Sangeetha Parthasarathy works as a business analyst in Cincinnati, and juggles between her work and writing. She is a freelance writer having published in magazines and online websites in India. She hopes to transition to a full-time writing career soon.

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Joe Gallagher was a rotund man. A white unkempt beard that was braided at the bottom, balding head, thick glasses, and big paunch -- Joe could barely see his feet if he glanced down.

Joe inhaled deeply. The pollen allergies not withstanding, he loved to walk out into the carefully manicured lawns to smell the green grass. It was around ninety degrees in Rolla, Missouri on this bright sunny morning.
The deafening shrieks of an emergency vehicle cut through this pristine morning, and soon made its way into his near-deaf ears. This was quite unusual. He turned around and saw a giant red and white fire truck, its lights blinking urgently, out of synch with the wailing siren. The truck careened forward, lurching to an awkward stop around the weirdest of the otherwise immaculately photocopied brown and beige of townhouses in the Stonebridge community.

No wonder, thought Joe. His otherwise predictable day of watching M.A.S.H re-runs and walking around the malls for exercise just got interesting. It was generally considered rude to stare, but because it concerned this particular house, Joe wasn't too bothered. He could take a small detour on his usual walking route. It would seem as if a usual morning senior resident just stopped by and kindly enquired if everything was fine .After all a little neighborly concern never hurt anyone.

Joe felt a whiff of air down his legs. Paula, the resident manager whizzed past him in her golf cart, dressed in green slacks and matching cap. Joe toyed with the idea of asking her for a ride to the scene of the incident. He snorted to think of how ridiculously ill-equipped these carts were, to accommodate oversized people like him. He would remember to whine about this at the upcoming Tuesday night poker games with fellow residents.

At the distance, by the cul-de-sac, there was commotion. Joe could see an old, fragile old woman draped in an off-white and red sari. A big red oval dot adorned her forehead. Her graying hair was braided into a tight knot and her big gold earrings caught the sunlight, and gleamed. It almost blinded Joe's vision. Her middle aged son was trying to pacify her, and was talking animatedly to the burly firemen at the same time.
Apparently, the fire was a result of a daily religious ritual gone haywire. In the past, Joe had heard ringing bells and her mellifluous voice singing in some ancient language. He had also observed groups of families in bright clothes and ornaments arriving over weekends to chant, gossip and share.

Today, she had tried to light incense sticks in prayer and the matches accidentally set some nearby papers on fire. Why would someone drape in multiple layers of fabric on this sweltering summer day? Joe wondered. The firemen left after her son convinced them that this was not a daily occurrence.

In the following weeks, the old lady often caught Joe's eye on his daily walks. They politely smiled at each other. They even exchanged a few words. Joe had learnt that the lady's son was a professor at University of Missouri, Rolla. He learnt that the exotic smells from their kitchen were Kamala's own doing. She loved to talk about her cooking and her prayers. One day, as he walked past he heard her beautiful voice:

"kalayAdha kalviyum kuraiyAdha vayadhum -Or kavadu vArAdha natpum
kanRAdha vaLamaiyum kunRAdha iLamaiyum kazhupiNi ilAdha udalum..."

He learnt that this was an invocation to a powerful female Goddess called Abhirami, to bestow knowledge, wealth, good friends and health upon her son. Joe was intrigued. He called himself an Irish descendant and had his St.Patrick's Day drinking binges and shamrock festoons in his basement to prove it. He recalled a verse written on top of the counter of the Irish pub where he bartended in younger days.
"May love and laughter light your days,
and warm your heart and home.
May good and faithful friends be yours,
wherever you may roam.
May peace and plenty bless your world
with joy that long endures.
May all life's passing seasons
bring the best to you and yours?"

That night, as Joe slept, he found himself wondering about what the Irish, his own forefathers meant about home, and friends. Joe's wife had died many years ago, and his only daughter was now away in New York, as an investment banker. They met each other about once a year. Joe smiled to himself thinking of her, all important in a business suit and black rimmed glasses, rushing to work on the daily subway, sweating in the heat too. Joe realized the irony and smiled. His thoughts drifted to his friends. A lot of his work buddies had died over the past few years, leaving his Tuesday poker nights a mere roll-call exercise to spot survivors. How long would it take before someone got to his dead body when Joe would be gone? Joe felt uneasy at this thought.

As he walked by Kamala's house the next day, he decided to go in. She treated him to some strong Malabar tea and home made samosas. He observed a long, wooden stringed instrument at the corner. "This is called the Veena…" she said, and proceeded to sit on the floor, and play it. She sang:
"saliyAdha manamum anbu agalAdha manaiviyum thavarAdha santhAnamum
thAzhadha kiirthiyum mArAdha vArthaiyum thadaigaL vArAdha kodaiyum
tholaiyAdha nidhiyamum konAdha kolum-oru thunbamillAdha vAzhvum
thuyya nin pAdhathil anbum udhavi periya thoNdarodu kuuttum kaNdAy"

By now Joe figured out that this was a continuation of the verse which she sang daily, about a powerful female goddess. "It means, may you have an untiring heart, love, wealth, unfailing words, a just ruler, and a heart that worships Thee" she explained loudly. By now, she was no stranger to Joe's hearing problem. Joe also learnt that the name Kamala was named after a deity, and her name meant "one who sits atop a lotus".
What made this gentle Kamala leave behind her comfortable home in India and come here? Joe wondered. He thought about giving up everything at Rolla and moving to New York with his daughter. The city would suffocate him to death. Not that his daughter would be any bit pleased with this idea. Her fast paced life style did not allow her to have any social life, let alone take in an old man.

The old lady's son entered the room, and touched her feet. Her face contorted into an innocent smile. As if reading Joe's thoughts, she remarked "He is very caring and thoughtful. It was difficult, at first, living in a strange country. But gradually I made friends. I have my prayers, cooking and the Veena. Most importantly, I have my son."
"I hope my son marries someone soon. I am looking forward to the day when I can pamper my grandkids and teach them to play the Veena…," her face lit up like the moon.

Maybe the Irish were right, Joe pondered that night. Maybe everyone needed to believe in something bigger than them - to write verses, to bless people, and pass on good will to the future generations. Were his Gaelic forefathers watching him right now? What did his own name mean?

He spent the rest of the night in front of his computer. Although old, and slow, this machine was his window to the outside world. Browsing through Irish names database, coat of arms and other historical information, he finally found that "Gallagher" meant someone who "liked foreigners."

It was around six in the morning. Bright red lights whizzed past his bedroom. Joe got dressed and stepped out. He could see a fragile, exhausted frame of Kamala in the stretcher. Two days later, he saw same groups of families, men, women and children dressed in pristine white, and a sea of slippers outside by the door. A shaven-headed, bare-chested professor stood outside the house, ready to perform his mother's last rites. "My mother was fond of you. She wanted you to have this..." Kamala's son said, as Joe walked by the house hesitantly.

Joe was at a loss for words. It was a piece of monogrammed paper, with Kamala's own calligraphy in it. The last verse of her daily prayer:
"alaiyAzhi aRidhuyilum mAyanadhu thangngaiyE Adhikadavuurin vAzhvee
amudhiisar oru bAgam agalAdha sugapAni aruLvAmi abirAmiye!!"
"My mom used these words to tell me the story of how the Hindu deity Abhirami, was Lord Shiva's wife as well as Lord Vishnu's sister. I guess it was her way of saying that we are all related, either by blood, or by love..." her son spoke softly, as he turned and walked inside.

Joe stood there, outside the patio for a minute. Steadily he walked towards the door and paused. Slowly he bent down, to take off his shoes and walked into a warm, full living room.


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