Close your eyes to conjure an image of a temple in India: loud ringing bells, mob-like frenzy to reach the front row for Aarti (a plate filled with lights of wicks soaked in camphor and offered to deities that is advanced to devotees to seek blessings after prayers), pushing and elbowing neighbours to command a better view of Gods and Goddesses getting dressed and embellished by devoted priests behind thick velvet curtains of brocaded gold. The chiming bells echo louder, sandalwood incense fills the air, worshipers hold their breath for the spiritual encounter with the Supreme Force. The curtains rise gradually, revealing first the lotus-pink delicate feet of Gods, strung with shining anklets. Then they go higher, pausing momentarily at the broad jewel-embroidered border of saris and dhotis, until finally, an abrupt pull unveils the almighty in full splendour.
The public is overwhelmed at the ultimate encounter. Deafening chants of Jai Ho! silence the loud clanging bells. Hands are folded, heads are lowered, and bodies sway rhythmically to the age-old favourite, Om Jai Jagdish Hare…
Minds are preoccupied: The newly married is crying for a son; the disenchanted employee is praying for a new job; the junior manager is begging for a promotion; the grandma is promising to fast in exchange for a cure to her chronic arthritis; the student is clutching a box of ladoos as bribe for good exam results. A wild shower of scented cold water breaks reveries and triggers a spontaneous stampede toward the plate of Aarti with shivering wicks dipped in clarified butter.
Now, cross 7 seas and enter Hindu Sabha Mandir in Canada. Well, don’t enter right away: stand back if someone is exiting, and hold the door for those behind you. If you’re cautious of making noise, you’re right. There is a calculated silence in the prayer hall as patrons sit quietly on the vacuumed carpeted floor in neat rows, as if spaced out with geometric tools. Infants are told off for running or crying; Gods are not fussing behind curtains for last-minute make-up touches; and priests exchange pleasantries with devotees in fluent English. Ringing bells don’t drown voices that are singing the universal Hindu prayer of Om Jai Jagdish Hare… in near chorus. The scented cold water is a faint sprinkle, coaxing people subtly to join the line for taking Aarti. After this last ritual, people patiently queue up again to join the community meals hosted by temple authorities and sponsors.
Indians are the same people, coming from the same land and sharing the same cultural traditions and references. Yet, we behave and conduct ourselves so differently in another country. I miss the chaos, yet I admire the civility; I yearn for crowds, yet I’m happy in solitude; I crave to be boisterous, yet I have toned down. Don’t ask me which is better, for I’ve found God in both lands.