It is a blustery morning. I am bundled up as I head for my morning walk. I am glad for the warm wool scarf around my neck that also obscures the wires from the earphone snaking to my pocket.
This morning, I choose to start with Venkateshwara Suprabatham. M.S. Subbulakshmi crooning into my ears is as perfect as a beginning to a day as I can get. My pace is slow, the gusting winds fighting my ability to accelerate. It does not help that I have to hold my hoodie in place. I must make a strange sight I tell myself, only it does not matter. My entire walking path is empty of people and bereft of activity.
The piece ends and the next song starts and I suddenly want to recite Vishnu Sahasranamam. I pull my gloves out and search for it on my playlist. The prayer starts and I mumble along with it. I am just getting warmed up, the ends of my toes and fingers finally feeling something. The voice in my head is soothing, familiar. I ache to really understand the meaning behind the verses I am chanting. I can hazard a guess to what each word means but I feel the meanings belie the straight translation.
One thousand names of Vishnu.
The trees ahead of me are stark, sticks framed against the horizon. A gust of wind has leaves swirling and dancing in front of me. I am mesmerized by the combination of things. A bright blue sky, a crisp morning that awakens me at many levels, the music and words that bring back memories of a past that is longer than this one lifetime.
This week, I read a piece by someone I follow online. Rudri talks about her experience as a second generation Indian American. Her experience is similar to what my children are growing up with. This Deepavali, we dined with my brother and his family. We enjoyed setting off fireworks in his driveway. All three of my children held a sparkler in each hand and made patterns in the inky darkness. They watched in awe as pretty busvanams and thara chakkaram popped and whirled in front of them. They ate badusha and mixture, exchanged wishes and hugged their cousins when they left.
Their memories of Deepavali are very different from mine.
I grew up around arisi maa kolam each day at the threshold of our home, in front of our door and kaavi on festive occasions. I grew up to the smell of jasmine lingering in the air long past its prime. The smell of nalla ennai filled oil lamps, lit to a steady small glow is a permanent part of my childhood memories. The feel of the viscous oil, the chemical smell when the match strikes the surface, the sizzle as the oil-drenched wick catches flame, these are little things like muscle memory, that come back to me no matter how far removed from home I am.
Festivals have always been days that started with oiling the hair, washing it with shikakai, towel drying it and wearing it in a pai pinnal. It also meant lingering at the kitchen doorstep inhaling smells of jaggery and cardamom. It meant waiting for pujai to be over so we can bite into the crisp vadai, the steam escaping off our lips. It meant filling so much on the delicacies that the actual meal was an afterthought.
Food, rituals, smells. These define my connection to religion. Sometimes, even the altar in the home was an afterthought. I have reached out to Her in duress, before exams, interviews, life-altering decisions, and in grief. I have chanted what few prayers I know when faced with situations over which I have no control. Even today, I pass by my little altar and at times fall on my feet, muttering thanks.
This Deepavali, my children wanted to know why we celebrate the festival.
“It is the victory of good over evil, light over darkness.”
I sounded glib, on a script. I was also ashamed.
These were stories I grew up on. I vaguely remembered it had something to do with Narakasura. So, I googled. I read different versions and picked one closest to the one I knew. I gathered my children around me the morning of Deepavali and narrated the tale of how Satyabhama killed Narakasura. That I was missing the most important part of the story did not escape me. These tales stand for something. They represent more than the characters in the story.
I think I should pull out the heavy volume of Srimad Bhagavatham a dear friend gave me for my birthday a couple of years ago. This attempt at understanding things beyond the obvious is intimidating.
I remember my thatha talking to me about the different phases in a person’s life. Brahmacharya, Grihastha, Vanaprastha, and Sanyasa. There are a time and place for everything in life he would say.
I am in the thick of Grishatha, submerged in this samsara sagaram, barely keeping afloat between cooking, cleaning, homework and raising children. There will be a time for the Bhagavatam, to ponder on the mysteries of this life and this world, a time to atone, make peace and prepare for the next.
I draw solace from the fact that there is wisdom in what thatha used to tell me. He lived a content life, one in which he believed in freedom of belief. He frequented the temple every day. He sat at the swami room chanting prayers and getting lost in the magic of the words and music in his head. He occasionally reminded me that there is a certain quiet to be had at the temple. He sat with me at the thinnai in the front of the house, sharing his wisdom in simple ways.
I no longer light a lamp, draw a kolam or play Suprabatham in the morning. Some days, I wish I do. Perhaps, those days are around the corner. As my children grow and find their ways, I may find my way back home.