Bernadette was only vaguely aware of the fact that somewhere over the course of several weeks she had come to believe that a curry flavored Hindu woman was a goddess.
And on this warm Jersey City weekend, an event known as puja was about to take place. This was a special event. Significant, this time around, because the supreme goddess herself would attend in full, ceremonial regalia. She would be worshiped as Kali, the bloodthirsty destroyer who wields a bloodstained scythe and sports a necklace of skulls and a skirt of severed arms.
Cult members were beside themselves over the magnitude of the occasion. Massive meals were prepared. Saris, loose-fitting costumes of all proper pujas were ironed and carefully donned on the female frames.
Some devotees even went so far as to take up the task of loosing the pedals on hundreds of roses that would decorate the throne where the goddess would preside.
The throne itself was painstakingly designed, decorated, then dismantled, rearranged and redecorated all over again. For, while it had to look right, subjectivity rendered one woman’s right, another woman’s gauche.
Children were shushed and given small tasks to keep them amused. Men lazed around, chatting and trying to sound important while the women fretted and fussed endlessly over details no normal household would deem worthy of such attention.
And then there was the chai.
A tea totalers martini of sorts, chai was of extreme importance to goddess worshipers. Prepared Indian style using black tea, spices, milk and loads of sugar, chai was an overly sweet concoction, and a favorite of the goddess, and it became an obsession of her devotees. Huge vats were mixed up and heated, and cup after cup was served first by the females to the males, then to the females by other females. Children were given half-cups.
Drinking the concoction became a benediction, a precursor to the ritual of the Goddess. Bernadette started to dread the Styrofoam-encased sea of the tan liquid.
About 4 cups into her morning, Bernadette had a fleeting thought: Could this tea be drugged? She laughed at herself and drained another cup, wondering when she’d ever learn to trust. And yet she couldn’t keep the nagging thoughts away. Why do they keep insisting she have just one more cup? What would happen if she refused to take it? They couldn’t force her to drink it, could they? She decided she would decline the next round, just to see what would happen.
The work continued, and soon Bernadette found herself about to iron the undergarments of one of the Great Cult Leaders. Lesser than the goddess herself, but greater than the rank and file devotees, this man would later be excommunicated and condemned as a gay pedophile, but was later accepted into the Ashram of Sai Baba. But at this moment the man needed his underwear ironed, and he had chosen Bernadette to do it for him. She knew she should feel honored, yet somehow she felt debased.
Within minutes, the chai made yet another appearance.
”No, thank you, no can do “, Bernadette demurred, nature and nature’s god were already calling her.
”Oh, but you must,” came the response, ”It would be rude to turn it down. It’s been touched and blessed by the goddess.
Spreading vibrations was something the goddess was said to be able to do either by touch or by glance infusing the recipient with the divine energy of mystical ‘shaktipat’. Or so devotees believed.
”I’d really rather not,” Bernadette replied.
”Just take it,” insisted the sari-clad young women.
”No, thank you, I had enough” Bernadette looked her squarely in the eye, daring her to challenge again.
There was no challenge. Just the cup, now positioned quietly on the polished wooden table that stood guard near Bernadette and the wrinkled underwear.