"'I wanna preach!' she said. Her eyes grew wider and gleamed brighter with each word."
MY THREE-YEAR-OLD daughter watches intently as I polish the small wooden rocking chair in her bedroom. "My rocking chair," she says as she lifts her chin authoritatively then drops it to her neck.
Her pouty lower lip sticks out ever so slightly, daring me to disagree with her.
Vivid memories flood my mind suddenly and overwhelmingly. I picture a girl very similar-looking in many ways to my little Padma. Radha Govinda was also three years old. Like my daughter, she too had curling ringlets encircling her face. Only her curls were much tighter and smaller, suggestive of the African blood she inherited from her father. Like my little girl, she too had dark, almost black eyes. Only hers were doe eyes, large and bright, framed by long, thick, curling lashes. Those eyes would often stare at no one and nothing in particular, only to turn their sparkling innocence abruptly my way as she solemnly recounted that she had picked a flower or dropped a toy.
Radha Govinda was a perfect mix of her two parents. Her hair was fine like her mother's and curly like her father's. She had her mother's petite Caucasian nose and her father's round face. Her skin was a compromise between them both, much lighter than her father's and much darker than her mother's, an olive-tan. Her cheeks were her own, poochy and squeezable like a baby's. My mother called her "stunning." To me, three-year-old that I was, she was just a girl. I liked playing with her.
Meeting On The Sidewalk
One cloudy day I wanted to meet Radha Govinda on the corner sidewalk right outside my home. I wasn't supposed to go there. I was young, but old enough to understand my mother's persistent warning: "Never go outside by yourself. Either your older brother, your mother, or your father must go with you."
I would nod solemnly.
"This city is very dangerous," she would say. "There are many bad people who steal little girls like you."
But I was three. When I saw my friend meandering in her usual thoughtful manner down the sidewalk past my house, I thought surely she had every intention of turning at the corner and heading for our front door. When she finally reached the corner, her gaze had wandered to the treetops as her head rocked back and forth. I couldn't hear her, but seeing how her lips were moving, I decided she was probably singing one of the many songs she had learned at the temple. She sang those songs a lot.
I tapped the window. She was looking at the ground now, her lips still forming the words of her song. I knocked impatiently. This time she stared across the street away from our house, away from my window into the woods.
Pots clanged and a kitchen cabinet closed sharply. The strong smell of cinnamon mixed with hot apple cider tingled my nose. My mother was busy. The door could be opened quietly, especially with the racket in the kitchen. Within moments I was outside.
Radha Govinda was in the street. I scampered to the edge of the sidewalk.
"Radha Govinda, the street is dangerous!" I yelled.
I was proud I knew a big word like "dangerous." Big girls use big words.
She turned, flashing her typical bright-eyed smile.
"I have a stick," she announced matter-of-factly.
She showed me a twig she must have picked up off the sidewalk.
"The street is dangerous!" I repeated, more urgently this time.
We both turned to the sound of an oncoming car. She ran quickly to my side.
"Come to my house. Let's play with my toys."
I spoke to half a cheek and a tangle of curls.
Her eyes stared through the car as it turned at the corner, bumping over potholes, then revving its engine as it sped away.
"Let's play at my house," I repeated impatiently.
She looked at me this time.
"I wanna preach!" she said.
Her eyes grew wider and gleamed brighter with each word.
Preach? What did she mean?
"Come on," she insisted.
She beckoned with the hand that wasn't holding the twig. We trotted side by side past my house, past our neighbor Pete's house, and past her house. I glanced back the way we had come. My house was still there. It stood like a towering box in a straight line with so many other boxes. It was a special box, though—my home box. And I was too far from its flaps of safety. I had never been such a distance from my home without one of my parents. Even my brother never took me this far.
We turned up the driveway to the house past Radha Govinda's. A black girl, her hair hanging in so many little braids with colorful beads at the ends, peered down at us from a high window. I tried to disappear behind my friend. I didn't know the girl in the window. What if she was mean? For Radha Govinda, the girl was the perfect opportunity to "preach."
"Say, 'Hare Krsna.'"
My friend's voice was loud and confident. The girl didn't yell at us. Instead, she cocked her head, the plastic beads slanting in unison away from her ear. She stared at us quizzically for a moment, and I knew she was going to yell.
"Hare Krsna!" she said.
I jumped. Her voice was husky, but clear.
Radha Govinda then spoke each syllable deliberately and painstakingly, as if she herself had a hard time with the words: "Hare Krsna, Hare Krsna, Krsna Krsna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare."
We said the mantra every day at the temple. Radha Govinda repeated it exactly.
I stared at her and then at the girl in the window, who was repeating it flawlessly.
A car door slammed, awakening me to the reality that my house was still very far away.
"I wanna go home," I whined softly, directing my voice toward the ground.
"Bye!" said Radha Govinda to the girl in the window, her hand flopping rapidly back and forth in some kind of a wave.
She had dropped her twig. The girl in the window waved back and smiled.
We stepped back out to the sidewalk. Two men were standing outside Pete's house, blocking the way. Both had crossed arms, bald heads, bellies that protruded from under their T-shirts, and beefy cheeks that hung over their thick necks. Cigarette smoke hazed the air around them. Surely these were the kidnappers my mother had so often warned about. Their drunken laughter hit my ears like a long, drawn-out thunderclap, or like the sound of trees cracking or houses crumbling.
I stepped back, slipping my hand into Radha Govinda's. Her face still bore the angelic look she'd had when she preached to the girl in the window. Her eyes focused their innocence on the kidnappers. Was she going to preach to them next?
We were passing her house now. Her home would be almost as good a haven as my own. I tugged at her hand, pulling her in the direction of safety.
She drew the word through her lips into a thin whine, jutting her chin toward me.
"We have to preach!"
A familiar voice rang out from somewhere beyond the kidnappers. My mother! The men moved aside to make way for her. They were scared of my mother! Well, of course they were.
My mother's worried scolding was jumbled in my brain, a mess of words and gestures. I was safe at last. The kidnappers could never get me. My mother was here.
Radha Govinda was shooed toward her house. I watched her kick up her heels as she bounded up the driveway, her mass of curls bobbing with every step.
My mother grabbed my hand. The men were a blur of gray, white, and peach as we whisked past them.
A police car was parked around the corner, directly in front of my house. Two uniformed men got out. A quiver shook my legs. I was in big trouble now. Did police take away girls who ran away from home? I hoped they were scared of my mother like the kidnappers were.
My next thought froze my heart to ice cold fear. Maybe my mother had told them I was a bad girl.
But they didn't look at me. I saw why they were there. A man lay on his back on the sidewalk. His eyes were closed. A cigarette stuck up from his pursed lips. His elbows rested on the rough sidewalk, while his hands relaxed on his chest, his body blocking the small path leading to our house. He didn't stir in the slightest while the police picked him up and placed him in the back seat of their car.
I was amazed that he didn't mind being hauled off like that. My mother must have seen my face. Her expression was sterner than ever.
Again she rattled on and on about the dangers of this city and how I should never go outside by myself. I let my mind wander back to Radha Govinda. How come she never got scared? How come she always wanted to talk about Krsna even to mean kidnappers? I resolved to ask her the next time we met. I pictured her doelike eyes widened with enthusiasm. "I wanna preach," she had said. She was so brave.
I don't know if I ever got to ask her my questions. My next memory of her is also my last. She looked very different this time. We were at the temple celebrating Vyasa Puja, Srila Prabhupada's birthday anniversary. Festivals at the temple were always great fun. The temple's lawns and gardens were our huge playground, a place where we could roam freely—well, as long as our mothers could see us. We were in the dining hall, my mother, my baby brother, and I. The feast had been good, and my full tummy and I were ready for some more play time.
Then a man ran into the room, his frantic voice echoing through the hall.
I know now that he said, "Does anyone know CPR?"
Back then, my three-year-old ears heard nothing but a jumble of crazy, mixed-up shouts. At his second sentence, my mother bolted from the room. I saw enough of her face to know that something was wrong, terribly wrong. I followed her as quickly as my little legs would carry me, but she was soon swallowed up by a crowd of people all heading the same direction, toward the pool.
Feet, most of them bare, bounded up the wide curving stone steps that led to the rose garden and the pool beyond it. There were so many feet, big feet attached to big legs attached to big people. Could I squeeze through such a mass of humanity? I made my way through the gate to the pool easily. The spaces here and there between the many converging bodies afforded plenty of room for my little form.
Then I saw her. Radha Govinda was blue. Not gray-blue, but bright, shocking blue. Her curls, straightened in their wet state, hung limply around her face. She lay in a woman's lap, a woman I recognized as the mother of some of my friends. The woman was squeezing her nose.
"All children out!"
I felt myself shoved into a mass of protesting, squirming children. Indignation swelled my chest, ready to burst any second. I don't know who kicked us out. But later I linked the person to a teenage boy in school I disliked. That mean boy must have been the one who had so unceremoniously torn me from my friend.
I wandered aimlessly on the temple grounds for a while, thoughts racing. What happened to my friend? Was she sick? Why was I thrown out? What were they doing to her? Why was that lady plugging her nose?
Finally the large group emerged from the pool. Radha Govinda was being carried by her father. They were singing loudly. The chant was a happy one, one that was sung daily as part of the temple services, but this time it reflected the somber mood of the crowd that sang it.
Something was so dreadfully wrong. Where was my mother? She could tell me what was going on. The mother of one of my friends was sobbing, her bright red face wet with tears, the way my baby brother's face looked when he was throwing his biggest tantrum. But mothers didn't cry like that. Babies did. Something was so wrong.
Over the next few days I pestered my mother with questions. One day I found her crying in the kitchen over the pot she stirred on the stove.
"Mommy, why are you crying?" I asked.
"I miss Radha Govinda."
She tried to smile.
"Don't cry," I said. "She's happy now. She's playing with Krsna."
Fresh sobs racked my mother's chest. This time a partial smile came naturally to her wet face, even amid her sobs.
I still idolize Radha Govinda's death. To me she was a perfect child, so angelic in every way that Krsna couldn't wait to call her home to His kingdom, the spiritual world.
I look at my daughter sitting in the freshly cleaned rocking chair—"my rocking chair."
But to me it will always be Radha Govinda's rocking chair. After she died, her parents gave it to me. Death was such a simple thing to the three-year-old I was twenty years ago. But I know now how much Radha Govinda's death devastated her parents. They gave me her rocking chair not because they had no other use for it—their baby boy would have used it—but because of the pain it carried between its miniature armrests.
Sitting in the chair, my daughter looks beautiful to me right now.
"Will you hug me?" I ask, looking at her pleadingly.
She comes to my arms willingly.
"Yes," I say to myself, "there is a God—Krsna—and I know He had his reasons for taking my little friend so many years ago. But motherly attachment is so intense."
As Padma's soft cheek presses mine and her arms encircle my neck, I feel a painful squeeze at my heart. I now know the answer to my question of twenty years ago: "Mommy, why are you crying?"
Campakalata Devi Dasi lives in Hillsborough, North Carolina, with her husband, Mayapurcandra Dasa, and their daughter, Padmavati. A gurukula graduate herself, for the past seven years Campakalata has been teaching in Hillsborough's Padma Academy along with her husband and her mother, ¨rmila Devi Dasi.