Inevitably, and usually in a crowded public place, someone will approach us, smile, and ask a simple question: “Which country?” I was asked this question, most recently, as we stood sweating with thousands of others in a long line at the Kukke Subramanya Temple deep in the forests of southwestern Karnataka. We have come to the coast of this southern state for a ten day visit with friends who grew up in the area and have a home in the paddies and coconut groves along the banks of the Gurpur River. After months in an urban area, this lush green valley outside the hilly city of Mangalore feels like a return to more familiar ground. While it is fiercely hot and humid here, and there are cobras in the grass, we are immediately at home in the open green fields with water and the hum of insects at nights.
Most often I respond to the which country question with “United States” as the answer-a response that on occasion leads to a brief moment of confusion with a follow up, “America?” In such cases, I roll my head and smile and say yes, America, knowing that I would not be able to explain the distinction. Conversation follows. More often than not the question leads to other questions. We follow with questions, too, asking where our interlocutor is from, what their good name is. We are asked what we think of India (we love it) or if Indian food is too spicy (for me never, I say, though too often, I add, for my daughter). Our Indian friends, whether in a temple, in a market, or on the crowded street of a busy city, are interested in what we notice, what the differences are. We explain the differences and also point out the similarities. These conversations can be brief, or they can last for some time, leading to an exchange of cards of e-mail ids or a group photograph. Others are not interested in conversation but rather in taking a photograph of us with their family members. At the Subramanya Temple, two young children were pushed close to N and E and encouraged by their parents to greet our fair headed children with a hello and a handshake. Their mother said that the kids were less interested in the temple than in us.
The man at the temple was clearly delighted in the fact that among these thousands of devotees-Indian women in colorful cloth, children, and shirtless men in white lungis-there are four white people moving (actually being pushed and shoved along in the Indian manner) ahead to catch a momentary glimpse of Lord Subramanya, the deity of the temple. After a momentary pause to fold our hands together and press them to our foreheads in the presence of the idol deep in the interior of the temple building we are pushed among the waving arms of priests to a concrete platform where we sit for a puja. We then accept the offering of prasad as we find our way through the chaotic center of the temple grounds to a narrow stone door that empties out into the street.