My Guru

I wasn’t born into a religious family. At least, not like my brother was. My parents really only joined BAPS after immigrating to the States. My father’s best friend took him to sabha (an assembly) one weekend, and that was the beginning of it all. When my mother, sister and I joined him, he had a small ghar mandir (home temple) set up, and we learned, together and over time, to believe, worship, respect and follow God and our guru, Pramukh Swami Maharaj.

My childhood and teenage years were thus filled with following agnãs (wishes) of my guru. We didn’t eat out (ever… not even on road trips), we avoided drinking, smoking, eggs, meat, onion and garlic, we wore modest clothes (I didn’t wear a dress that showed my legs until college again), we went to temple every weekend and were immersed in our language, culture and religious/philosophical knowledge. This might seem like a list of to-dos and not-to-dos, but for us, it was our life. I was a happy, devoted person. My guru taught me the meaning of sacrifice, the burdens of evil thoughts and doings, the simple, unmatched joy of loving God. I was a proud satsangi (devotee), and never hesitated to take my stand in the world as a Swaminarayan.

But college tore me away from my safe haven. God became an idea rather than a reality. Religion became a sheep yard rather than a community. Niyams (rules) became tedious contradictions rather than safeguards against a cruel world. They say knowledge is confirmation… and for a while, I let knowledge confirm my disdain for the religion that shaped so much of who I am.

In fact, I admit I still don’t like talking about religion. I don’t like giving the impression that I am, at the heart of my being, a God-loving person. I don’t want anyone to know how deeply ingrained religion is for my well-being. I doubt even Surgeon knows much about this side of me, because I never find the need to delve into it much. I never introduce myself as a Swaminarayan (or a Hindu, for that matter), and I still find myself questioning the everyday little things we’re supposed to do (the chanting, the praying, the mark on the forehead etc.).

I would rather advocate for goodness. I stand up for goodness. I take the side of goodness.

And my one guide of goodness, no matter how little I mention him, or credit him, or herald him, has been my guru. Never has he wavered in his 95 years on this earth, and never could I say a word of doubt in his doings. It may seem strange for outsiders to understand the outpouring of love from millions of devotees around the world for an old man who resembles the position of a pope in Catholicism. But, he isn’t our Pope. He isn’t our president. He isn’t our celebrity figure.

He was our guru. He brought us, like the word “Gu-Ru” in Sanskrit defines, from darkness to light.

He brought me, in a sense, back to where I know I belong, even if no one else knows it.

Rest in peace, Pramukh Swami Maharaj. Thank you for all you’ve done for all of us, knowingly or unknowingly. May I always do that which allows goodness to flourish.

Pramukh-Swami-with-Lord-Swaminarayan-Wallpaper

HH Pramukh Swami Maharaj: 7 December 1921 – 13 August 2016

 

Advertisements

Thirty

My grandmother was 13 or 14 when she rode on the back of a camel from her small village to the small village that would become her home for the rest of her time. She was to see her husband there for the first time, because during the wedding they had draped her sari so low down her face there was nothing to see, even sneakily, except perhaps an outline against the bright red cloth.

“I knew he was tall,” she would tell us when we asked what it was like.

By 30, she had given birth to six children (including my father), lost her eldest, and was perhaps pregnant with my youngest uncle, or maybe had already had him and was shouting at his two-year-old behind as he ran around, causing mischief.

“I don’t know how old I was!” she would always retort when we implored.

30 for my grandmother was a silver away from being old. She would be welcoming her first grandchild soon enough, and that would almost be, for her, a lifetime of completeness.

“But it wasn’t until your aunt was married off that I was truly free,” she’d sigh happily.

My mother’s story isn’t so different. She was raised as a city girl, and was just starting college when her first proposal came. It was from a young man whose aunt was married into my grandfather’s (mother’s dad) village. She had never seen him before he walked into the door with two friends, confusing my then seventeen-year-old mother as to WHO was the man asking for her hand.

“I remember my mother pointing to your father, sitting to the side, and I couldn’t believe how dumb I was… of course it was him! He was sitting ALONE,” she bashfully recounted.

By 19, she had married my father, and joined him in running a small household filled with my father’s younger siblings and cousins who had come to the city to study.

“I cooked, cleaned, entertained and cared for 5 young boys aged 7 to 20 and your father. Not to mention, I also finished my bachelors degree, taking my final exam while I was pregnant with you,” she nodded at me with a distant glimmer in her eyes. “Those were some of my favorite years, though…”

I can understand why. By 23 she had left behind everything and everyone she knew and come with her husband 7,590 miles away to the country that is still her home. She was shocked that February meant bitter winter weather, and that milk came in gallons. She nervously sent her first daughter to preschool, worrying all day on the verge of tears because she thought she hadn’t taught her 4-year-old enough English to survive for a day. She learned how to drive, how to deal with difficult Indian recipes with limited resources, how to maintain a balance of cultures in her daughters.

At 30, she was a mother of three, was fluent in a language she hated learning as a child, and knew exactly how to handle any crisis that befell her or her family.

“By the time I was your age…” she would taunt when I was in my early twenties.

Because it’s true: I have always felt inadequate compared to my parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents when it came to age. Every year, I find myself setting goals, trying to find some sense of satisfaction in my actions as I scrambled to match myself with the struggles of the generations that came before me. I have always fell short. At 21, I was still in college, finishing up my English degree after 4 years of pursuing Biology, refusing to become the doctor my parents always dreamed (and knew I had the potential) of being. At 24, I had shamed my family by breaking off an arranged engagement to a young man who was rather perfect for everyone but me. At 28, I was the suspiciously unmarried older sibling at my sister’s wedding, everyone trying to hide their hunger for gossip behind false smiles.

And today, at the big 3-0, I feel no more glorifying self-love than before. Here I am, married (to the relief of my parents), in a new place, with no work, and my first child curled inside of me, occasionally kicking against the walls of my stomach. And while being the wife of a talented, resilient and amazing person is the best thing that could have happened to me, I am hardly the mother my mother and grandmother were, hardly the teacher I know I can be, hardly, even, the writer who had promised herself to have a novel out by now. I woke up feeling, all things considered, quite a failure.

But as I reflect and judge, perhaps this is exactly how it needs to be. Perhaps it’s exactly how I need to feel on day one of being 30, so that the rest of 364 days can be spent doing and becoming exactly what I aimed to do and be.

And maybe one day, I’ll get to smile and share, “You know, when I was 30…”

IMG_0796e

Why I Went “Rainbow”

If you’ve been on the internet or glanced at the news at some point after Friday, you’ll probably be shaking your head at “yet another post about SCOTUS passing the same-sex marriage law.” Or as Surgeon put it: “everyone and their mother is posting about that.”

But, dear Reader, I have so many things to say about it.

Let it be known, first off, that I was born into a conservative Hindu family. I grew up not knowing anything about being gay. Hell, I didn’t even know about sex until I was finally introduced though my IGCSE Biology class in tenth grade. Sex was as taboo a word as the worst curse you could think of. And sex between man and man or woman and woman? Let’s just say I thank my friends and literature classes for being brought up to speed there. Surprising as it was, it never really irked me. They exist, I told myself, and they don’t affect me.

Fast-forward to 2008, when Prop 8 (which eliminated the right for same-sex couples in California) was on the ballot. I remember the doorbell ringing and my father’s lovely voice floating into the den as he spoke with the two, clean-shaved, tie-adorned gentlemen handing him a flyer.

“Well of course I’ll vote yes,” he stated matter-of-factly, “we are Hindus, and we too think it’s a moral outrage.”

There were some sighs of relief and light laughter, the door closed, and the day went on. But something had been tripped in me. I sat there in the den for a long, long time. Should my being a Hindu really affect a random group of people who are NOT Hindu and want to live their lives their own way?

No. Of course not. Why should I dictate anything at all for anyone but myself? Let them be who they are. They have never asked me to be anything I am not.

When I brought this up with my father… well, I made it a point never to bring it up again. So, my fellow religious readers, I hear you. I understand the choice you’re grappling with, and I know the burden is heavy. But for me, it has become a simple choice when it comes to morality: do I harm anyone by making the choices I do? Voting yes on Prop 8 would have… it would have caused so much pain for good people who simply wanted to be together. Voting no? Sure, it may be uncomfortable for some to encounter gay couples, but no harm is being inflicted by either parties. Same-sex couples do not advocate their sexual orientation. They advocate awareness and acceptance, both of and by themselves and by society. What more can you expect from human beings who have been persecuted, segregated and mis-conceptualized for as long as history can remember?

Despite this moral realization, the issue still didn’t affect me. It was still them and me.

But then I met Surgeon.

Yes, Surgeon is a man, and I am a woman. But Surgeon is not Indian. He is not Hindu. In fact, when I first told my parents his last name, my mother’s face went a pale, sickly yellow.

“What do you MEAN!?” she whispered, “he’s from those who we cannot even… WE DON’T DO THIS!”

My father’s face wasn’t exactly any better. He demanded that I come to my senses, pick someone else, “ANYONE, but him,” and stop seeing Surgeon.

Now, understand this, Reader: Surgeon’s family is from Iran. Which means, inherently, his ancestors were Muslim. Which means that REGARDLESS of the fact that Surgeon does not practice Islam and is Agnostic, to my family, he’s Muslim.

Which means their eldest child is also about to carry a Muslim name.

And that simply cannot be done, Reader. If there is anything that is culturally banned, it would be a Hindu-Muslim marriage.

It was at this point in my yet-too-short-to-be-wise life that I finally understood what it meant to be a couple that loved and could not marry. Society has trained us to see this issue as “gay” marriage. No, Reader. No. This is a MARRIAGE issue. Always was and always will be. It would also serve us right to remember that a mere 52 years ago, in this very country we love and cherish, “states believe that the Negro (sic) is not the only threat to their racial purity, and therefore forbid whites to marry American Indians, West Indians, Asiatic Indians, Mongolians, Malays, Chinese, Japanese, Africans, “half-breeds,” and mestizos.”

52 years ago! Had I met Surgeon then… well, I’d been a criminal. A criminal for loving someone and desiring my all to be with them in the most honorable of ways.

And that, Reader, is a feeling I do not want to bestow on ANYONE. No one, NO ONE, deserves to feel this way about a thing so human as love.

As for those of you who, also like me, feel that government has really no business in dictating who marry’s who and hence refuse to celebrate accordingly (Facebook’s Rainbow Filter, for example) for SCOTUS’s few successes… please, stop it. For once in your life, put yourself and your opinions away. Bring out instead the compassion in you that drives you to be empathetic, that let’s you feel the joy in others, that revels in beauty and the sheer possibilities we have by being alive and go “rainbow.” Go “rainbow” for courage. Go “rainbow” for love. Go “rainbow” for gratitude.

Go rainbow because you, too, are human.

Rainbow

The Resident’s Prom

The event is a rather common one. The chief residents throw a graduation party every year. Surgeon has managed to skip out of half of them so far, but being chief in a month now requires his presence.

This evening for me, however, is going to be a first of many things. Among them are:

1. I’ll be meeting Surgeon’s co-workers

2. I’ll be dining at the Ritz

3. I’ll be introduced as his WIFE

Number one is a little nerve-racking because here I am, a humble teacher of writing, about to mingle and converse with people who quite literally save lives on a daily basis. While doctors/surgeons individually are not intimidating (I’ll have to tell you what Surgeon looked liked on our first date one day), when they are massed together, it’s like entering a world that a plebeian like myself will never quite grasp. The jargon is completely beyond me sometimes, and I often marvel at the jokes they laugh at. I suppose this gathering is especially trying because I’ll finally be able to put faces to the many nicknames Surgeon and I have given to his many attendings, interns and fellow residents. Surgeon’s stories and complaints about his hospital and the people he works with abound, but one of the things I adore about him is that he never puts a name to anyone. That’s when I started giving people three word sobriquets: “Oh, you mean The Animal Lover?” Well, tonight, The Animal Lover is going to have a face… and part of me doesn’t want to know all these faces. There is a joy and a freedom in keeping certain groups of people unknown to a certain degree. Your spouse’s co-workers fit this category quite perfectly.

Number two is a little exciting, actually. As a foodie, I am curious to know what exactly will be served on my plate tonight. A chickpea patty? A summer risotto? A completely unknown but extremely marvelous vegetarian delicacy? Bring it on.

Finally, number three. While calling Surgeon “husband” seems exceptionally natural at this point (I don’t, for example, forget and call him boyfriend or whatever), being called a “wife” is still a little surprising. What’s more, people are expecting to meet me as Surgeon’s brand new wife. Surgeon and I were pretty private about our relationship and marriage, so I suppose the allure for everyone else is amped up, but for Surgeon and I, it’s all the more uncomfortable.

It’s the sentiment behind number three that’s causing a slight dilemma for me at the moment, and it’s perhaps one that you’ll scoff at: what the hell am I gonna wear!?

Surgeon didn’t give much advice. He grinned at my worry and said, “Think of this thing as the Resident’s Prom. Dress whatever way you like!”

So do I wear an evening gown, or do I wear a sari?

As a child and teenager, I donned many Indian outfits, be it for Indian parties or American ones. Part of this was because my mother forbade us girls to wear dresses after we turned seven or eight. Actually, she forbade pretty much anything except for loose jeans and long-sleeved shirts. I look like the ultimate nerd in many of my old pictures (glasses and all). While I loved the way a sari looked on me, I longed to wear American dresses with their many cuts and shapes. So when I finally got my freedom in college, I went out and bought some. Cheap ones at first, but once grad school hit, I started collecting glorious pieces.

This is the one I have in mind to wear tonight:

Dress

Yet, another part of me wants to be traditional. I want to bring my culture. All of these people I am going to meet tonight will see my skin, of course, and will assume I am Indian, but marrying Surgeon makes me even more so American. This made me panic just a tiny bit and I found myself sifting through the many, many, many saris I own but have never worn. They are all so beautiful, intricately decorated with embroidery and beads on bright, lush colors, like this one:

Sari

They both sing to me. They both identify with my tastes.

So what do I wear? What the hell do I wear?