I open my eyes. Barely. The world fills with light and dark objects moving around in it. I feel tempted to keep my eyes open and study this new world I have discovered, but the eye doctor instructed me to sit with my eyes closed until he called me back into his office, having dilated my pupils as part of my eye exam. I close my eyes again, and listen instead. Mostly I hear Tamil, but I pick up the sounds of other languages I cannot name — people come from all over India for medical treatment here at the Christian Medical College Hospital in Vellore, Tamil Nadu. I recognize a word or two here and there, but mostly it us just sounds I can distinguish into words. A packet of biscuits or chips crackles open; it must be around lunch time. My stomach grumbles in agreement. I lean back against the straight wooden back of the bench on which I sit and think about the last time I went to get my eyes checked for contact lenses — a cushy seat in the Montclare Mall in southern California. No lines, hardly any people, in and out. It is a different experience here, I can tell you that: many many people, a labyrinth of offices, waiting areas, and testing rooms. I arrived over an hour and a half ago, and I probably have that long left.
My ear hones in on two voices behind me — a mother and son, I guess, exchanging words in Tamil. I catch a few familiar words before I hear some English. “Sister. Excuse me sister.” I listen wondering whom the woman addresses. Again, “Excuse me sister.” The woman raises her voice slightly. I wonder if she is talking to me. Looking around when I entered, I had noticed that I was the only white person in the area. Now, I turn to face the woman and boy and slit my eyes open. In the brightness, I see the outline of two figures on the last bench in the row: a large figure and a much smaller figure next to it. I smile at them, closing my eyes against the light.
“Hello Sister,” the woman clearly addressing me, lowers her voice having captured my attention.
“Vannakam akka, greetings sister,” I reply in Tamil. I hear the smile in the woman’s voice as she responds, “You speak Tamil?” “Only a little,” I say, rapidly depleting my limited vocabulary. We exchange names: hers is Vatsala and her son is Sanjay. I tell her that I come from the United States and live and work at a school and orphanage in a small village called Kassam, a little ways outside of Vellore. I smile and nod, continuing ot face the woman and her son, as she speaks to me, my eyes still awkwardly closed.
The woman says something to her son in Tamil that I cannot understand. I squint my eyes open and see Sanjay’s outline slide from the bench. His footsteps approach, pattering across the concrete floor. I follow the sound, turning my face as he moves toward me. The footsteps stop beside me, and I can hear Sanjay’s soft breath near my face. Again, I slit open my eyes, light rushing into the dark pools of my dilated pupils. Sanjay stands beside me, his head reaching my shoulder as I sit. He looks to be about three or four, judging by his size.
“Akka,” he says, and a grin flashes white across my vision. Then Sanjay’s small hand casts a shadow over my face as he reaches toward my forehead. I close my eyes as he touches the space between my eyebrows. The shadow falls from my face as Sanjay lowers his arm. I reach up and feel a fuzzy circle where he has touched my brow. I smile. He has given me a stick-on tikka that many of the women here in Tamil Nadu, and much of India for that matter, wear. “Ungulukee, akka. It’s for you, sister,” he tells me as I rub the tiny sticker on my forehead.
I listen to the sound of small feet pattering across the floor as Sanjay returns to sit with his mum. I smile at her, trying to express wordlessly with my eyes closed, my recognition and gratitude for the barriers her son has crossed to present me with this simple gift. Across language, culture, class, age, race and religion, Sanjay has reached out to me and blessed my brow with this symbol of his country and culture. Immersed in my thoughts, it takes me a moment to realize that the nurse at the front desk has called my name. I open my eyes enough to make my way to see the doctor whom I met with earlier. I sit down across from him and feel his eyes upon my face. “You weren’t wearing that before.” After a meaningful pause, I understand that the doctor refers to the tikka on my forehead. Smiling, I tell the doctor, n”A little boy in the waiting room placed it on my forehead for me.”
“Oh? Christians do not wear tikkas. Hindus wear them. They are a symbol of idolatry,” the doctor informs me.
The corners of my mouth curve down and the smile lines next to my eyes smooth. I have heard this before, and I feel I must justify the red circle placed between my brows. I try to revive my faded smile. “He was a very little boy,” I explain to the doctor unable to find words to express the tenderness of Sanjay’s gesture. “Maybe only three or four years old. I could not say no.”
“That was a perfect opportunity for you to share the gospel, the good news of Jesus’ love. You could have shared the true way with this boy.”
I miss a breath and open my eyes trying to focus for a moment on the doctor’s expression as he talks to me. My vision, like my thoughts, blurs, and I cannot clear either. With no response for the doctor, I close my eyes again and feel my jaw tighten.
* * *
In the stillness of my room back at M.B.K.G. Pannai, the orphanage where I live and work, I contemplate this exchange with the doctor. My still slightly dilated pupils capture shapes and motion in the gathering dusk outside. Two sleek chickens cluck as they rustle through the leaves outside, in search of the day’s last beakful of insects or seeds. I formulate in my mind what I was unable to express to the doctor earlier as my eyes focus on the texture of the trunk of the tamarind tree that stands outside my window. It was not for me to share the gospel with Sanjay or his mother, Vatsala. It was not for me to tell him who Jesus was and what Jesus did. Sanjay, reaching out to me, a foreigner and stranger in his home, placing a blessing of welcome and inclusion upon my brow, Sanjay WAS Jesus.
Oh God, we are so often blinded by our own customs and traditions, so often unable to make out your hand and touch in the actions of others. Open our eyes and our hearts to receive the many gifts and blessings you bestow upon us in ever mysterious ways. Amen.