Quite often, what we mistake for our earliest memories are, in fact, our fathers’ first camcorder outings. So I won’t claim this as my own, but I do remember seeing, at least, a home video of a man known to my family as simply… the Swami.
The Swami, which is an honorific title, is a holy man who tours the world, staying for a few days at a time in Hindu homes. And since the South Asian Diaspora is amongst the furthest flung, the Swami is a very well travelled man.
In the home video, he is shown praying in the flat above my parents’ corner shop in Newport, Shropshire. Not his most glamourous gig, I imagine, but for us – my two sisters and I – he was an exotic visitor in our otherwise suburban lives.
In what is a particularly uncomfortable scene for me, the Swami reaches down from his seat on the sofa to where we children are sat, at his feet, and strokes my head, like I were the cat to his Bond villain. Instead of purring, I stifle a laugh for what felt like an hour, but what the video reveals to have been only a few minutes.
For us, it was the highlight of the Swami’s visit. We recounted the story to each other (though we were all there), each time its telling more exaggerated. “It was like I was his bowling ball!” I’d say, not realising how creepy that sounded.
When he returned, years later, we were in our teens and had moved house. As he climbed our driveway, I noticed a pair of Nike Air Jordans peeking out from underneath his orange robes. He looked up at the new house, much bigger than the last, a symbol of my parents’ success, and declared it bad luck.
“Its shape,” he said. “Is like the open mouth of a roaring lion.”
I came out to help him with his bags, paused and looked up at the house as if it were a Magic Eye illusion. Maybe the lion would appear if I moved up close, fixed my eyes and stepped slowly back, I thought. But, however I looked at it, it was a new build, detached house with a separate garage joined by a granny annexe extension.
Once inside, he found our house more to his liking. Furniture draped in tarpaulin, at his request, so that when he sat he wouldn’t come into contact with the seat. Water too, on his arrival, was poured into his mouth so that the glass didn’t touch his lips. He plugged in his mobile phone to charge (it was the first I’d ever seen) and announced his final request – that he stay in my bedroom. As the youngest, he said, my room would be untouched by carnal desires. Good luck with that, buddy, I thought.
That evening, as we gathered in the lounge for a prayer session, we resumed our original positions: children (and mere mortals) to the floor, Swami perched on the covered sofa. This time, when he reached down to stroke my head, he found himself tangled in sticky hair gel.
“Any questions?” he asked, when we were done. “Anything you like.”
It was quiet. I guess we thought that if we asked any questions we’d only have to sit there, stifling laughter, for even longer. But it was awkward, so I raised my hand and scanned the room, looking for inspiration, my eyes landing on a painting of the avatar Krishna, in typical pose, playing a flute and dancing with women. Topless women, I’ll add.
“Mr Swami?” I said.
“Swami,” he corrected me.
“Swami, why’s the Lord Krishna always surrounded by women?” I asked. I was fifteen, bear in mind, and if I could just have his secret…
“Sandeep,” he said. “You mustn’t ask questions of your religion. OK?”
OK. So his question, as to whether we had any questions, was a rhetorical question?
I was glad when he left. And as I helped him with his bags I thought that for a Swami, “free from all the senses”, he sure had a lot of shit with him. Checking for his mobile phone, a dance I’d soon learn myself, he was on his way, off to chide more children and put them off the religion their parents so wanted them to embrace.
I was reminded of all of this when I went home for Diwali last weekend. It was a similar scene: the family gathered in the lounge for a prayer session on the Saturday evening, except we all sat on the floor this time. And perhaps because this made me feel like we were on the same level, I interrupted the prayer to ask why we didn’t say it in English.
“I mean, no-one understands this,” I said. I hadn’t wanted to start a revolution, but the debate my question had sparked was turning into one.
“Can’t you be a Hindu without speaking Hindi?” my sister asked.
“Yeah, why’s the religion and the language so tied up?”
You can see that our line of questioning had matured since the Swami’s visit, but even still it was upsetting mum. She finished the prayer, put away her books and went to the kitchen.
The next day, as I was packing to return to London, I came across a magazine in my old room. Though the Swami wasn’t with us this Diwali he’d found his way onto the cover of Hinduism Today, which had pronounced him, “Hindu of the Year”. I wondered how he’d earned the title. Fluent in Hindi? Unquestioning? Looking at the cover, he had a lot of bindis. Maybe that helped. I took a photo of the magazine and put away my camera. I’d been teaching myself photography and Diwali this year had turned into an ethnographic study.
In the car on the way to the railway station I apologised to my mum for upsetting her the night before.
“That’s okay, son,” she said. “It just upset me, I suppose, that you’re willing to teach yourself photography, but you seem uninterested in your own religion.”
It didn’t feel like my religion, I wanted to say. And the fact that I asked questions meant that I was interested.
But I didn’t say anything. I didn’t want an argument before I left, and I didn’t really want a revolution. I’d had a great weekend, and I knew that when I got home and processed the photos I’d have the evidence in my hands. You just can’t say that about religion.
“Mum,” I said, as I got out of the car. “Why is Krishna always surrounded by topless women?”
My mum wound-up the car window and started the engine. I guess you can’t say that either.