Sumitra knew what her parents were going to ask the guru. She was turning twenty-nine in two month's time and they were beyond desperate to get her married. She went along to try to be a good daughter, but in her heart she knew she could never be happy with the men her parents found and finding one on her own was close to impossible. There was one very specific thing she needed in a man and she could never tell anyone about it.
She sat in between her parents on the hard tile floor of the ashram waiting for the guru to arrive. She had to admit it was a beautiful building. Two large open doorways and paneless windows across the length of the walls allowed the mild Indian breeze in and Sumitra could see a cluster of coconut trees that instantly made her feel like she was on vacation. There were no coconut trees at home in New York.
The guru's seat was gold, carved to look like the sun. Beside it were tall, black marble mutris of gods. There were about fifty other people sitting cross legged around the floor. They all seemed to be authentic Indians, unlike Sumitra. She was what people back home called a coconut: brown on the outside and white on the inside. She could fake Indian for a little while, but her American roots quickly showed. Her mother had to dress her to come here today. Sumitra didn't have a clue how to put on a sari and no other dress was allowed. Her pudgy old dad was even wearing a full-on dhoti.
People seemed really sincere. Several were prostrating themselves in front of the murtis. Most had trays in front of them ladened with fruit and flowers to offer the guru, in return for his blessings, of course. Sumitra's mother had already been eyeing the other trays to make sure that theirs was the most impressive.
The guru arrived and took his seat. He was a heavy older man in an orange robe and he had a kind face, like how Sumitra imagined Santa Claus. He had three white lines painted across his forehead. Now that the guru was here, Sumitra's parents were getting excited. Her dad elbowed her and grinned. He had been here two years before and had been talking ever since about bringing the whole family. He said the guru's grace had caused amazing changes in his life, which seemed to be mostly to do with less ulcer pain.
Their family got in line. Her dad carried the tray of offerings on his shoulder as they slowly moved forward. Near the front Sumitra could hear the devotees begging the guru for things. They were all speaking Indian languages: Hindi, Kanada, Tamil. But the melody of the voices still gave away the pleading. In every language that quality remained the same.
The heat was beginning to bother Sumitra. She wanted to sit down and thought if she wasn't able to soon, she might faint. It made her wonder why she had agreed to this trip. The motherland didn't hold much for her, just long hot days of making relatives happy while dreaming of having her computer back and a bedroom to herself. Finally it was their turn and she shuffled behind her parents, following their lead to touch the ground in front of the guru and then her heart.
Standing in front of the guru, listening to her mother beg for a good husband for her daughter, Sumitra felt unexpected embarrassment pricking at her face. When she had agreed to do this, she hadn't realized just how humiliating it was going to feel. She bowed her head and kept her hands in namaskar, but she wondered if he had some magic ability to see into her head. God, she hoped not. She didn't want the guru knowing how much of the darshan time she spent thinking about sex.
The guru held up his hand in blessing and smiled at the family. They backed away and all three prostrated.
That afternoon they were going to see the guru again; twice a day every day for the next week. “We came all this way,” her dad said, “We've got to get the most out of it.”
Her mom wrapped Sumitra again and put the hem of the sari so low, she tripped on it most of the way to the ashram. As they approached the building Sumitra saw something that stunned her. There was a wheelchair sitting empty outside the hall. It wasn't an old-person wheelchair, either. It had no handles and no arms and the foot plate was one solid piece. It was black, but scuffed, and was missing its cushion. She had never seen such a thing in India. This gorgeous, latest-style wheelchair couldn't be Indian, it almost felt as though it had followed her from America.
What was it doing here? This was some insane coincidence. She could not let herself get too excited. It would be a tease, a let-down, just like it always was. There was no purpose, no signs, and no deeper meanings. Yet, they had just asked the guru for a proper man for Sumitra, and today a wheelchair appeared. Did the guru somehow cause it? No, that was crazy. He could not possibly know, let alone arrange circumstances like this. Probably the wheelchair belonged to some middle-aged, nasty-looking guy. Maybe it belonged to a woman. Sumitra had a terrible tendency to forget that it was possible for women to be disabled too. But to see something as unlikely as this the day after the guru held up his hand in blessing over her? It was too strange.
Her parents were oblivious to her inner turmoil as they climbed the steps into the offering hall. Sumitra was immediately on the look out for whom the wheelchair belonged to. She saw him at the back, leaning against the wall and the only reason she knew she had the right person was that he was sitting on the missing wheelchair cushion.
He was a young man, around her own age, and his parents sat on either side. His legs were barely crossed, looking more like rag doll legs hastily arranged. Sumitra gently herded her parents to a spot where she would be able to keep observing him. Throughout the darshan, Sumitra tried to guess what his disability was. She was guessing paraplegic. She had never before seen an Indian paraplegic. Then again, the only disabled people she had yet seen in India were dirty old beggars crawling along the dusty roads.
Sumitra doubted it was possible to find in India the kind of independent, resourceful, and self-assured paraplegic she was hoping to marry. Disability issues didn't seem to be on the radar here. Sumitra spent most of the darshan musing about how the experience of disability was different in various countries, while always keeping a subtle eye on the disabled young man.
Then his family was going up for the guru's blessing. He began scooting his body along the tile floor behind his parents. Every single eye in the place was on him. Sumitra looked around the hall at all the stares. It must be hard knowing everyone was watching. She hated to be one of them, but she didn't want to miss this either.
His chest was bare, as with all the men, and his legs were wrapped in a dhoti, but there were sweatpants underneath. Sumitra could hardly breathe watching his strong, naked arms pulling his legs, the feet of which kept bumping into each other. Whose bright idea was it to have all the men naked from the waist up?
Some wore a shawl that exposed their right shoulder, but no shirts were allowed. Her father had told her once that it had to do with showing vulnerability before the guru. Now instead of proving that the man was unarmed, it just served to distract Sumitra from spiritual thoughts. Not that her thoughts were ever all that spiritual.
She leaned forward over her crossed legs to keep watching, but he was starting to be blocked by crowds of people standing near the guru, waiting for their audience. She wanted to ask why the ashram didn't allow his wheelchair inside. Was it too much like wearing shoes in? It seemed ridiculous to make him go through this circus. Asking would alert suspicion, though. She didn't want anyone noticing that she had more than a passing interest in him. She had to appear the same as everyone else: staring out of pity, glad that his was not her karma.
Sumitra was too far away to hear what his parents asked the guru for. Even if she had been closer, it was unlikely they were speaking in English and that was the only language Sumitra knew. As she watched him repeat his crawl back to the far wall, she felt frustrated that such a fantastic potential match for her was so near and yet still so far in many ways. She couldn't flirt with someone in India. She couldn't try to start something with someone when she was half way around the world from her home, let alone someone that no one in her community would see as an acceptable match. So many of her opportunities were a mixed blessing, almost worse than nothing at all because she couldn't find a way to take advantage of them.
If this situation really were somehow caused by the guru, if this was the answer to her parents' prayer, was she supposed to continue to sit back and let the magic spiritual energy do its work? Or was she now supposed to act on it?
When her parents gathered their things and prepared to leave, the young man and his family were still there. Sumitra said, “I think I'll stay a little and try to absorb some of that grace.” Her father beamed and patted her on the shoulder.
Sumitra closed her eyes and, in her head, said what was probably the first prayer of her life. Please, she thought, let me have a love match.
She opened her eyes and his family was leaving. She followed as he left the hall, walking very slowly so as not to surpass him pulling his body along the white tile floor. She noticed now that he didn't place his hands flat against the ground, but his fingers stayed curled in towards his palm. She reassessed and decided he must be a low level quad.
She hovered in the doorway at the top of the stairs and watched while his father hoisted him up over one shoulder and grunted as he shuffled down the stairs. His mother took the black cushion from the ground. She placed it on the wheelchair and his father dropped him onto it. The mother started trying to push him, but he shrugged her off and pushed ahead with expert strokes, the edges of his hands on the rims, but not fully gripping them.
Sumitra took a deep breath and pushed her worries out of her head.
“Excuse me,” she called out, lightly rushing down the stairs, not sure what she would actually say once she got his attention. She didn't even know if he spoke English.
His entire family turned around to look at her.
“Hi, I'm Sumitra. Pretty cool in there, eh? Are you staying the week or just in for the day?”
They were all staring at her in stunned silence. The guy was very cute up close. She met his eye and smiled. Still there was silence, and tremendous confusion showed in his face. “Okay,” she said, “Well, I hope I'll see you tomorrow morning.”
She walked off down the path as quickly as she could with her too-long sari, grateful that her dark skin didn't show embarrassment easily.
The next morning Sumitra was early for darshan. Her dad was impressed with her new enthusiasm for spirituality. She sat at the top of the stairs outside and waited, hoping to see the paralyzed man again. She was not disappointed. He wheeled up the path to the hall, this time alone.
Sumitra still didn't believe in this grace of the guru thing, but it was getting difficult not to. She couldn't think of anything more unlikely than to meet a cute disabled guy on a spiritual trip to the motherland. How could the guru have caused this? How could the guru have known this? Only three other people in the world knew she was attracted to disabled men.
The young man stopped at the bottom of the stairs and looked up at her, shielding his eyes against the sun.
“Hey,” Sumitra said cheerfully.
“You again,” he said and she couldn't tell if he was glad or disturbed.
“You speak English,” she said.
“Yeah, I'm from New Jersey.”
“Seriously?” Okay, it was now officially impossible not to believe in the grace of the guru. Nothing this crazy had ever happened to Sumitra. Disabled men were hard to find, they didn't just appear conveniently in front of her.
“I live just outside the city.” She got up and walked down the steps. “How would you feel about skipping darshan and going to find some food?”
“I don't even know you.”
“Right, which is why we should get food. Two Americans at a remote Indian ashram...I mean, what are the odds? We should definitely get to know each other.”
“I don't know...”
“Look, I know accessibility around here is crap, but we'll make do.”
“How do you even...” He shrugged, frowning and shaking his head.
Sumitra used her magic fix, the one sentence that always made her seem innocent and not creepy. “My last boyfriend was a para.” The best thing Jack had ever given her was a good excuse to use when flirting with other spinal cord injured guys.
The man visibly relaxed. “Oh,” he said, “That's cool. I'm C7, incomplete.”
Sumitra nodded. “You going to tell me your name?” she asked, smiling.
He laughed. “This is my life,” he said, “The first most relevant thing about me is my injury level. I'm Adithya, known as Adi to everyone but my parents.”
“I'm Sumitra. Come on, let's go check out the town.”
“Okay, you've worn me down, but it's not going to be much fun trying to go around this town with a wheelchair. It's like one long lesson in humiliation.”
Sumitra smiled. “I'm up for it.”
She walked slowly beside Adi as he pushed down the rough ashram path. Her bare feet stung and the wind picked up the end of her sari, blowing it across her body. From the corner of her eye she watched the smooth beauty of his movement.
“Sorry I'm so slow,” Adi said, “This surface is really hard to push on. Usually I'm quicker.”
“No worries,” Sumitra said.
The temple was situated on the edge of a tiny town, just two streets, each one packed with little shops pressed up against each other, narrow and uneven sidewalks, and cows laying in the street. Bundles of dried herbs were hanging across the doorways all down the main street. There was no way that Adi's wheelchair would fit on the sidewalk, even if the curbs weren't five inches high. They stayed on the street, Sumitra ducking behind him whenever an auto-rickshaw honked.
A baby cow wandered up and pushed her nose against Adi's knee. Sumitra laughed and scratched the cow's head. Adi did too and Sumitra watched with delight at the way his hand flopped strangely from his wrist. People streamed past them, ignoring the cow. The women all wore saris in gold, pink, green, and blue with embroidered flowers or geometric designs. Groups of school girls walked past, all wearing identical blue uniforms with blue ribbons tying their hair into braided loops on each side of their heads.
They continued on to a little open restaurant. The whole front was open air, but it, like all the shops, had wide, steep steps that ran the length of the front.
“You hungry?” Sumitra asked.
Adi laughed. “Yes, but there's no way I'm getting in there.”
“That's okay, I'll get them to bring food down.” She paused. “What language do you think they speak?”
“I'm pretty sure it's Kanada.”
“Makes sense. I wonder if they'll understand my Hindi, I've been taking an adult learning class, but I suck.”
She hopped up the steps and Adi waited below watching her. She pointed down to him and the woman behind the table frowned. Sumitra tried hand gestures and broken Hindi. When she came back down the steps she was carrying two large metal plates with fresh, large crepes on them.
“Nope, my Hindi is as unintelligible as my English. At least 'masala dosa' is only called one thing.”
“Nice job,” Adi said, smiling. “I don't speak any Kanada either.”
“Two totally useless American-born desis!” She sat on the steps with one plate on her lap and put the other plate on his lap.
“Um,” he said and licked his lips nervously, “My hands don't really do the whole Indian eating thing.”
“Oh, right,” Sumitra said, “Sorry, I didn't think of that. What can I do?”
He started to look embarrassed and the easy connection they had was fading quickly. When he didn't say anything, but looked away, Sumitra reached onto his lap, tore a piece of dosa and gently held it to his mouth. His eyes jumped to hers and she looked at him with the most sultry look she could manage, giving him a wink. She wanted to make sure he knew she wasn't feeding him like he was a baby. He opened his mouth and she held eye contact as she fed him a bite.
“Pretty good, right?” she said.
“Yeah,” he agreed.
She asked him about his home and his life there to get him engaged again and they spent most of the afternoon together. As they wandered back towards the ashram grounds, Sumitra asked, “What did your parents ask as a blessing?”
“What do you think? For me to be healed and get up and walk, of course. Twelve years I've been in this chair and they're still expecting a miracle. What did yours ask for?”
“Me to find a husband. Also a miracle.”
“I'm surprised you have trouble, you're a very pretty girl,” he said, looking up at her and squinting against the setting sun as he spoke.
“Aw, thanks, but looks aren't the trouble. I'm not exactly docile.”
“I take it you've noticed that about me.”
When they arrived back, both sets of parents were frantic with worry. Adi's mother looked at Sumitra like she could turn the girl to dust with her eyes alone. Sumitra's parents saw Adi and looked at each other in horror. They probably thought he was contagious, or at least that his karma could be.
The next day Adi didn't come to darshan, but Sumitra saw his parents there. She slipped out early and walked back to the dorms. Everything around the building was empty and quiet, all the people in the area were seeing the guru. There was only one room on the ground floor and she knocked lightly on the door.
She pulled open the door and saw Adi in bed. The ashram dorms came with only hard wooden frames and a small sack of a mattress, but Adi was laying on several layers of blankets, with more rolled up around him, holding him in the bed. He smiled without reserve when he saw it was her.
“Hey,” she said, “Glad to see me?”
“Totally, I'm so bored.”
“More masala dosa?”
“Only if you can help me into my chair and down the front stairs.”
Sumitra grinned. “No problem.” She pulled his wheelchair closer to the bed, then leaned over Adi and got her arm around his back. He put his over her neck and she thrilled at the feel his fingers against her back. She pulled him into the chair. Outside the room there were five steps down to the street and Adi instructed Sumitra how to lower his chair down them.
“Isn't it kind of dangerous for you to be alone in there? What if there was a fire?”
Adi stopped wheeling a moment to shrug. “I have faith.”
“You do?” This time Sumitra stopped walking and looked down at his deep, warm eyes.
“Sure. I'm at an ashram, aren't I?”
He was her age, he was an American, how could he be religious? Her stomach tightened. Religious people were judgmental. How could he be one of them?
“So am I, but I don't really know what I believe. I thought you were here because your parents wanted it.”
“No, I asked to take a pilgrimage.”
“Oh.” Sumitra couldn't hide her disappointment. She crossed her arms in front of her and felt a strange chill in the humid Indian air. “But I take it from what you said yesterday that you're not asking the guru for a cure?”
“I don't really think that's how life works. I think being in the presence of the guru gives you something that you won't necessarily see in the physical world. I don't come here to be healed, I come here to remind myself to be at peace...What's wrong?”
“I'm sorry, I just thought you were like me. I feel like I'm the only one in this entire town who isn't sure of the guru.” She sat down on the ground next to a cow pie and circled her legs with her arms, squinting up at Adi. “It must be nice to have faith,” she said.
“Yeah, it is. You should try it.” He gave her a half smile and she couldn't help smiling back a little. “Seriously, though, what do you think is in the way of believing in the guru?”
Sumitra shrugged. Really she knew what it was, but she wasn't ready to tell Adi about her own pain. In dark moments she was resentful of God, angry that he had made her the way that she was. “What makes you believe in him?” she countered.
“Makes life easier, I guess. It shares the burden a little. Advaita posits that we are all God, so all of us together share the responsibility of life. It's nice not to be fighting through it alone.”
“I do feel alone,” Sumitra acknowledged. “Sometimes I think I will let my parents arrange a marriage for me just to fill my emptiness.”
“I think if you're going to do that, the guru would make a better choice. He'll take more care of you than a stranger-husband.”
“I wish I felt what you felt.”
Adi smiled. “Not many would say that.”
“They would if they knew you. Does it bother you that people think it's your karma and your fault that you're paralyzed?”
“No. They can think whatever they want to think. The chair is my fate, but what I do with it, that creates my future fate. I'm sure there's a reason I'm disabled. I don't know what it is, but life goes on. Lucky for me, I'm not under any pressure to get married,” he added with a teasing smile.
They spent most of the day together every day after that as the time in their pilgrimages ticked down. Sometimes she sat on the steps of the dorm and ate bhel puri while he sat in front of her and they talked. Sometimes Adi did impersonations of his overbearing mother and made Sumitra laugh and kick her feet against the dirt in glee. Sumitra had so much fun with him that she was starting to feel sad while they were laughing together, just knowing that at some point she would have to tell Adi the truth, that she was a freak, and this carefree time together would end.
There would be the usual questions: do you know why? When did it start? Do you like me or only my disability? Do you have a need to be in control over someone else? The questions that paralyzed men always asked her when they found out.
One day left. The knowledge pounded against Sumitra's ribcage all through darshan in the morning. She left before the parents again and hurried back to Adi's room, as they had been doing all week. Out on the street she fingered the goods displayed on the stands and avoided looking at him. He was so darn cute.
“What's up?” Adi said.
“Last day,” Sumitra said and sighed. “I never thought I'd be sad to go back home.”
“Oh yeah? What will you miss about India?”
Without hesitation she said, “You.”
Adi looked up at her. “Really?”
Sumitra sat down on the sidewalk curb and put her hands on his knees. “Will you kiss me?”
“Here?” he sputtered, “On a rural street in India? There would be a riot, we'd get lynched.”
“Guess we better pick this back up in America, “she said, “Let me give you my number.”
“Not to sound all self-deprecating, but I usually have to work a lot harder to get a girl to kiss me.”
Here was her moment. She had to tell him now. She looked over his head, to the blue sky that looked exactly like an American sky. “There's something you should know,” she said. “I hate to have to tell you this, but I have this thing where I can only be attracted to men with spinal cord injuries.”
“Oh,” he said after a moment, “That was not what I was expecting to hear.”
When he didn't say anything, she said quietly, “How does your spirituality account for something like me?” She hated the vulnerability of the question. She could feel her whole body peeled open in front of him, exposing herself to the pain of rejection.
“We're all made in the image of God, that's what I think.”
“Really?” She dared to raise her eyes to meet his.
“We can't know what past actions have brought us to our fate, we only have our present to create something new. I wouldn't dwell on where it came from or why it is in you, just decide to use it for a positive outcome.”
“What positive outcome could I create?”
“Love is always positive.”
“Just be open to it, you have the capacity to love men who experience more rejection than acceptance. That's a gift.”
A gift. Sumitra smiled. Devoteeism had never sounded so lovely. “Do you think the guru arranged for us to meet?”
“It's possible. He's like a conduit, bringing elements together for a more fruitful future.” Adi gingerly took hold of her hand between his thumb and the side of his forefinger. “Trust the guru. Trust the universe. I'll see you in the States.”