodhpur at one of his palaces, or out on an archeological mission for National Geographic Magazine or the Smithsonian Museum. Christmas Day was spent with a world renowned economist, the publisher of one of America’s great newspapers, family friends, and an old diplomat with whom I became very close over our few weeks together, Jagat Mehta.
No matter how long I live, I don’t expect that Christmas Day to be topped for sheer strangeness. At dawn we flew from Jodhpur to Jaisalmer in the far west of Rajasthan near the Pakistani border. Eighty-three-year-old Jagat and I were on camelback, riding out onto the dunes of the Thar Desert where we were to meet the rest of our party and a group of 200 tribal musicians who had been arranged to present a concert on our behalf near an oasis. Jagat, who had been the first man hired by the Foreign Ministry of a newly independent India back in 1948 — and had ultimately risen to become the Foreign Secretary — turned to me and said with his exacting, senatorial, High-Indian English accent, “Michael . . . Michael, old boy. Have you yet met the Dalai Lama?”
Without missing a beat he continued, “You must. Before you leave India, you must meet the Dalai Lama. Everything they say of him is true. Brilliant fellow. Beautiful soul.”
I made some joke about having my people call his people. Jagat may have thought I was being serious, as he continued, “Good, good. You’ll not regret it. Remember me to him. Dear friend, he is. And, by the way, old boy, do you know how it is that the Tibetans came to live in Dharamsala?”
I confessed that I didn’t, and Jagat then told the story about how he helped convinced Nehru to allow the refugees from China’s invasion of Tibet to settle in Northern India, arguing that if India left them to their fate in front of the advancing Chinese army, then it didn’t merit the mantle of a moral nation. Nehru feared twisting the tail of the tiger to the north but ultimately Jagat pressed on the Gandhian buttons hard enough and Nehru relented. Since that time, Jagat and His Holiness, the 14th Dalai Lama, have been close friends.
Pretty impressive stuff. Christmas Day on camelback with an 83-year-old man recalling to me how he once saved a civilization.
That’s the kind of company I’d been keeping during my first month in India, and all of them were generous and wonderful to a fault, none more than my friend John’s mother, Liz. She had planned this trip with John, but as he had passed, she invited me to travel in his stead. It was a remarkable opportunity.
But such pampered treatment wasn’t to last much past the New Year, when the entourage scattered. Liz returned to New York City, Jagat to his home in Udaipur, the other guests to their faculty positions and newsrooms, and I carried on through India on a much leaner budget, and having no real direction, decided to head towards Calcutta, stopping in Varanasi along the way.
I’d called to arrange a hotel and a driver in advance of my arrival, and after a 12-hour train ride I was met by Abid, a man with his hair hennaed to a hilarious orange hue. He guided me through the station to a waiting tuk-tuk piloted by Pappu Akhtar, a man who would become my very dear friend.
Pappu loaded my backpack into the rear seat, and I squeezed myself in next to it. We then tore into the Varanasi traffic and I was immediately happy with having a Muslim driver in a city populated by a majority of Hindus who believe that to die in within the city limits of Varanasi guarantees an escape from samsara, the nearly endless cycle of life, death and rebirth of the Hindu faith. Not being a believer myself, I was satisfied to make it through the snarled traffic and to my hotel in one piece.
On the way to the hotel, Pappu passed me a scrapbook. Its pages were stuffed with letters and photographs of his former clients, all singing his praises. The phrase that stood out several times noted that Pappu was “one of the good guys.” As it turns out, that was an understatement. And the photographs were just wonderful. Pappu, all five-foot four of him, standing with towering Dutchmen and broad-shouldered Aussie women, posing in front of a could-be-anywhere photo studio backdrop of a beach or forest scene. All of them smiling from ear to ear.
At first I thought this was only a creative marketing ploy to earn my business over the coming week, but there was such a gentle openness about him that, somewhere along the half-an-hour drive to the hotel, I decided to hire him for the duration of my stay.
I was exhausted from the train ride, and after Pappu carried my bag to my room, I asked if he might be free for the coming seven days. He gave me a price, told me he was available and I contracted him to pick me up the following morning for a tour of the city.
“First, I think, you should see the ghats,” he said. “Then the Hanuman temple. Then The Bodhi Tree, then . . .”
“Let’s decide tomorrow,” I suggested.
He agreed and we arranged for a 10 AM pickup the following morning.
Shortly after breakfast, Pappu arrived and drove me through the city and down to the ghats, giving me a brief history of Varanasi along the way.
To Hindus, Varanasi is the holiest of cities and is dedicated to Lord Kashi Vishwanath, a manifestation of Shiva, God as Destroyer and Transformer. It squats on a bend in the Ganges, halfway between Delhi and Calcutta, and if the Sadhus are to be believed, it is also perfectly poised between this world and the next. Architecturally, the city is a study in perseverance and superposition with Mogul, Hindu, Sikh and Neoclassical structures vying for attention amidst a sea of shanties, slums, shops, hovels and hotels.
It is the city of holy cremations and Hindus from all over the world travel to Varanasi at the end of their lives in a final pilgrimage so that they might achieve nirvana and never have to return to the suffering of this world. As such, an entire industry of death and disposal has built up around this belief.
On the way to the river, Pappu explained to me the process. He then drove me to the southern end of the promenade that stretches for a few kilometers and told me that he’d meet me at the northern end. I came to understand later why this was so. At the moment, I thought he was just concerned about the safety of his tuk-tuk.
According to Pappu, the cremations are performed at two of the many ghats, steps or hills, depending on the translation, that descend to the river from the city raised high on the western bank. One of the “Burning Ghats” is low rent, a Baltic Avenue of disembarking souls, and the other, a Park Place, reserved for those with the resources to secure a higher-end coach to the hereafter. It is an industry. There are guesthouses for the families, death houses for pilgrims on their final journey — and hotels, touts, trinket shops and boat rides for the tourists. On the river there is an infrastructure of wood delivery for the merchants — boats and boatmen, carters and choppers, and more distant — another economic and religious subset to harvest the wood. And a workforce of Dalits, Untouchables, who handle the bodies of the dead during the ceremony, supports all of this. These particular Untouchables are called Pariahs and they perform cremations around the clock, 365 days a year.
A person who knows they are dying, and wishes to do so here, leaves home for a final pilgrimage, and spends the last days or weeks in a kind of hospice. Within hours of death the family carries the body to the river, chanting incantations in the name of Ram until they arrive at one of the woodpiles provided by the merchants of cremation. There are thousands of cords of wood on the shore by the Burning Ghats, and in boats on the river, at all times. This is business and the supply of customers will no sooner run dry than the Ganges. At the wood merchant’s shop, the body is weighed to determine the exact amount of fuel necessary for near total consumption by fire. A price is bargained, the wood purchased and the body then is carried, by the men of the family, to the Ganges, wherein it is dipped for purification.
Depending on the wealth of the family, different mixtures of wood are purchased. The wealthiest families can afford a reasonable ratio of sandalwood; the rest is banyan or mango. Also, the wealthier the family of the deceased the more ghee, or clarified butter, is included in the pyre along with sweet-smelling oils and herbs. A standing structure, about three-feet high, is then built of the recently purchased wood by the hired Pariahs, the golden sheet that has covered the body is removed, and the cremation ceremony is set to begin. The body, now wrapped only in muslin, is placed upon what will be the pyre.
The family then walks around the body five times and a branch is lit from the eternal Shiva fire in the temple above the ghat. This flame makes the Council Fire of the Iroquois Confederacy look like a babe in arms. It has been burning, according to Pappu, for thousands of years. A burning branch is then brought to the body, and the waiting pyre is set alight. After an hour and a half or so, a large piece of wood is used to crush the skull of a male body, or the hip, if it is a woman. The fire then burns for another hour and what is left, normally a few kilograms of torso, is thrown into the Ganges.
There are some people whose bodies are not burned, but are rather taken out to the Ganges, weighted with stones, and sunk. I had heard that this was a form of disrespect, but Pappu assured me that it was an honor reserved for the purest of the pure: Sadhus — holy men who had given up everything in their lives, even connections to their families — to live simple ascetic existences of wandering the roads, living and sleeping in their humble cloths, and the removal of all physical pleasures, with the exception of a bit of charras, or hashish. Also making this holy list of the flameless are pregnant women, children under 10, victims of snakebite, and those with chickenpox scars. It is believed that those taken by snakebite are the chosen ones of Shiva himself, and those with chickenpox scars have upon them the mark of the mother goddess.
The world is a very strange place, and Varanasi is an epicenter of an intense spirituality.
When I met up again with Pappu, I was a bit shaken from the experience and he suggested we have tea and lunch, over which I asked him why he didn’t join me for the walk. He explained that, as a Muslim, it was wiser to allow the Hindu mourners their privacy. I sensed there was more to it, so I pressed and he told me a story about some of the horrors that had visited his hometown in living memory.
Relations between the Hindu majority and the Muslim minority in Varanasi, as in the rest of India, have been strained in recent years. The ‘90s, and even the beginning of this century, have been the worst anyone has seen since Partition back in ‘48. In 1992 – 93, a Hindu mob burned down a four-hundred-year-old mosque, the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, a city in Uttar Pradesh, which had been built by the Mughal king Babur upon what was claimed to be sacred Hindu ground. In its place the marauders plan to build a temple to Ram. The following year a train carrying Hindu pilgrims was burned, and hundreds of people were killed. Without evidence, and there has been none forthcoming in the interceding years, it was assumed that this was done by Muslims in revenge for Ayodhya and a riot followed in which scores of Muslims were butchered in Varanasi. In Mumbai it was worse, still. Gujarat is too horrible to mention. The riots in Mumbai killed 1400 people, many of them burned alive by young, nationalistic Hindu brownshirts. In response, the Muslim underworld planted several bombs around Mumbai, killing hundreds more. Such riots have occurred several times, the most recent being in 2001 and 2002. According to Pappu, the tension has subsided but it remains and has left deep scars.
For Pappu, the ghats are in a Hindu area, and while Pappu, a devout Muslim, did speak often and openly about the need for positive karma and expressed a profound respect for the many religions of his neighbors, the divide between the communities continues to threaten: a cancer in remission, and some things are best left alone. Business will be done, appointments kept, cultural boundaries delineated, smudged away, and then delineated again, but he felt it was best to avoid setting the fuse himself. It is not that a Muslim would be laid upon and beaten if he were to walk to the river; clearly the vast majority of Hindus in this nation are peaceful and accepting of other religions and beliefs, particularly in moments of mourning when all the sleeping sins of our memory are awakened — but the strife runs deep.
As he spoke, I wondered how long it would take to forget what your friend looks like when he is set on fire.
During that lunch, I shared a story with Pappu about being involved in a riot between Pakistani and Bangladeshi kids when I taught high school in Brooklyn, and we both spoke about the need for greater understanding and greater love in the world. And over those two hours, Pappu and I sealed a bond of honesty and friendship. And as he dropped me off at the hotel that evening, he invited me to a feast at his home a few days later. He told me it was the feast of Bakhri Eid, an important day on the Muslim calendar. I hesitated for half a second, worrying about getting a dose of some intestinal disorder, but realized that I’d be dishonoring a friend and figuring that even if I did get sick, it would be worth the discomfort.
The feast to which I was invited marks the beginning of Eid-ul-Adha, a three day celebration that Pappu explained on the drive to his home is held in honor of the sacrifice Allah demanded of Ibrahim. It is, in its own right, a story of God as Destroyer and Transformer.
We entered Pappu’s home from a dark alleyway, and into his parents’ small room. His father was lying on a narrow cot, wrapped in thin blankets, but rose to greet me. “As-Salaam Alaikum” I said, and his father responded, “Wa-Alaikum Salaam . . . you know something of Islam, my son.” I told him that I lived in New York City and taught many Muslim students, as if that would be a respectful and humble answer. He then said, Eid Mubarak. I looked at Pappu, not knowing what this meant, and he said, it meant “Happy Eid.” I nodded, not knowing if it was acceptable for a foreigner, a lapsed Catholic, to say these holy words.
Pappu’s father spoke English excellently with the same cadence and dignity as my friend Jagat, though their lives had led them to very different places in their waning years. Having worked for decades as the chief engineer of a diesel locomotive workshop in Varanasi, Pappu’s father lives a life of few comforts, while Jagat and I are afforded the opportunity to ride camels in the desert on festive outings with the elite. Pappu’s father was graceful and gracious. He introduced me to his wife and sister, both of whom were thin and grey, and likely looked much older than their years. I shook his hand, and bowed to the women. There was little of monetary value, in a Western sense, in this room. But it was a home.
Introductions done, Pappu led me through a short open-air hall, a few yards long, and into his room where his wife was stooped, cooking over a one-burner kerosene stove. My first thought was, “Where are we all going to eat?”
I sat on the edge of Pappu’s bed, which took up most of the 10-foot-by-10-foot room, and realizing I should back into a corner and let him have somewhere to sit, he joined me. There was neither table, nor room for one. One kitchen chair hung high on a wall. I imagine it would be brought down to sit outside, on the street, when the heat would become unbearable in these cramped quarters. I also imagine that means about eight months of the year. This was January, the middle of winter after the sun went down, and the room was already uncomfortably warm. His children came in; a boy of ten years whom I thought was, maybe, seven, and two teenage sons. They were all slight by American standards, but were energetic, electric and engaging. The middle son, Tipu, was exceptionally bright. When I asked him if he wanted to go to school in the United States, he said, “No, the schools in India are better.” After 13 years working at a public school in Brooklyn, I deferred to his judgment, at least in part. The three boys go to school in the morning, and then to tutoring in the afternoons. This must be cripplingly expensive for Pappu, whose only income is made in the overpopulated tuk-tuk racket of Varanasi. But the sacrifices are paying off. All three sons were doing well in school. Tipu proudly declared that he was second in his class of 59.
The eldest son, Tinku, was sent out to scour the neighborhood for a bottle of mineral water for my tender stomach. For me, this is nothing. A bottle of mineral water costs about 25 cents in India, but on Pappu’s wages even this is a bite. The kindness of the act, not to mention the expenditure on meat and dal and chapatti was not lost on me as I sat, legs crossed and numbing, on his bed.
Chiku, the youngest son, crawled on Pappu’s lap and whispered something in his ear. It met with his father’s approval, and the boy retrieved, from a shelf, a model airplane he had made with paper towel rolls, tape, a small figurine — the pilot — and two Bic replacement cartridges as missiles. In this small room, all five of them lived, the sons sleeping on the bed with Pappu and his wife sleeping on the floor. As his youngest flew the airplane around the room in his hand, Pappu told me that they all want to grow up and join the Indian Air Force. They want to be pilots. Tinku then razzed his younger, and shorter, brothers that they’d never make the height requirement. The conversation was, at once, entirely conventional and wholly dislocating, given the circumstances.
And then Pappu’s wife presented me with a plate of mutton, rice, dal and chapatti. I waited for the rest of the family to be served, but then it dawned on me that this was all the food that was coming. The family couldn’t afford to feed itself on this feast day. They could only feed their guest. Me.
I suggested that we all share the meal, but Pappu demurred. Then, noticing my discomfort, he agreed to dine with me, picking sparingly at the dal but leaving the mutton for his guest. Suddenly I was back in St. Thomas Aquinas Church, listening to Father John telling the parable of the widow’s mite. I felt a deep wave of love, humility and warmth rise up from the bottom of my soul. These cramped quarters felt like a holy place.
After the meal, Pappu called his sons up onto the bed and retold them the story of the day this feast was commemorating. I knew the story, though some details differ in the Judeo-Christian and the Islamic traditions, but in that dark room — the power having again gone out in this section of the city — with only a kerosene lantern to give light, I heard its meaning in an entirely new way.
Many thousands of years ago, Ibrahim, the father of us all, slept, and dreamt while he slept, and in the dream he heard the voice of Allah command him to sacrifice his son to the glory of God. Ibrahim woke and shook off the terrible dream. Human sacrifice had not been practiced for as long as anyone could remember. But the next night he had the same dream, and after the third night of the dream, he woke and told his wife, Hajar. She agreed that this was the word of Allah, and that Ibrahim must follow the commands of the Creator, regardless of the pain it would cause and the sacrifice they must bear.
Ibrahim, horrified but resolute, woke his son Isma’il and took him to the forest of Mina. He told Isma’il of the plans, and the dutiful son, a man of 30 years — strong enough to resist his aging father physically — only asked that his father be blindfolded so that he wouldn’t have to witness his death, so that he would not deviate from the plan before them. When they arrived at the appointed spot, Isma’il put mud on his father’s eyes, and covered them with a kerchief. He laid his own throat upon the knife, told his father he loved him, and then instructed Ibrahim to cut deep and fast.
With the whole world’s pain, Ibrahim did. He felt the knife carve the flesh of his flesh, and with tears in his eyes, scraping at the mud and tearing off the kerchief, he expected to find his first-born son dead in his arms. But when he could again see, he discovered that Allah had found him worthy of this test and replaced Isma’il with a sheep, and so now, every year, on Eid-ul-Adha, families gather to dine together, to sacrifice together, to honor Allah for his wisdom, his mercy, his generosity. And to honor Ibrahim and his family for their faith, by sharing a meal, and this story, with a new friend.
Pappu’s two eldest children sat rapt at their father’s knee, intertwined in one another’s arms while his youngest rested his head in my lap. I reached out my hand and Pappu took it with a smile. I felt, truly, as a guest among them, a brother from the other side of the world for whom they had sacrificed from their own meager stores. And I felt, for the first time in years, that I have somehow always been protected by the eyes of a loving God.
It was the finest meal I’ve ever had.
And I trust that Father John, regardless of his Catholic upbringing would agree that the One True Church is constantly being created by those who give of themselves, who give the widow’s mite, anywhere in this world.
Michael Tallon is the editor-in-chief and publisher of La Cuadra Magazine. From the early 1990s until 2004 he taught public high school in Brooklyn, NY. He is currently compiling a book of essays centered on those experiences. More of his work can be read at here.