The BART took me within a fifteen-minute cab ride to Heath’s apartment in Fremont, where there was a large Indian community. His apartment complex was modest but by no means a dump. As I climbed the stairs to his third-level apartment, I was overwhelmed by the fragrance of cumin, turmeric, ginger, onions, and garlic. The hour-long train ride had not done much for my appetite.
I was greeted at the door by a young, pudgy Indian woman in a sari. She was not unattractive, perhaps well-matched to Heath’s appearance.
“Welcome,” she said warmly, “I am Padma. You must be James. My husband has told me so much about you. Come in,” she said very formerly.
“Thank you; it’s lovely to finally meet you. Dinner smells delicious.”
“You like it? Do you eat Indian food often?” she asked as I handed her my jacket.
“Of course. Who in San Francisco doesn’t like Indian food?” I said, perhaps a little over-enthusiastically. I was feeling very anxious about the evening.
“Please have a seat wherever you like. Can I bring you some tea? You must be tired from the train.”
Her hospitality touched me in small-part. I did not generally drink tea, but it sounded like something that could settle my stomach. “If it’s not too much trouble.”
“It is no trouble at all, James. Have you tried Indian tea before?”
“Is it like chai?” I asked.
“Yes! It is chai. We serve it with hot milk or if you like, with some sweetened condensed milk. Very, very tasty that way.”
“That sounds delicious, Padma. Sweet is good, thanks.”
“Heath and Guruji will be out shortly. They are praying,” she said, rolling her eyes and raising her hands in an exasperated manner.
As she left the living room, she was shaking her head, and mumbling in what I assumed was Hindi.
As I waited, I took in the apartment. On the walls, there were pictures of family and a beautiful tapestry of sorts with tiny mirrors sewn into them. There was a picture of a man with pure white hair standing next to a woman that looked strikingly like Heath. I assumed that these were his parents.
Then a very small man in slacks and what looked to me to be a white linen Guayabera shirt like my grandfather in Brownsville, Texas, used to wear entered the room. He had three lines of white ash on his forehead. Heath, who was wearing an identical shirt, followed him in. Then I was rolling eyes as well but in my mind.
“James, this is Sri Ravi. He is very pleased to meet you.”
The man made a small bow and then shook my hand very limply.
“It’s good to meet you, Ravi,” I said. His eyes gleamed at me–Dark brown, and full of gentle zeal. He nodded and sat down in a cushy chair across from me.
I addressed Heath, “Does he speak English?”
“Oh, yes. He speaks every language, but I will help you understand him.”
For what seemed like minutes, we sat staring at each other. And then he did something very odd. Smiling at me, he took his foot and touched it to his forehead. And though I was a little impressed at how flexible he was, it certainly wasn’t miraculous. As doubtful as I was, there was a part of me that wanted something extraordinary to happen. I smiled and nodded first at Sri Ravi and then at Heath.
“Would you like to ask him something?” Heath said.
I had no idea what to say or do with this, and I was grateful when Padma returned with my tea.
“Thank you. Smells delicious,” I said.
“Enjoy,” she said and sat down next to Heath.
“Have you had a nice stay in San Francisco?” I asked, hoping to break the ice.
He grinned and nodded. Then Heath spoke.
“We had been touring yesterday. We went down to the pier and ate some delicious vegetarian food.” Then he turned and spoke in Hindi to Ramakrishna. I was impressed to hear him speak so fluently in a foreign tongue. They both laughed. Sri Ravi spoke to me, but I couldn’t understand, so I looked to Heath to translate.
“Yes, he is having a lovely time. He is very impressed.”
I honestly had no idea why I was here or what was expected of me. Heath had called this a darshan…a blessing, but I wasn’t sure what that entailed. Was I supposed to kiss this guy’s feet or something? The little man stood up and motioned for me to come to him. I took the very few steps necessary to cross the small room and stood in front of him. He spoke to me, but I could not understand him, so I turned to Heath.
“He wants to examine you,” Heath said.
“Ok,” I said and took a deep breath, thinking that I had nothing to lose.
Sri Ravi raised his hands toward me, closed his eyes, and murmured in his native tongue. Then very slowly, he began to move his hands close to my body, starting with my head. He moved his way down. I could feel a warmth emanating from them, and I wondered if that meant something was happening. As he examined each part of me, he would nod and make a faint humming sound. He began working his way down to my torso, presumably checking vital organs, nodding and humming–like a checklist. But then he stopped right above my liver.
He spoke to Heath for quite some time while Heath nodded very subtly.
Then Heath cleared his throat and said, “Guruji says that you may be developing a problem with your liver. He says you may become very sick.”
“My liver?” I said, wondering how any of this worked.
“He would like to touch your body now if you consent,” said Heath.
I nodded, and Sri Ravi closed his eyes and murmured again.
“He would like you to take off your shirt.”
I looked around the room to see where Padma was. She was no longer with us, so I took off my shirt.
Ramakrishna placed his right hand on the part of my body, where my liver resided and began to sing an exotic melody very softly. He began to apply pressure. Then he began to breathe deeply and slowly as my skin became warmer and warmer. Very suddenly, he stopped and began to waver on his feet, clutching the place where his liver was. He staggered and sat back down, wincing with pain. After about a minute, he took in a great breath with his eyes closed, then he spoke with some effort to Heath.
Heath said, “Guruji has restored your liver by taking on your illness. But he is warning you that if you continue your lifestyle, the illness will return with great intensity.”
Both wonder and spasms of skepticism overcame me. I thought about the way I’d been drinking so hard for so long and wondered if it was related. Then as if reading my mind, Sri Ravi spoke to Heath, who then said, “This is most definitely related to your drinking habits. He says that in one month, you will quit drinking forever, and your body and mind will become restored in the following months.”
Then I sat down and reached for the lukewarm tea, which I had not touched. It was rich and sweet and spicy. I was suddenly ravenous. The whole time, Sri Ravi gazed at me with a tender expression. His concern for me whether I believed in him or not genuinely touched me.
I was buttoning my shirt when Padma stepped into the room and said, “You are welcome to sit at the table now,” and she gestured to the small dinette area adjoining the living room. We all sat while she began to bring us dishes.
She said, “All dishes strictly vegetarian.”
The smells which had first overwhelmed me were now stimulating my stomach and causing my salivary glands to release. Everything looked delicious.
As Padma sat, she pointed in turn to the dishes saying, “Veggie Biryani. Mango pickle. Raita. Bitter melon. Dal. These all go together. You may eat with your hand, or I can provide a fork.”
“James. We eat with our right hand and drink with our left,” said Heath. He served himself, then demonstrated how to eat the food in little smushed clumps between his fingers. “Never eat with your left hand!”
“Why?” I asked, wondering if the left hand was considered dirty or evil in some way.
“Because you will make an enormous mess of your cup!” he said, and he burst into a fit of girlish giggle.
Sri Ravi, who was following the conversation with great interest, chuckled along with Heath, mimicking eating with his right hand. He appeared to be feeling better.
After a few clumsy bites of which everyone stopped eating to watch, my forehead began to sweat, at first a little, and then soon profusely. My nose began to fill with mucus so that I had to wipe it with the cloth napkin.
Padma said with a look of concern on her face, “Is it too hot? We tried to make it milder for you.”
I raised a messy right hand and shook my head, “No no. It’s fine. Very delicious.” And I scooped up another bite quickly. But I had lied, and I suspect that she knew. It was very much too hot for my Oklahoma tongue.
“Here, here!” she said. “Mix with the yogurt. It will cool your tongue.”
“Thank you,” I said appreciatively.
After we had all had our fill, Padma brought out cups of tea and what I recognized as gulab jamun, an Indian sweet the size of donut holes.
“Oh, I love these!” I said, grateful to be eating something without chili peppers.
“Do you know what gulab jamun means?” said Heath with a solemn face.
“I don’t guess I do,” I said.
“It means pink balls. I’ll bet you never thought you’d be eating my pink balls tonight!” he said with an uproarious, screeching laugh that I had never heard him make.
I scoffed and said, “Very funny. Ball jokes. Yeah, and who would have thought your balls would be so tasty.”
With this, Padma snorted and choked a little on her tea, and Heath giggled.
“Can I make a toast?” I said, inspired by the unusual evening.
“Of course!” said Heath, very pleased.
“Padma, thank you for welcoming me into your home. Heath, thanks for forgiving me for lying at work. Sri Ravi, thank you for your message to me tonight.” Then I raised my teacup and said exultantly, “To friends and the hottest fucking food I’ve eaten in my life!”
The table erupted in cheers and laughter.
After a time of visiting and laughing and delicious sweets, I stood up and put my napkin on the table. “Thanks again for a wonderful evening. I’m happy I came,” I said, filled with a kind of gratitude that I did not expect to feel that night; humbled and having been in a greater need for friends than I realized.
Everyone stood and walked me to the door, Padma, with my coat. She shook my hand very gently. Then Sri Ravi said a few words to Heath, which Heath translated.
“Guruji says he would like to give you a blessing before you go. He has a small gift for you.”
From his shirt pocket, Sri Ravi pulled out a leather necklace with sort of a natural bead. He kissed it and murmured over it, then put his other hand on my shoulder. He spoke very slowly and very clearly.
“James, you have seen your future,” he said. “It is very bright and filled with many blessings. This rudraksha bead will bring you peace if you wish it. Do not let anybody else touch it. I have prayed over it for many days.” Then he gestured for me to stoop to his level, and he kissed me firmly and warmly on the forehead. “May God’s blessing be upon you and in your healing.”
In that moment, I felt an all-encompassing peace fill my chest and radiate through my body so that my hands and head felt a buzz of warmth. I was going to cry, but I did not want anyone to see it. Unable to speak, I nodded to everyone and stepped outside in the brisk, fresh air. Overwhelmed, I did cry briefly as I walked toward the stairs until I realized that I had forgotten to call a taxi. I did not want to return after so momentous a farewell, so I walked down the steps before pulling out my cell phone to make the call and smoke a cigarette.
As I waited, a group of young Indian men walked toward me, chatting, laughing, holding hands, and slapping one of the men on the back with what appeared to be pride and congratulations. One or two of them looked up at me, still laughing and talking, and as they ascended the stairs, their voices became faint and echoey until a door closed, they stopped altogether.
The cab and train ride home were very quiet. It was past eleven, but I was not tired. I was thoughtful. I pondered the evening as its spell began to fade. I wondered what might happen in a month if anything. I was still holding the rudraksha tightly. I opened my hand to examine it. It was perfectly round, dark brown, and bumpy. I wondered how it was grown and what Sri Ravi had prayed, but even as I did, my skepticism began to get the better of me.
When I arrived at my apartment, Amy was on the couch covered in the Indian blanket, sleeping very soundly. I tiptoed to my room, placing the necklace on my bedside table and put on some pajamas before going to the living room for my nightly ritual of scotch and pills even though my brace had been removed and I was no longer in pain. The doctor had given me an unusually large number of pills, and I felt a sense of relief to see that there were plenty remaining. I drank steadily, refilling my glass several times until I faded away into the night with peripheral thoughts of my liver.