An American Germaphobe in India.

Via on Jan 13, 2011

Bangla Sahib by harpreet thinking, on Flickr

All Photos Courtesy of Harpreet Thinking

So What?

Since arriving in India, I have been desperate to explore some of the country’s ancient monuments. Places like the Amber Fort, Qutub Minar, and the Taj Mahal obviously topped my list of sights to see. Being the history nerd that I am however, I was equally eager to spend my days wandering through Indian temples, tombs, and gardens. I imagined myself getting lost in halls of ancient artwork, or standing on the banks of the Ganges River, having a truly “Indian” experience.

Naturally, I jumped at the opportunity to accompany my host family to a temple in Delhi. Delhi is roughly an hour’s drive (in decently chaotic traffic) from my family’s home in the industrial city of Faridabad. I was curious as to why my family wanted to make the trek to Delhi to visit a temple. There are plenty of temples in Faridabad, one of which my family attends regularly.

But as soon as we arrived at the temple, I knew why we had come. The Gurudwara Bangla Sahib, located in a section of the heart of Delhi known as Connaught Place, is a truly magnificent, stunning structure. The temple, built in 1783, is seemingly unaffected by the modern monster of the city that surrounds it. Its white marble walls, high towers, and shining gold domes speak to India’s lengthy history of profound devotion to the Hindu deities. To my host family, the purpose of their trip to Delhi had nothing to do with sightseeing; going to the Gurudwara was an intensely religious experience for them.

My host dad, Shri, expertly guided our car through the suffocating throng of traffic outside the temple and into an underground parking garage. The parking garage was almost as much of an attraction as the temple itself: hundreds of cars zig-zagged around one another, narrowly missing or actually hitting parked cars. The drivers seemed determined to find a spot on the first level of the garage, even if that meant parking directly behind a parked car. I wondered how the owners of the parked cars were going to get out when they realized that someone else had parked behind them, but I figured that they would simply wait for the driver of the other car to return. I discovered later how hilariously wrong I was.

Shri seemed pleased to add to the palpable frustration of the drivers in the parking garage, and parked directly in the middle of the street. He boxed in a small car and a motorcycle, but got out of his car with as much pride as if he had found the perfect parking spot. Before I could get out of the car, however, my host mom, Mamta, grabbed my arm.

“Take off your shoes and socks, Lisa,” she said crisply, barely looking up from her own feet as she removed her socks and sandals. Had she looked up, she would have noticed the terrified expression on my face. Did she actually want me to walk barefoot across the grimy, sticky pavement of the parking garage and through the small piles of garbage that blocked the way to the exit?

She did. I grudgingly followed her example and removed my shoes and socks, though I made every effort to hide my discomfort. I even forced a smile as I stepped out of the car. But as the soles of my bare feet met the icy asphalt, I became nearly paralyzed by a crushing sense of anxiety. I am going to contract every known type of foot fungus on the planet. Suddenly, I couldn’t stop looking at everyone’s feet. The sight of dusty heels, dirty and broken toenails, and dry, cracked skin made my stomach turn.

My family and I ascended the stairs of the parking garage and emerged on a small, brightly-colored stone walkway outside the main level of the temple. We were immediately swallowed by the crowd that was lumbering slowly toward the entrance to the temple grounds. My eyes busily roved over the members of the crowd: spectacularly wealthy Sikh men wearing neatly wrapped turbans walked amongst the poorest men and women of Delhi, whose weathered faces hid behind ragged, fraying shawls. Youthful, smiling women in elegant, floor-length sarees walked toward the temple next to stooped, elderly men and laughing children, who were dirty in a way that only adventurous children can be. Members of every economic and social class walked as one, their demographic differences temporarily clouded by the allure of the temple.

We finally arrived at the entrance to the temple grounds, and though I had been temporarily distracted by the sight of the crowd, my anxiety returned in full force when I saw what lay before me: Hundreds of people stepped into an ankle-deep pool of water, seemingly there to cleanse everyone’s feet before they entered the temple. The water, however, was anything but clean. The brown, still water actually looked as though it would make everyone’s feet even filthier, and I made a concerted effort not to look down as I passed through the water with the rest of the crowd.

After “cleaning” my feet, I happened to look behind me, and nearly shrieked in shock. I had been so consumed by my determination to avoid looking at the water that I failed to notice the people bending over to drink it.

Men, women and children were stepping into the pool, shuffling their feet around to get them clean, and then bending down, scooping a handful of the water into their mouths and finally pressing that same hand to their foreheads. Though I was sure that I had contorted the look of disbelief on my face to look more like nonchalance, I hadn’t succeeded. Shri noticed and, laughing, explained that drinking from the water was a humbling act of prayer for those who did it. He said that I wasn’t expected to follow suit, and I silently mused that I had never been more grateful.

The crowd heaved and pushed its way up a marble set of stairs and into the temple grounds. The cold stone floor had numbed my feet, and my toes had begun to turn bluish white in my fierce campaign to keep them curled off the ground. I puttered along on the heels and pads of my frigid feet, and followed my family through the crowd outside the temple. Mamta led the way to a wide set of stairs on the right side of the temple, which led to a shallow, green pool surrounded on three sides by countless mesmerizing stone arches. The setting orange sun, smothered somewhat by the city smog, cast a romantic light on the vast pool and the innumerable arches.

I was instantly transported to a time and a place I had never visited. I felt as though I were part of something ancient, holy and timeless. I was inside of a history book, I was a figure in a painting, I was the architect of this temple. The crowd’s devotion to and trust in such an ancient faith became as tangible to me as the earth beneath my feet which, I thought, could be part of the reason that people remove their shoes before entering.

My awe of the spectacular scene before me quickly dissolved as the reality of what I was about to do grabbed me by the shoulders and gave me a violent shake. People were wading into the foul green water. Some just ventured in knee-deep and stopped, while others stripped to just t-shirts and shorts and fully submerged themselves. Children bathed in the shallow water near the edge of the pool, their mothers hovering about them to wash their faces in the water or scrub their feet and hands. Mamta waded in to her ankles, and began washing her face and her daughters’ arms and legs. She and Shri drank from the water, claiming that it was good for their health. As I waded in and saw a fish swim by, I thought that the only way that this water could benefit the body was by exposing it to so many germs that it would build up one hell of an immune system. But as I stood there, up to my knees in freezing, green water, observing the joy with which people bounded into the pool, I couldn’t help but feel once again wholly immersed in the experience.

After twenty minutes or so, we plodded out of the pool and made our way to the temple. We joined the queue meandering inside, and after another twenty minutes, we finally approached the entrance. Before I could enter, however, I had to cover my head. A man outside the temple doors hastily handed me a headscarf. I cringed as I fastened the headscarf behind my ears. How many other people had used it? Great, now I’ll get lice, too.

I filed up the steps to the temple behind my family, and I watched as people bent to touch the stairs and then their foreheads before entering. Once inside, the sound of singing and music flooded my ears, and as my eyes adjusted to the dimmer light, I took in the overwhelming sight before me. Hundreds of people, arranged in a semi-circle around a solid gold altar, knelt or stood in prayer. Three pundits (akin to Christian church officials) sang what I assumed to be devotional songs in Hindi on a small raised platform to the left of the altar. Long gold bins, which looked a lot like bottomless troughs, formed a barrier between the people and the altar, and when people had finished their prayers, they tossed hundreds and hundreds of rupee notes into the troughs; Shri told me that these donations fall into a room directly below the altar.

I knelt on the floor to the right of the altar while my family gave their donations and offerings. The temple was a treat for each of my senses: the sight of the solid gold altar and the mirrored, mosaic ceiling; the sound of the music from the pundits and the change being thrown into the donation bins; the smell of something sugary just outside the doors; the feel of the lush purple carpet beneath me. Though my time spent inside was in no way a religious experience for me, I felt warmed and sobered by the intense devotion of those praying around me. I became completely entranced as I watched people kneel in slumber-like states of prayer, and I almost didn’t notice Shri and Mamta waving wildly to me from the door of the temple, signaling that it was time to leave.

We followed yet another queue exiting the temple, and as soon as we were outside, I discovered what had smelled so sweet. Sikh men, barefoot and barehanded, stood behind small tables. Giant, cast iron bowls sat on the tables, filled with greasy, sugary hot ghee. Ghee, believed by some Hindus to be the food of the gods, is a greasy, cookie dough-like food. I stood, inwardly horrified, as a pundit balled up a piece of ghee with his bare hand and slopped it into my outstretched one. Willfully ignoring the sight of his hands touching the food and then the hundreds of eager hands around me, I ate the sickly sweet ghee and followed Shri and Mamta to the walkway in front of the temple entrance. Though I had wiped the grease from my hands, Mamta rubbed it over her palms and wrists, and smoothed the excess over the tiny hands of her daughters.

“It’s a holy food,” she explained with a heartwarming, deeply satisfied smile.

Mamta then asked if I was hungry, and though I replied that I was, I had no idea what I was in for. She and Shri led me and her daughters to a lower level of the temple grounds. We entered a small stone sitting area outside of a large building, where three or four hundred people sat on the ground in rows, each person squished on top of the person in front of and behind them. I instantly picked up the smell of onions, and the scent guided my gaze to the edge of the massive crowd. Men and women, nearly hidden in piles of onion and potato skins, sat chopping food at a rapid pace. Children ran to and from the building with plates of chopped onions and potatoes. Confused, I squashed my way into the seated crowd and took my place immediately in front of the glass doors of the building, and when I looked inside, I finally realized what was going on.

The glass doors led to a wide, marble hall with high ceilings. Inside, about four hundred people were seated in rows, eating from tin trays on the floor.

We were going to eat here.

All of my anxiety thus far did not compare in the slightest with the choking sense of dread that I felt at the realization that I was going to be eating food, prepared and served by bare hands (literally served with bare hands–the servers reached into buckets of food and threw the food onto people’s plates), on the ground where thousands of people walked with bare, dirty feet. Until that point, the dirtiness had been doable; aside from the small amount of ghee earlier, I didn’t have to put anything in my mouth. But I was now going to be expected to welcome the dirt and the germs into my body by eating a meal there.

I barely had time to work up the nerve to put some food down before it was our turn to eat. The wave of people inside had filed out of the hall, leaving behind pieces of food, traces of water, clumps of dirt and pieces of hair and trash on the floor. And I was about to sit amidst that and eat. Thoughts of accidentally ingesting a toenail or a souvenir from the bottom of someone else’s foot plagued my brain, and I hardly noticed the crushing push of the crowd around me. I was quite literally swept through the glass doors. Apparently, everyone was going to have to fight for a spot. Mamta gave me a big push to get me moving, the force of which knocked me flat on my face. My fall had inadvertently secured spots for me and my host family.

“Thanks!” Shri said as he moved my legs aside and sat down.

“Of course,” I said grudgingly as I wiped the dust and food from my sweatshirt.

As soon as everyone was seated, barefoot servers came down the rows and tossed heavy tin trays and spoons in front of everyone. I inspected the trays and spoons, and I was not surprised to note that, though they were wet, they were not clean. Food was still crusted stubbornly around the edges of the tray and the head of the spoon. Sighing heavily, I resigned myself to just watching the servers. They dashed around the hall, weaving their way amongst the hungry crowd, dropping food from buckets onto people’s trays. The general din of the hall ceased a bit as the hungry crowd began to eat, but when the food hit my plate, I felt anything but hunger.

I felt utterly disgusted. I was surrounded by feet, dust, dirt, grime and probably toenails and waste and disease and whatever else had made its way inside on the bottoms of people’s feet. And I was expected to eat. People around me were eating heartily, clearly enjoying the rice, dal, chapatis and potatoes that had been served. How, I wondered, can they possibly enjoy themselves? People sang and prayed together as they ate, and I simply could not understand any of it.

But then, the man next to me turned to me and offered me his chapati, “I’m full and satisfied,” he said happily, tossing the chapati from his dusty hand. As it landed on my tray, I looked at it skeptically. Almost instantly, I was steamrolled by a liberating realization.

All day, my Americanized brain had been sabotaging my enjoyment with fear of germs and filth. For my entire life, I have been so obsessed with cleanliness of the highest standard that I was paralyzed by the presence of something different. Everything in America is clean–toilets, showers, parks, roads, shops, homes, food–and we fail to realize how much this says about the way that we live our lives. Seemingly without my consent, a very simple but profound question escaped my lips as I stared at my food.

So what?

The floor was filthy. So what? The food was served by bare hands. So what? In all likelihood, my trip to the temple could have given me foot fungus or lice. So what? I looked around at the cheerful crowd, and sitting amongst them, I was one of them, a member of their country and a follower of their culture, even if only temporarily.

And I gave in. I gave in to every fear that I had about the cleanliness of the experience, because ultimately, my fears didn’t matter. Dirt can be washed away. Sickness will pass. But the overwhelming clarity of what can only be described as the “so what-ness” of my realization was invaluable. I put the gifted chapati to my lips, and immediately felt as though I was a critical part of everyone’s experience at the Gurudwara, just as they had all been critical to mine.

The food, by the way, was delicious. I ate everything that I was given, and even took the seconds that were offered to me. And I never got sick.

After my meal (which was only one of about 67,000 free meals that the temple serves to people in one twenty-four hour period), I followed my family back to the parking garage. I had forgotten that we had boxed several people in when we parked, but apparently, that hadn’t been a problem. Our car was not where we left it because someone had pushed it out of the way.

A group of about ten men walked up and down the parking garage, helping people push parked cars out of the way. Side-view mirrors were smashed and left casually on windshields, bumpers were dented, and doors were scratched. No one really seemed to mind. As one car drove away from one space, an unoccupied car was pushed into its place. People even tipped the men who helped push parked cars out of their way. It was absolutely hilarious. I tried to imagine something similar happening in the States, and the entire debacle became even funnier.

I remained fairly quiet on the drive back to Faridabad. My day at the Gurudwara had been so different from anything that I had ever experienced, and it left me in a state of bliss and gratitude. I was overjoyed at being able to find such happiness in something that had originally repulsed me, and I felt grateful to have been invited there by my family. I certainly had an experience with them that I never would have had as a tourist, simply because I would have drawn a line and not crossed it had no one pushed me to do so.

The Gurudwara Bangla Sahib did not invoke in me any sense of spirituality or devotion, but it did acquaint me with a significant sense of courage that I did not know I had. I realized that I am brave enough to take part in the practices of another culture, and that I am not content to simply observe them. I am able to be uncomfortable, disgusted, horrified, and still ultimately ask myself, so what? We can endure feeling frightened and revolted, and we can certainly be pushed to do something that we really don’t want to do. If we merely summon the courage to immerse ourselves in the experience, we’ll find that the adventure was more than worth our discomfort.

About Lisa Kream

Lisa Kream hails from Chicago, Illinois, and after a year at the University of Illinois, she decided that it was time for a change. She transferred to the University of Colorado at Boulder for my second year and a new life. Living in Boulder changed who Lisa is, who she wants to become, and what is most important to her. Lisa graduated from college a year early with a B.A. in International Affairs, and then set out to take the year that would have been my last in college to travel and volunteer. From October 2010 to October 2011, Lisa will be volunteering in Nairobi, Kenya; Delhi, India; Palampur, India; Kathmandu, Nepal; Zakynthos, Greece; and Hanoi, Vietnam. She plans to travel within those countries and backpack in neighboring countries. She will record her travels, experiences, and her emotional and physical journey through a world that is so drastically different than her own. So, come what may!

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4 Responses to “An American Germaphobe in India.”

  1. Jen says:

    It's like that when you travel to India. One minute awe, the next despair…but it's so worth it!

  2. Marci says:

    Leaving next week for my first trip to India, we are staying in Delhi. Thanks for your article, it came at the perfect time. I hope like you that I can be accepting and open to things that are different from what is our normal to me.

  3. YesuDas says:

    Great article, Lisa! Inspiring to hear about your epiphany in the Gurudwara.

    In Turkey, someone I met took me to a shrine in memory of a shepherd who had sold off all his lambs to raise money for a covered spring for his village. If you drink from all ten downspouts, the story goes, you will have good luck. As it turned out, I had diarrhea–but it only lasted a day, and it was worth it. I hope that when I finally get to India, my so-what-itude will keep pace as yours did!

    Best of luck to you in your further travels.

  4. [...] Colette’s efforts aren’t limited to education and simple childhood pleasures. The poorest families receive a food ration; at least two times per year Colette buys them rice, oil, salt and spices. Colette also ensures that the doctor visits the slum every two weeks and that children and their families can consult the physician, which is quite valuable as there are many infections and issues with tuberculosis. With money from sponsors she pays for the medical care and, when necessary, she applies funds from special donations for surgeries, glasses or dentist intervention. Today she cares for about more than 100 children in the slum of Malad, in North Mumbai in India. [...]

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