Letters To My Daughters: On Religion, Faith, Culture and Rituals

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Dear Ammu, Pattu and Laddu,

Today is Karadaiyan nonbu, a festival dedicated to a woman in Hindu mythology for defying death and saving her husband’s life. As a mother and wife, I probably view this tale differently. Growing up though, all I remember are the yummy adais that my Amma would make and the thin yellow saradu that I would be forced to wear to school the next day. Middle school and later was not kind to this kind of ostentatious celebration of a festival restricted to certain sets of people. Boys would nudge each other and smile. Whispers of ‘thaali’ would circulate and sometime before the end of the day, the sacred thread would come untied and wrap itself around my wrist where it would stay over the next few days turning crimson as the bath soap touched it and eventually turning a pale shadow of its luminescent yellow origin. The ends would fray and come apart.

I pound the chapatti dough with my hands shaping and massaging the mass of flour, ghee, salt and water into a soft springy mass. My mind is racing ahead with what I can make to go with it. Something sans garlic and onion. Midway through my preparation, I stop and wonder what I am trying to prove to myself.

I went to a catholic convent until sixth grade. I was part of a school that prided itself on extensive bhajans on Friday mornings and sanskrit shlokams as morning prayers. I was exposed to Vedanta, the Bhagavad Gita and general tenets of Hinduism. As an adolescent I was curious and I absorbed everything I was exposed to. I also questioned status quo a lot. Why did we have to wash our hair before puja? Why did we have to abstain from eating before the priest did? Why couldn’t I touch my Amma before the puja was over? Why did I have to believe in pictures and lifeless forms of God that adorned our puja shelf? Why did we treat people differently based on their caste? Why did we not pray to the huge Ayyanar statues that dotted the landscape as we wound our way to our ancestral villages? Why did devotees walk on fire? Why did some pierce their tongue and practice kaavadi?

The questions went mostly unanswered. I observed mostly as a curious onlooker. If my cousin (your perima) bent devoutly in front of God, I watched her fervent prayers with surprise. If my Appa (your thatha) prayed at different temples on a schedule so that I could become a mom, I watched gratefully. I participated in many rituals, I willingly bent over surrendering to forces bigger than me in the hope that what Science or my desperation could not help, perhaps the divine force could.

I do not have answers. Not yet anyways.

Mostly I view religion as a quest. Much like men and women looked at the night sky or the expanse of the ocean or the gurgling brook and pondered the meaning of life and the origin of the universe, I do too. I view the many different religions as paths that perhaps lead to understanding. There are others on the path further ahead that seem to have a clue. I also view music the same way. A tool to help me dissociate from my physical being and look at the metaphysical. I read too for the same reason. I am fascinated by the concepts of Maya, Karma and Dharma. I want to believe in reincarnation simply because I believe there is more to our lives than what can fit into one lifetime. I sometimes feel a presence that is not physical and I would like to believe that the ones near and dear to me can touch my life in subtle ways.

A lot of my beliefs are shaped by my upbringing in a mostly Hindu society. You though are exposed to a multicultural society here. As you grow, you will learn and perhaps raise questions other than the ones I had growing up. I hope you will find your way the way I did, through stumbling, reading and identifying things that resonate with you. Perhaps you will shirk religion altogether and prefer to go through life in the moment, holding the experience dear. Perhaps you will find a path very different from the one I am on. I wish you peace and glorious moments of discovery.

It also brings me to the other parts that we often conflate with religion. Culture, rituals and to a certain extent faith. Irrespective of the path you find yourself on, much like me I hope you will turn to food even if not the association with God to bring back memories of your childhood. Even if you end up with a different belief system I do hope the sight of oil lamps or pretty silk clothes will remind you of the festivals we celebrated growing up. I hope one day you will slave over kozhukattais just so your children can savor the intense earthy sweetness of jaggery and coconut as it bursts open their mouth. I hope you will stand over a pan of hot oil frying vadai just so your children make a grab for it before it has cooled down. You see, these rituals are as much a part of growing up part of this family as anything else. These are things that despite their association with God and faith are things that you will own as part of your cultural DNA. These are things I hope you will pass on to the  generations after you.

Faith is the other tricky thing I want to talk to you about. After forty years of trying to figure things out, I realized I have faith. I have faith in a force greater than me. It could be what people call God. It could be the mysterious mind power some people speak of. It could be the voice inside you that acts as your moral compass. The one that watches out for you when there is no living soul around. It is the thing that drives how I live my life. It is the formless thing in my head that has propelled all my life choices. I believe in it like I believe in my Amma’s love for me or my love for you. A solid, unshakeable feeling that just is.

I know not if this will make any sense to you at all but this morning I woke up with a pressing need to put this all down. For you. For me.

Love,

Amma

6 comments

  1. I am torn between carrying tradition forward and making sense of them.
    During nombu yesterday, my kid asks me “why don’t men pray for the wellbeing of the womenfolk in his family?”. I didn’t have answers. THAT, coupled with the fact that I was actually a little pissed off with my better half about a domestic quarrel, made me pretty irritated.
    The adai however, was awesome. I have arrived as an adai maker, it seems. Third nombu in a row that my adai came out perfect.

    • We try to do those aspects of the ritual that are most meaningful to us or create our own tradition around the festival. Eg. Chathurthi is about making Ganesha using different materials, Janmashtami is about dressing up the boys as krishna and doing a little play…nombu, I tie the charadu but we gather at the altar and offer thanks for each other’s presence and pray for well being. Diwali, we do nothing. Most of the times, I slack on the food because I am the only one eating them. Any tips for adai? This was my first time making, and I would rate it as so so, could have been tastier.

      • We do that too. Sometimes I get conflicted when I try and understand my motivations given my ambivalence to worship. Will catch up on Whatsapp for the adai.

    • I am so with V. These questions make us realize how much we cave in to patriarchy without intending to. So many of the wedding rituals (which may have had relevance at some time) as so blatantly misogynistic. Yet, we carry on in the name of tradition and sentiments.

  2. Lovely post, true, religion and faith is a personal journey. To a large extent, I think they define and shape our way of living and how we respond to events that happen to us.

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