By Samiha Bala

By all accounts, this temple shouldn’t exist: a relic of an ancient India, plopped in the middle of Riverdale, Georgia, ten miles away from the Atlanta airport. Impossibly, the pristine white stone seems to sprout from the ground, like it was here first and metro-Atlanta shaped itself around it.

We shuck off our shoes in the car and cling to each other as we race across the parking lot, cringing against the wintry chill. Planes roar overhead. The temple bells jingle merrily in the wind.

“Those bells are important,” my mom says, helpfully.

“What are they for?”

My mom looks bashful and shrugs.

After my grandfather died, I found one of his journals. In it, he wrote that the earth emitted a natural frequency that could cure cancer, alleviate anxiety, and ease depression, if we would just listen. Every day, at four in the morning, he would sit in his chair and meditate, perhaps trying to access that resonance.

As the temple bells ring their greetings to the highway below and the planes above, something in me eases.

We enter the building, and my mom leads me around the carpeted room, quiet except for the curious murmurings of a group of white boys in socks and the footsteps of a little girl running back and forth between her mother and her grandmother. We kneel at the altars of various gods. I don’t remember their names. I wish I did.

I look at my mom, her body instinctively falling into the rhythm of prayer. I picture her doing what I’m doing now, following her own mother around a temple, peeking out of the corner of her eye and copying her movements, hoping that her body will commit them to memory.

Her mom is so far away now. She has no choice but to trust her body to remember and to make up the rest as she goes.

I clutch her hand as we walk to the central altar, waiting for the doors to open and for a priest to walk out and distribute blessings. When he does, I hope the shock doesn’t show on my face. He can’t be more than five years older than me. He has a kind face and soft eyes.

“Hello, hello, where are you from?” he asks in gentle, accented English.

My mom smiles. She always smiles that way at people she thinks could use a mother. “Bangalore, originally.”

His eyes light up, and he starts exchanging streams of Kannada with her. As she relaxes even further into herself, I want to kiss the priest for knowing the tongue her father taught her. I tense up as he turns to me, but his smile doesn’t dim at my stubbornly monolingual mouth.

We take aarti and prasad as he begins to chant in Sanskrit.

Sound waves, when produced correctly, can amplify each other, causing that bone-rumbly, heavenly feeling you get when a beautiful chord resounds from the choir. Whenever I sing, I’m chasing resonance, that feeling of rightness, of everything settling into place. As the priest chants, sound pours into my chest, amplified by the chorus of everyone who ever has and ever will chant the same words in the same perfect tones.

In a flash, I see me in third person, with my undercut and ringed middle finger and loneliness that clings to me like cobwebs, bent over a forgiving fire, my hair dripping with blessed coconut milk.

And I’m outside the grand, multi-colored temple in Bangalore, hunched over with cramps, feeling so small and so female, like a foreign particle that must be ejected.

And I’m in Vienna singing in a cathedral I can’t remember the name of, praying to the paintings on the ceiling that my voice will be enough to save me.

Belonging is such a thorny word.

I see a young priest going through customs, trying to explain all the languages in his luggage. Just in case someone needs one, he says.

I become the building itself, tucked between the highway and the Chevron, effortlessly straddling time and space, belonging because it says so. People walk through and around me; a couple from Tennessee on pilgrimage, a priest with the newest Samsung pressed to his ear, a pigeon poking her nose in the offerings.

And I’m knelt before the altar my mom and I crafted together my whole childhood, with my grandma’s silver and the shlokas still hot from the printer and the purple flowers I picked out from Publix on the way home. It’s hodgepodge, DIY at its finest, and it’s perfect.

And I’m staring up at the departure board at Hartsfield-Jackson. When I flew to my grandfather’s funeral, I wandered through the airport alone. Languages floated through the air, and giggling siblings chased each other through the terminal. I breathed in their sounds, their joy, and let it echo in the empty space that my grief had left behind. In airports, it doesn’t matter whether you’re coming or going. It just matters that you’re here.

When I come back to my body, my chest is aching.

“Good luck with your studies,” the priest tells me, smiling. He turns to my mom. “We’ll put out more prasad in a little. Please take.”

So we sit. We watch. And we wait.

The little girl whines in her mom’s arms, and with a rueful sigh, her mom sets her on the ground and lets her scamper to her grandma. A few people orbit the room as my mom and I did minutes ago, echoing our footsteps without realizing it. The white boys in socks take their leave, still speaking in hushed, respectful tones, and push open the big doors to reveal a deep blue evening sky.

Planes roar overhead. Rush hour swells and ebbs. And the temple bells jingle as the sun disappears beyond the trees.

Samiha Bala is a first-year at UNC, studying English. She is obsessed with the liminal, the little, and the bizarre. In her free time, she likes climbing tall things and telling dad jokes.