Material Fantasies of a Religious Fanatic
February 2016
illustration

Namaskar Palace, Marrakech

‘Marrakech was amazing! The hotel had two huge swimming pools, a spa for therapies, and restaurants on three floors. We went to the buffet floor every day. Exotic fruits of every kind; mango, papaya, jackfruit, coconut, guava, and dozens of bowls of vegetarian food, bread, rice… we could eat as much as we wanted.’

‘How was it being with Sameer for a week?’ Neetu says, knowing her mother has been arguing a lot with her older brother, yet jumping at the chance of an all expenses paid holiday.

‘You know how he is,’ Rekha says. ‘The room was enormous, bigger than the size of my house, and luxurious. There were two televisions, so I hung out in the bedroom while he stayed in the lounge room.’ Neetu stays silent, listening. ‘Did I tell you, I bought a beautiful Chanel designer bag from a shop in the market district. It was a fake and the guy said I'd saved £300 on buying a real one.’

‘That's supporting illegal trade, you know,’ Neetu says, and Rekha laughs.

Rekha retired fifteen years ago, but she is an energetic and active woman. She eats healthy food and watches her weight, and the customers she often bumps into at her local Waitrose, who recognise her from when she used to work there, still give her compliments. ‘You don't look a day over forty,’ they remark. She smiles coyly, her cheeks flushing with embarrassment.

Standing in the queue with her trolley of weekly shopping, she recalls the decades she sat at these very same tills, endlessly scanning items of food, eight hours per day. Thank God I don't have to touch those disgusting film-wrapped hunks of meat anymore, she thinks.

Rekha has been a vegan since her mid-forties, when she gradually gave up eating meat, fish, eggs and animal fat products, in tandem with her increased religious discipline. Her spirit feels so much more cleaner and purer, and in fact, the mere smell of animal flesh makes her want to wretch now. Her two grown up children still eat meat. She knows she can't force them to be vegetarian, though she wishes she hadn't fed them chicken curry every Sunday when they were young.

Other than her regulars, who used to wait in her queue regardless of how long it was, specifically to be served by her, she hated working at Waitrose. The early morning shifts, the winter cold, the uncomfortable chairs, and the other Indian ladies, who gossiped and gobbled food all through their lunch break. She always sat separately from those scandal-mongers, quietly reading her Bhagvad Gita and other religious texts. Taking the name of God kept her spirit pure from the baseness of her fellow workers. During those break times, she dreamt about retirement, when she would have all the time in the world to tend to her house and garden, and make her own clothes with the Singer 66 sewing machine she'd bought in 1972. She would also renovate her prayer room, so she could devote her days to bhakti, the devotional prayers and offerings necessary for her soul to attain the peace and freedom she craved upon her death.

Where has the time gone, she thinks ruefully. Fifteen years and there's so much to be done in the house. Clothes that have to be washed from her holiday to Morocco, broken tiles to be replaced in the bathroom, and the scummy dirt cleaned from the wooden floors. She also wants to buy new curtains for the downstairs and the latest HD television to watch her religious programmes on Sky Asia.

And the garden? It breaks her heart to look out at the garden. The fallen down fence, the old washing machine and fridge freezer that have been standing in the back yard for two years, the mouldy garden chairs, which were left outside the previous winter. Keeping the grass short and pulling the weeds takes all her energy, she barely has the time to grow tomatoes and cucumbers now. She doesn't know how she used to hold down a full time job at the supermarket and grow all kinds of vegetables before; lettuce, potatoes, parsnips, radishes, onions and carrots. Since she retired though, there doesn't seem to be any point in continuing. Her son and daughter no longer live at home, and as she fasts practically half the week, she can't possibly eat all that food by herself.

Nowadays, she just seems to receive bills and insurance letters. The additional piles of paper in every room makes it difficult to find anything anymore. There's hardly space to walk around her own house without feeling the weight of the clutter. Of course, the cleaning lady comes once every two weeks, but Rekha doesn't know why she bothers to pay her. The house looks no different following the three hours of that lazy Polish woman's cleaning.

Rekha doesn't understand why she feels so tired, especially now she no longer has to work in the godforsaken supermarket. Her daughter, Neetu, says she should accept that her body is changing with age, the menopause and so forth. But she doesn't like getting old. She still wakes up at 5:00am to do her prayers, even though most mornings she falls asleep over her holy books. She also finds herself falling asleep in the middle of the day when she sits down to have a break and watch one of her television serials.

In truth, her life in London feels like an unending chain of grey clouds, stretching out into the future. That's why she's made it her mission to go on holiday at least five times a year. She's always wanted to travel, and after all those years slaving at Waitrose, surely she deserves some pleasure. She has discovered a group of fellow travelling companions, who are equally religious, with whom she tours around India. Planning for her holiday pilgrimages has become her sole passion. Her religious wanderings gives her the excitement of something to look forward to.

Soon, it will be the anniversary of her husband's death, and the beginning of the holy period around Diwali, the Festival of Lights. The Pitru-Paksha, the most important aspect of this month, is the two-weeks fast to venerate her dead ancestors. It is the one time in the year Rekha refuses to go on holiday or leave her house. The prayer room must be thoroughly cleaned and she needs to have everything to hand for her daily prayers, special readings and chanting. When the dead hold sway over the living, it is crucial for her to perform the rituals that will appease their souls. This year, she's been told to add an extra ritual for her husband's ceremony, a special prayer where she has to prepare fourteen specific types of food that have to be laid out precisely according to the instructions in a winnowing basket.

‘I've no idea where to find a winnowing basket in London,’ she says to Neetu. ‘I'll have to phone around my friends. One of them will know. I'm really nervous. If I make a mistake, the gods will be very angry.’

‘How will you know you've made a mistake if it's the first time you're doing it?’ Neetu says. ‘Surely the gods don't expect you to be that perfect!’

‘You don't understand,’ Rekha says, exasperated. ‘My goddess came to me in a dream and told me what I had to do. It's for your father's soul to be at peace.’

‘There's something I've never understood about this yearly ancestor worship,’ Neetu says. ‘How can a Hindu soul be reincarnated and be dead for eternity, simultaneously?’

Rekha is silent for a minute. Then, she is irritated. ‘Why do you have to question everything, Neetu? You just have to have faith.’