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Hari’s Mercedes

by Bakul Banerjee

Credit: Bakul Banerjee, March 7 2016 | The Goddess Durga with vermillion (sindoor) powder on her forehead.

“Can you do a simple wedding ceremony tomorrow?” The text message came late last night from Deepa, the secretary of the temple. It was a rather strange request because anybody willing to go through a Hindu marriage should also know that this sacramental ritual requires elaborate preparations.

“What do you mean? I am starting the five-day long celebration for the goddess Durga tomorrow morning. I will have to sit for about four hours continuously on the low wooden seat. I don’t think I can manage a wedding as well,” I replied, trying hard to keep my eyes open.

Within seconds the phone rang.

“A brief version of the ceremony will do. This Nepali man is insisting. I am having trouble understanding him. He can only speak a variation of Hindi and almost no English. He wants the wedding done very soon. He mentioned something about Sindoor Daan.” Deepa was talking about a small part of the wedding ceremony where the groom puts red vermillion powder on the hair and the forehead of the bride.

“Tell me how long it should be.” I worried about the morning logistics and wanted her to make the final decision.

“About half an hour perhaps. Just think about it and text me back,” Deepa said before hanging up. Over the years I have received several last minute requests for special worship ceremonies from people with limited means and/or time, but never for weddings. I have fulfilled most of these requests. I dragged myself up from my bed to dig out the folder on wedding procedures. Using highlighters and markers I managed to put together a brief script that could be done within half an hour.

“Ask them to come to the temple around 9:30 a.m. Please let me know if they have registered the marriage in court already,” I texted Deepa. To avoid any legal issues, I always insist on the court issued certificate of marriage.

“OK. Yes, they are legally married.” Her succinct reply came back immediately. I sank under my comforter thinking about how to pace my activities for the next week. Fortunately, this volunteer work is much more rewarding than my corporate travails.

The temple is located in an old, depressed neighborhood near Chicago, about forty minutes away from my home. The length of the drive is ideal because it gives me enough time to meditate and run the scriptural sequences in my head. It is a gloomy October morning, but the streets are lined with brilliant autumn trees. A gentle wind blows some of the gold and copper autumn leaves around. As I approach the township, I sense subtle and recent changes in its character that reflect an increased Mexican population and provide evidence of their hard work. The once dilapidated corner grocery store on the left now has a coat of fresh paint and a new sign, “Guadalajara Super Mercado.” A couple of buildings that were boarded up for a long time near a major intersection have changed hands. Both of them are surrounded by a bright orange low wall. Inside, Veracruz Taqueria with matching orange walls and brick red borders is open for business. Only a few years ago, I was often warned by my friends to be careful in the neighborhood. Now, families are walking with laughing children, pushing grocery bags in strollers. I often see people from Bhutan and Nepal, two neighboring countries of India, my own birth country, walking by. With their distinct clothing styles, I can always spot them. Periodically, some of them participate in the services that I perform at the temple. I am glad that the city is welcoming immigrants from Asia.

The street in front of the temple is empty except for a beat-up maroon Toyota Corolla. After parking, I carry various supplies for the worship to the massive door of the large building. It used to be a church before it was purchased by the head monk. Unfortunately, my key does not work. I return to my car to wait for Deepa’s arrival. A thin man in his forties, surely of Nepali origin, comes out of the other car dressed in an old blue jacket and begins pacing by the entrance. After a while, I roll down the window and wave at him. He comes forward.

“Where is the priest?” He asks me in broken Hindi, noticing my Indian sari.

“I am the priest. What is your name?” I answer. The man seems comfortable with my simple spoken Hindi. My native language is Bengali, although after living in this country for forty years, I am most comfortable with English.

“Hari.” He seems surprised. I believe Deepa had a hard time explaining my gender over the phone. He probably had never met a woman Hindu priest before.

“I need to see the marriage certificate from the court, before I can marry you in the Hindu way. Can I see it?”

“Yes, I have it, but not with me.” I had to take his word for it, tossing my bureaucratic thought process to the wind.

“Where is the bride?” I ask. He waves his hand toward the car. I try to make some connections with him. He tells me that he came to this country as a refugee. I gather that he and his new wife work at a nearby restaurant. At about that time, Deepa arrives. We get busy with preparations for the worship and Hari disappears. It takes me another half an hour to complete the preamble prayers in Sanskrit. Turning around, I notice Hari’s lonely figure on the front pew. There is no sign of the bride.

“Where is your bride?”

“I will get her now. She is in the car,” Hari says. I am intrigued.

Soon, a middle-aged, olive-skinned woman in a blue Indian-style tunic and pant outfit comes inside with Hari. Because of the loose outfit, I cannot be sure, but she seems quite pregnant. I ask them to sit by me facing the image of the goddess.

“Tell me your full name and ancestral name,” I request. Ancestral names are genealogically significant for Hindus. Hari complies.

“What is your name?” I ask the woman in Hindi. A silence with a smile is the response from her.

“What is your name?” I try again in English. Silence and another shy smile.

“Lithuania? Poland? Ukraine?” I rattle off the names of the countries my sweet non-English-speaking cleaning ladies hail from, but the shy smile continues. Hari does not offer any help; he has no clue what I am talking about. Suddenly, my brain, which was preoccupied by Sanskrit hymns, lights up.

“Mehico?” I blurt out, using Mexican pronunciation to be safe.

The woman smiles brightly, but this time in recognition.

“Nombre?” I remember the word for name from my recent trip to Mexico.

“Mercedes,” she answers.

“Do you know Spanish?” I ask Hari in Hindi. It is his turn to smile, offering no explanation.

“If she does not speak Hindi, you do not speak Spanish, and neither of you speak much English, how do you communicate?” The words come out of my mouth in Hindi. Hari only smiles. I am truly puzzled. How am I going to explain the wedding vows to the bride? For four thousand years, Hindu marriages were conducted using scriptures written in Sanskrit that most men and women did not understand. In my effort to modernize the rituals, I insist on translating the important vows for couples. I suppose today I will have to skip that and return to traditional ways.

Hari hands me a new box of vermillion powder and a traditional Nepali bead necklace for his bride. I offer them to the ten-handed goddess, Durga, with a short prayer. As per my instruction, Hari and Mercedes touch each other’s hearts while Hari repeats after me the ancient prayer in Sanskrit: “May my heart be thine and thy heart be mine.” Both of their faces are bathed in a radiant bliss. Next, I signal them to look toward the direction of the North Pole and the nearby twin stars Mizar and Alcor, representing the sage Vashishtha and his wife Arundhati, Hindu symbols of steadiness and unity in marriage. As I hand the vermillion box to Hari for the Sindoor Daan, he needs no further instructions. With his deft figures, he makes perfect red lines of vermillion powder on Mercedes’s hair line and forehead, as if he had been practicing it forever. As they join palms to greet each other, a heartfelt series of prayers for a blessed union spills out of Hari’s mouth in Nepali. Another surprise – I have never witnessed such spontaneous greetings from the groom in any of my traditional Hindu marriages.

Hari places the deep green multi-strand necklace of simple bugle beads around Mercedes’s neck. I signal to Deepa, who is waiting nearby, that we are done with the ceremony. Hari and Mercedes follow Deepa outside. Their retreating figures fill my heart with a strange affection. Over the years, I have come to believe that the ability to communicate is one of the key ingredients for a successful marriage. Their non-verbal communication will do for now, and in time, I am sure that they will be blessed with the bond of a common verbal language, too.

bio_pic_BakulDr. Bakul Banerjee published her first volume of poems,?Synchronicity: Poems, in 2010. Her poems, essays, and stories have appeared in many different literary magazines both in the United States and in India. In 2015, she was one of the featured poets at the 31st annual Printers Row Lit Fest. She deeply appreciates the privilege assigned to her to perform Hindu rituals and sacraments.

3 Comments Post a comment
  1. Maureen Fischer #

    Such a wonderful story? Thank you for putting it on Facebook so I could read it!

    July 20, 2016
  2. Bakul: delightful story!! Thank you for posting this one!


    July 20, 2016
  3. Wonderful story, the power of love can transcend so many barriers!

    July 21, 2016

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