The city of Naples sprawled by the Mediterranean, lively with Christmas, bustling with life. The sun gleamed on its cobbled streets, the oranges shone bright on the trees, and its sea sparkled. This was a day after Christmas, and we were on our first family holiday abroad, after two years of being locked up in our home in England.
We drove to nearby Pompeii, a city that was buried for 1,700 years under volcanic ash. Where men, women and children had died a slow death in their homes. Like us, these ancient people, too, had had nobles and ordinary men, the virtuous and the immoral, the rich and the poor. And gods and goddesses. We walked down the empty stone-paved streets which, thousands of years ago would have bustled with life, like Naples today. An old guide, Antonio, took us around and said, “Pompeii’s gods and goddesses were not different from those of the Hindus.” He showed us a temple of Venus, with marble mosaic floors and frescoes made from vegetable pigments, depicting scenes of love. “You know, they dug out a statue of goddess Laxmi in Pompeii a few decades ago. Venus is the same as Laxmi, you know?” he said. I wasn’t too sure about Venus’ connection with Laxmi but let him carry on. In another street, Antonio showed us a small stone temple of fertility, and said, “Look, the lingam, the Hindu symbol of creation.”
Outside the Pompeii ruins, the streets were full of Christmas festivities, bright street decorations, and Maradona souvenirs. We stepped into a tabacchi, a small tobacco shop that had statues from nativity scenes. A row of baby Jesuses lay in their cradles, tiny hands raised as if in blessing, looking up from the glass shelf where they were placed. They reminded me of the doe-eyed baby Krishna in a basket, sucking a toe. There is something helpless about a newborn. And something divine. I recalled a church in Cairo many years ago, where Mary had hidden the baby Jesus from King Herod’s men, in a little cave. How sad for a mother to hide her infant from those who had other beliefs. How sad for a child to know that they would be persecuted when they grew up. Later, in Luxor, a Muslim guide had told us that ancient Egyptians worshipped a blue-skinned god Amun, that many believed to be the same as the Hindu god Krishna. I wondered if the Catholic guide in Pompeii (who thought that Venus, the goddess of love, was Laxmi, the goddess of prosperity) and the Muslim guide in Luxor (who said Amun, the god of air, was Krishna, the god of love) were very wrong?
Nearly 20 years ago, I met an American whose Indian girlfriend had told him that Indians believed in many things. She went to Hindu temples, Sikh temples, mosques, and churches. Over the years, I had begun to like this idea. Two years ago, my wife and I visited the holy city of Pushkar in Rajasthan. The ancient city was spread around a serene lake, temple bells and incense filled its streets, and the fragrance of roses swirled in its air. At the lake, Brahma, the Hindu creator god, had held a large havan, a holy ritual, thousands of years ago. A young priest placed red rose petals in our palms and chanted mantras for our family peace. Men and women took dips in the lake, a saffron flag fluttered gently in the breeze, and I felt an immense calm wash over me. The priest ended the puja ritual by applying tilak, saffron powder, on our foreheads, and tying mauli, a red and yellow thread, on our wrists. Brahma’s temple overlooked from a hillock, with colourful pillars and an elaborately carved silver front. The priest gave us a small red cloth bag, which contained prasad, offerings, from the temple.
On the same day, we went to nearby Ajmer to visit the shrine of Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti, a Muslim saint from the 13th century. We walked past shops that sold velvet chadars, large cloths and prayer beads, and an aroma of sweet rice floated into the air. We bought red roses and a green-sequinned chadar for the saint’s tomb. The valley of Pushkar is famous for its roses, cultivated by the Mughals to make perfumes and wines, centuries ago. The shrine’s large marble dome with golden floral trimmings was resplendent in the afternoon sun, like a temple’s. We entered through an elaborately carved silver front, with beautiful glass fanoos, chandeliers. A khadim, an attendant, threw a large black chadar over us and prayed. I stood in the darkness of the chadar beside my wife, and a profound warmth overcame me. Tears came to my eyes. The peace I felt by the shimmering lake was no different to what I felt in the darkness of the chadar. I tied a mauli to the latticed walls of the shrine and wished for our family’s health and peace. A qawwal, a devotional singer, began to sing near a covered veranda with golden arches and tapering pillars, on which were finely painted flowers and sweeping calligraphy. The khadim gave us tabarruk, offerings, from the shrine. On return to England, when I unpacked, the red cloth bag spilled out a pack of small sugar balls and a pack of rock sugar. I couldn’t remember whether they were from the shrine or the temple. But it did not matter.
On our second day in Naples, we were ready to climb Mount Vesuvius, from which jets of gas and ash had buried Pompeii. As we waited for the taxi, the TV in the hotel lobby showed scenes of Catholic churches in India desecrated, worshippers terrorised, and idols of Jesus broken. In Italian I read two words, “Estremisti Indu.” I stopped. I did not like this. I did not want to hear this. I had never heard this phrase in my childhood. I had not heard it 20 years ago when the American had spoken about his Indian girlfriend’s liberal beliefs. What was this? The hotel bellboy, an old man, tapped me on the shoulder. I started. I have lived away from India for 20 years, yet I was embarrassed. I made apologetic gestures with my hands. The old man shrugged his shoulders. He calmly showed me out to the waiting taxi.
I climbed to the top of Mount Vesuvius, a steep incline, my thoughts in a whirl. The crater on the top opened its wide mouth, telling me that in its unpredictability lay the human vulnerability. That it could throw up tons of rocks and fire, smoke and ash, any moment. That we were fragile. Despite our Venus and Laxmi, Zeus and Shiva, Amun and Krishna. The mountain gas had caught the people of Pompeii unawares beside their cool water fountains, by their urns and pots, in their sculpted homes and frescoed brothels, in their bustling streets and quiet temples. Sleeping, thinking, talking, walking. The crater laughed as I stared into its depths.
Why were we breaking places of love and hope and peace, it asked?
A sulphury steam rose from the crater’s dark depths, swirling languorously near me. Its steamy tendrils whispered in my ear that the invisible could strike us too, lock us down in our homes, bring our lives to a standstill, turn our bustling cities into ghost cities. It asked me if I knew what humans wanted? I replied that we needed peace and health and love. We needed our gods and goddesses. Whether those came as a mauli on a wrist, a velvet chadar in a tomb, a puja by a lake, or the smile of a newborn Jesus.
Sandeep Raina is a UK-based writer. His debut novel, A Bit of Everything (Context), was shortlisted for the Tata Lit Live First Book Prize (fiction) 2021