Dhire! Dhire! the devotees cried: Slowly! Slowly! We are giving the god a bath.
Incense spiralled up like djinns. We rubbed the gods with sugar. We garlanded them with marigolds, as people leaned on the step and peered in. The gawkers lit more sandalwood sticks, left oranges as offerings, asked what was going on in there. There was a foreigner?
"Her Hindi is good," the devotees informed them the first hour.
"Her Hindi is very good," the devotees said in the second, though my known repertoire had not expanded much beyond What was that?
The third hour, a new man joined us, glanced over, said something. "Haan," the priest sai. Yes. "She is fluent."
"That was Sanskrit he was speaking!" the devotees exclaimed after each of the priest's rumbled chants. "Very old," the priest concurred, holding up a text the size and shape of a comic book, breaking to provide me with some tutelage in the classics. Then the green-eyed woman produced small outfits hemmed in tinsel, and we carefully dressed the gods.
Afterward, with the thick grainy smell of ghee in our hair, the worshipers clamored to explain that the ceremony was older than Buddhism, than Jainism, than Christianity. "It is only once a year," a man said, adding I was lucky to have arrived there on the day. "And after, you feel so peaceful, " another man said of the four hours' of pure devotion. "By doing this, you keep the world happy," he said, though the exact verb he used was more like, "set."
What follows is a story about setting the world happy, about the strange, snaking course devotion can take. It's about what happens if you allow yourself to get swept away by a passion. The short answer is this: inevitably, at some point, you come unwrapped.
It's a story about a stretch of time I spent in India, learning to speak another language. Since that year was an exceptionally violent and fragmenting one, not only in India, but throughout the world, it's a story that sometimes turns brutal, maybe even despite its best intentions. This book, the way I'd conceived it before I left, was going to be solely about the nearly mystical and transformative powers of language: the way that words, with no more than the tensile strength of breath, can tug you out of one world and land you in the center of another. This is a story, as it turned out, that's about transformation, yes, but is also about the destructive power of words—the way they can reshape people, can leave them twisted, can break and obliterate them. It's about language as passport and as block.