My stomach played a minimal, almost insignificant role.
Nearly three weeks ago, I found myself at the Gurdwara in Dubai, the house of prayer and community gatherings for the local Sikh community.
“…born into a Hindu family in 1469, a time when northern India was ruled by an Afghan Muslim dynasty, the Lodis. A charismatic visionary, Nanak advocated a new faith, based on love, egalitarianism, and belief in a nonincarnate divinity. His preaching accommodated both the Islamic idea that the goal of religion is union with God, and the Hindu notion that through meditation and good work, the devotee could purge himself of impurities and achieve freedom from the cycle of rebirth.” (Eating India, Ch. 6)
I stepped in, borrowed a headscarf, and slipped my shoes off before entering the holy area. An aromatic tsunami of ghee rushed right at me as I walked past the kitchen doors, instantly alerting my mouth to the flavours that would follow that evening. But Sona tugged me upstairs—pooja first.
There is always a conflict in my mind when I’m faced with religious practices that aren’t my own, no matter how broad-minded I like to believe myself to be. I stood there in a queue that was vibrant with traditional saffron-coloured head scarves and turbans, thoughts throbbing through my mind as the voices of those around me chanted the devotional hymns (kirtan) in unison. What would I do when I reached the front of the line? Would I prostrate myself as everyone else did? What exactly would I be prostrating to? Would I give money as a pledge to a divinity that I knew nothing of? Would I submit myself to another God, and incur the wrath of the one I called my own?
When Sona and I finally reached the takht, the raised platform that everyone had been inching towards, I hushed my inner conflict. Here was a place of God, a place that hadn’t questioned my religion when I stepped in, but just gave me a scarf to cover my head and welcomed me right in. Even my own community wouldn't do that for an outsider. It didn’t matter who my God was or who ‘theirs’ was either, or the fact that my knowledge of Sikhism was painfully limited at the time (and still is). All l I knew was that they had let me in, let me in to feel closer to God. This is Sikhism at its core—a religion that glorifies tolerance, equality, service and humility:
“…the Light of God is in all hearts.” (Sikh religious text: Guru Granth Sahib)
When I lowered my head towards the ground, the gates to everything I had been feeling over the past few weeks just flung open and washed out all the niggling petty questions that had been croaking like toads in my head, every day for the past few days. The outrage of having my real estate broker abscond with my rent payments, the remorse at having been fooled into believing his cooked-up stories about why the landlord wouldn’t accept my personal cheques and paying him cash instead, the humiliation of being unable to stop hot tears from rolling down my face at the property management office when I found out the news, the frustration of not having a bank guarantee come through because of a typo on an Arabic legal document, the annoyance of having to waste precious time and funds on having degrees attested for a license, the embarrassment of constantly pushing out my food tour launch dates and turn down inquiries for a tour, the pain of watching something I am so passionate about get cramps in the foot every time it tries to move forward…all of it just got dredged up out of nowhere and hung so heavily in my heart that the only thing to do was to bend down, unlock that private space between God and myself—a space that is not confined to a mosque or a temple or any such man-made place, but a space that is in my heart and mind if only I will it to be—and pray for mental peace.
I find that I can actually get closer to God in a place of worship that’s not traditionally my own. Where I don’t know the rituals, the customs, the appropriate hand gestures, the people around me, or anything else I’ve grown up learning and observing and becoming critical of. It's in such unfamiliar places of worship where I'm forced to look inward and connect with the only things that do feel familiar—myself, and God.
When we stepped out, my taste buds thankfully swooped in and took control, replacing the gravity of what I was feeling with the buttery heaviness of rich, gooey, ghee-oozing halwa that was dolloped into our cupped palms right as we stepped out of the prayer hall. This act of being served, hand to hand, human to human, is the essence of a meal at the Gurdwara and speaks volumes about the religion and its founder.
The langar, or the communal dining room, was lined with rows of people sitting cross-legged on the ground, eating a simple vegetarian dinner of roti, vegetable, daal, and rice. I’ve heard that this entire meal is prepared by volunteers from the Sikh community—and true enough, when I peeked into the kitchen window, I could see a flurry of people in plain clothes, cooking, cleaning, and helping to serve the many meals that are provided free to anyone who steps into the langar.
Sona and I sat on the ground with everyone else, waiting to be served by the children and adults that had committed themselves to doing ‘seva’ (service) that evening. I peered to the side as a man with rotis approached, observing how people extended their palms for bread, a gesture that in my eyes, signalled humility and respect to both the person who is serving and to the one being served. I dipped my roti in chunky dal makhani made of earthy black lentils and mild spices, took a serving of the curried potato and peas, and nodded my head eagerly when asked if I would like an extra roti or a spoon of rice. Our glasses were filled by little girls and boys walking about with water pitchers, eager to do their act of community service for the day. When we finally heaved ourselves off of the ground, unable to tuck in anything more than a few spoonfuls of a second sweet halwa being served as dessert, I knew that this meal would be one that would stay with me forever. Not because of what I ate, but because of how it was prepared, served, and shared without a question, without prying into who I was, where I came from, what religion I followed.
Sometimes, you need a simple experience to recentre yourself and your emotions. The Gurdwara helped me do that, if only for the few hours I spent there. I walked out full that evening, full of a simple unpretentious meal, full of great regard for the Sikh community and their principles of equality, inclusiveness and humility, full of a feeling of a reassurance that I could still connect with God at a time when all the petty things in my life had nearly blocked Him out from me.
To read about the Sikh religion and community, view this concise yet informative article on BBC. For a more local perspective on the Guru Nanak Darbar in Dubai, check out this news release on Emirates247 right after the Gurdwara was inaugurated in January of this year. The article also contains a location map for Guru Nanak Darbar.
PS. Sona, thanks for making this evening happen for me.