The speakers exploded with riotous prayer. Even if the words had not been foreign, had not been spoken in a Tamil that sounded akin to tongues, the lyrics that washed over the building would still have been greatly disturbed. The volume had been pushed to such levels that static coiled off of every syllable, warping the language even further.
With the words all but a mystery, the ceremony all but foreign, one could easily forget that they were attending a Christian church service.
The van weaved through the cluttered streets of Chennai. Whatever expectations John had fostered as he ate his breakfast of rice cake, egg, and milk were shattered when the van began a shuttering stop-and-start down a busy side street. Through the windows one could see the economics of Chennai in action. Vendors peddled their wares under the shelter of buildings and from carts along the road. Not alongside. Sidewalks had disappeared, and it had become the reasonability of driver, pedestrian, and livestock to avoid one another.
As the clutter of the street demanded the van to stop often, John was not immediately aware that they had reached their destination. He was not alone in his ignorance. It was a shout from the front of the van that alerted the group that they had arrived. Feeling far less eager than he had when the drive had first begun, John exited the van to the sight of a number of cows mingled with the traffic of the street. He and the rest of the group were just as much a spectacle as these animals were to them. Everywhere he looked he caught the fleeting glances of Chennains.
They were directed to one of the buildings which stood near identical to the rows of crackled concrete that lay on either side of it. While there must have been some form of identification, the usual hallmarks of a church were absent from the structure. It was as John entered that he recognized that it was very much the same within.
There were no doors to part through. They entered through a wide opening and were immediately met with the sight of a dozen women sitting on the floor. Their numbers were pushed against the very edges of the compound, so great was the congregation. As John’s eyes entertained the rest of the room, he realized that only women sat amongst the left side of the building. While some bore children atop their laps, their brood was too young to differentiate between the two sexes.
It was one of the first days he had spent in Chennai and one of the first experiences he had ever had with sexual segregation.
Anxiously, he followed after the tail of the rest of the group. The eyes of the faithful did not part from the end of the room where a small elevated rise stood. It was before this dwarfed stadium that they were brought to sit in plastic chairs of white.
A man was speaking in reverent Tamil, his voice carried throughout the room with the help of numerous speakers. Whatever prayers he spoke were echoed by the endless blaring of song. The mingled tones came as a slight irritation, the noise being so violently loud and unintelligible.
Perhaps out of poverty or humility, little decoration occupied the church. It seemed possible that there simply was not enough room for such displays. The right side of the building was bare except for rows of portable chairs; the same with the left. Men stood outside of the church, there being no room for them to sit within. Only a single narrow strip existed between the segregation where one might walk freely.
It seemed as though the congregation had been waiting, for when John and the rest of the group sat the prayer picked up in tempo and bits of English broke through the speakers.
John sat rather uncomfortably in his chair. It had not been designed with his height in mind. Unfortunately, his discomfort did not end there. As one might have expected, he was having some difficulty following the service. After failing to distinguish whether or not the congregation was singing a hymn, John turned to those of the group sitting beside him. They watched the stadium with interest, though there was a vacancy to their stares and a stillness about their mouths that suggested they shared in his confusion.
There came some movement from the stadium which was chorused by those below. John felt quite relieved when he saw those around him standing up. His respite from the clutches of the diminutive chair was brief for just as quickly as he had risen, the congregation had fallen to their knees. He followed in their action and held his head low as an avalanche of prayer consumed the room.
For a while, he was content to follow in their ceremony, though it felt unusual for him to prostrate like this. Images of Islamic prayer appeared to him as his eyes were kept closed and his mind was kept from any sense of what was spoken. Eventually a dull pain began in his knees, and he turned to one of the group sitting beside him.
“My legs are hurting.” John whispered through a laugh. He felt uncomfortable breaking his silence, but it was not as though he could be disruptive in his quiet. The speakers still rang with prayer and song. All around him echoed the buzz of the congregation. “How long do you think we’ll have to stay like this?”