He was helpful, but it seemed cautiously so. He would answer questions if asked but not volunteer much information. There were three of them. Two helpers and Him. He didn’t make me uncomfortable, but his presence was great.
It was our first day in Sri Lanka and I had long-awaited the chance to buy some Indian clothing in which to attend the religious services (pujas) during the upcoming two-week yatra*. I wrote in another blog story about “My Kurta Hunt” in which I scoured the Bay area in CA where I lived at the time trying to find appropriate kurta wear for temple and festivals.
I did manage to locate a few but I was really looking forward to finding a variety of outfits that are hard if not impossible to find in the states and that unlike ones I ordered on-line, I could try them on first and know exactly what I was getting.
I was with a friend who was also there to attend the yatra. He too wanted some clothing and we were both glad to be in the midst of so many choices.
My friend, Bill, is a white man of European heritage. I am a black person of African descent. We both embraced Sanatana Dharma several years ago and are affiliated with the Saiva Siddhanta Church headquartered in Kauai Hawaii. It was this temple who organized the yatra and although it was not mandatory, the organizers requested that if possible we wear cultural attire. I noticed during the time there that everyone did.
As we tried on shirts, dhotis* and pajama outfits He just stood by watching. The helpers were the universal salesmen. Running to and fro (successfully I might add), trying in earnest to honor our requisitions. When a salesman informed me they had no shirts of a certain style, HE spoke up and informed him we did. He showed the man where it was and his knowledge paid off, I purchased two of the shirts in different colors.
Then came a moment where Bill was selecting items as I stood by waiting to see what he would choose. As I leaned against the counter ready to make snarky comments as he had when I was in front of the mirror, HE came to me and asked was I from Africa. (Africans are a small ethnic group in Sri Lanka, many live around Negambo where we were). “No”, I replied, “I am from the United States”.
“The United States?”, he repeated, as if he wasn’t sure he understood. Actually I wasn’t sure from the way he said it, if it were a statement or a question. …”and your friend?” he asked, glancing toward Bill. I assured him Bill was from the same US city I.
I need to explain that he wasn’t watching us like some white sales people do in US stores. As in sneaking behind us and asking every few seconds can we be helped. Following us, crowding us. No, his observation seemed more analytical.
Finally, we gathered all of our new attire and went to the checkout. I paid and stood to side to wait for Bill. As I waited, He came to me and asked could we talk. I followed him a few feet and then he asked, in a tone that displayed profound puzzlement, “why are you buying these clothes?”
“Because”, I said, “I am here for a
yatra and I need traditional wear to attend temples and ceremonies.”
“Are you a Hindu?” he asked.
“What!, where did you learn Hinduism in the United States?” “How did you become Hindu? “Who taught you?” He seemed completely surprised.
I explained to him how I happened to become Hindu and that there are many Hindus in the US who are willing to teach and share their way of life. He laughed with relief. He shook his head and looked toward Bill. I assured him that he too was a sincere devotee of Lord Shiva.
As we left he shook my hand after which I bowed with anjali mudra and said namaste. He looked mildly surprised and said, “yes, that is correct” as he returned the gesture.
The next day was the official start of our yatra. It began in a temple with a parade honoring our Sat Guru. As we walked along in the procession I noticed a man giving me a thumbs up sign. I recognized him as the gentleman from the clothing store. I was glad to see him and for him to know that we were buying the clothes for all the right reasons.
We talked a bit more at the prasadam*. I found out that he was the store manager. He was trying to discern if we were sincere about our purchase or if perhaps we were just westerners trying out a new fad or fashion. He welcomed us to Sri Lanka and said he was glad to have met two Hindus from the US.
It is too bad that some from the west are disrespectful of other cultures to the point that the rest of us are suspect when buying traditional cultural artifacts. There are even some temples that won’t allow non Hindus inside because their behavior is very irreverent and as such reflects poorly on those of us who are honest seekers. Not all of these transgressors are from the US. While in Sri Lanka and in India I noticed several people from Europe who insisted on wearing shorts and tank tops into temples and then becoming righteously indignant when asked not to do so.
Too much entitlement has left many from the west with a sense that they are free to do whatever, whenever, and to whomever they want. I fear that the current régime controlling our country and some European countries has heightened that false sense of superiority to the point of fear and hate for all western citizens when for the most part a small minority are the culprits.
As a black American it was actually refreshing not to be judged solely based on my color, but my intentions and philosophy. Once the manager realized that he and I embraced the same philosophy, he extended his friendship. We chatted about several other things before we had to part. I thought about how in the US there are many who take one look at my skin, decide I only have malicious intent, and that there isn’t, nor will there ever be anything positive about me, and, nothing I can subsequently say or do will ever change that.
There are those who at this point will want to inject that India has a caste system. Yes, of that I am well aware. However that is a system similar to but different from racism, and although the two structures have certain characteristics in common a caste system is hierarchical. People who are racially oppressed can at least in theory attain a certain level of superficial equality. There are people working hard to eradicate the caste system where here in the west we are working to try and eradicate our own injustices based on race.
As for my personal experiences in India and Sri Lanka, it was refreshing indeed to visit a country where brown is not unilaterally despised. I can refreshingly affirm the feeling of freedom, respect and empowerment that comes with being allowed to simply move about in society not as a so-called person of color, but just a person.
*Yatra a procession or pilgrimage, especially one with a religious purpose.
*Dhoti a garment worn by male Hindus, consisting of a piece of material tied around the waist and extending to cover most of the legs
*Prasadam food that is a religious offering in both Hinduism and Sikhism. It is normally consumed by devotees after worship.