When I returned home from college for Christmas break in 2004, I found a blue, 35 cent, wire-bound notebook — creased along the edges — and a prayer book that still smelled of my Nana Ji’s tiger balm and aftershave. The notebook, with my grandfather’s prayer book hidden between its pages, lay dusty and abandoned in one of the boxes that we forgot to unpack after we moved into our new house in the suburbs of Washington, D.C.
Though the journal entry I wrote shortly after my grandpa’s death reflected the profound sense of grief that I felt at the time, it was also intended to celebrate my Nana Ji’s life rather than mourn the loss of it. Despite the occasional spelling mistake, the smudged pencil marks on the yellowing paper, and the choppy sentences, this particular journal holds more sentimental value than the tens of others that fill my drawers at home.
12/24/93: “My grandfather dieid in October. He was very young and strong.”
I read on, and I find at the bottom of the page a small paragraph on the trip to the temple:
“Nana Ji also took me and Surbhi (my older sister) to the local mandir (temple)… That was one of the best nights of my life.”
From an outsider’s perspective, I probably would not see “the best day” of a young girl’s life as anything truly earth-shattering. Yet that night at the temple, I felt something that I could not give justice to on paper as a seven-year-old.
Nana Ji was born on June 20, 1929 in Lahore, Pakistan. Before migrating to India during the Partition in 1947, he attended DAV College, where he graduated at the top of his class. He then completed an engineering degree in India and earned a masters in civil engineering from the University of California at Berkeley, where he was presented with the Golden Eagle award for his excellent academic record. Later, he was designated Engineer-in-Chief in India, served as a member of the Central Water and Power Commission, and helped design the famous Bhakra Nangal dam in Punjab.
Despite his successful career, family always came first for my Nana Ji. He married Indira Vaish on May 12, 1956 and fathered one boy and two girls, the oldest of which is my mother. He was loved by everyone—not for his achievements in engineering, but for his affection, charm, and unfailing grace.
Growing up as an Indian in America, I never felt very close to Hinduism. To me, religion was purely a formality. Prayer in front of our makeshift altar was never stimulating; it was just a routine, necessary, and altogether tedious aspect of our Sunday mornings. I struggled to accept that my alien religion was a viable one, especially when most of my friends dutifully attended church or synagogue. When they came over to my house, they stared, wide-eyed, at the images of many-armed Hindu deities wielding sceptres and riding fierce tigers. Though I was often embarrassed by it, I was eager to come to terms with my religion, which I tried to do by reading condensed versions of the Mahabharata and Ramayana, the great Hindu epics. So between struggling to retain a firm grasp on Hinduism and trivializing it in public, I was left with a bitter sensation of dissatisfaction and guilt. I suspected that religion was not supposed to make me feel that way.
In July of 1993, my family took our yearly excursion to India to visit relatives. I looked forward to these trips for one reason only: to see my grandfather, a handsome and vivacious man with a generous smile and a thick black moustache. I never felt awkward around him, the way I did with distant second and third cousins. Nana Ji lived as if age had no bearing on what one could or could not do. In the morning, we sang Indian bhajans accompanied by the harmonium, his rich, baritone voice resonating throughout the house. He played educational games like Boggle with me, instructing me on how to form five-letter words yet always allowing me to win in the end. Later, we flew kites together on the roof of our house, where we could look out over the city and absorb the sights, sounds, and smells of Delhi in the evening. Sometimes we played badminton in the yard, under the shade of Nana Ji’s mango and lemon trees. It is no surprise that I never tired of spending three weeks with one man.
Nana Ji was intensely religious. Every morning, he would receive blessings from the gods, and in return, he accorded them his utmost devotion and gratitude. It was like a transaction—a personal contract with God—but I also knew that it was so much more. Sitting at the altar with him felt different from our Sunday prayer back in the States. The holiness, purity, and comfort that were missing at home were very much present in the shaded corner beside his bedside table, where only traces of sunlight shone between the bars of the window and cast shadows on the silver icons. I was mesmerized by the grace and suavity with which he performed the ritual washing and garlanding of the icons. When he sang the hymns from the prayer book now in my possession, the litany of Hindi words flowed from his lips like syrup. Though he may have been bodily present in front of the altar, I knew that he had transcended the boundaries of the physical world.
How does he do it, I wondered? How does he form such a heartfelt connection with the divine? When he left for work every morning, having completed his morning ritual at the altar, he radiated an aura of supreme contentment. I envied him for having access to a faith that kept him so strong and so immune to entanglement in the mundane. Sometimes I sat beside him at the altar, and we would sing Hindu bhajans (hymns) in perfect harmony. I would be carried away by the combined strength and beauty of our voices. It was only through the brilliance of this music, through which we proclaimed our devotion to each deity, that I was able to temporarily sense that there was something beyond this world worth praising.
I remember those mornings spent in front of the altar vividly, but it is one particular trip to the temple that still stands out the most in my mind—and in my journal. The sun sets late during the monsoon season, and despite the humidity, the weather was quite pleasant one Sunday evening. The streets of Delhi were slowly emptying as the mosquitoes made their nightly appearance, as they always do in July.
“After dinner, Nana Ji said to Surbhi and me, lets go to the temple since its nice whether out.”
We decided to walk. Despite that overwhelming desire to feel “grown-up,” I had no complaints against holding my Nana’s hands as we trudged to the temple in flip-flops. When my Nana stopped to say that we had arrived, I was a little taken aback. What lay before us did not resemble a temple whatsoever. Unlike other mandirs, this one lacked any intricate calligraphy or imagery on its outer walls, and there was no turret extending into the sky. Instead, we stood before a simple cubical structure consisting of dirty white tiles that looked as if they had been uprooted from the floor of our bathroom. Nana Ji, always attuned to any changes in our demeanour, noticed our apparent discomfort, but he beckoned Surbhi and me inside. We followed hesitantly. A man wearing a white dhoti (cotton loincloth) greeted us at the door. He seemed to know my Nana Ji well; as a child, I was convinced that my grandfather knew everyone in Delhi. We took off our shoes, and I cringed as my feet grazed the filthy ground. What were we doing there?
Surbhi and I looked around. I remember staring into the faces of people from all walks of life, including one of Nana Ji’s business acquaintances and an aam wala (mango seller). What perplexed me most about this temple was the absence of tens of figurines, garlanded images, and other materials that we always used as part of our prayer ritual at home. In fact, I have no references to any such icons in my journal entry from that evening; apparently, they were not important.
We sang. This was not a spectator sport anymore; I had been pulled from the sidelines and dragged into the game. I participated the only way I knew how: by singing the same way I sang with Nana Ji at home. There was no room for embarrassment in this tiny hole-in-the-wall setting. I did not even know any of the words, but no one criticised me. Instead, they smiled in approval at my efforts.
The ecstasy that overwhelmed that humble shack moved me. I could feel the walls vibrate with the intensity of our voices.
I gradually felt the words pulsate through my body, the vibrations resonate in my mind. The music seemed to permeate every shaded corner, every dirty tile. The dilapidated mandir was rejuvenated by our passion, and by the intensity of our voices. As we praised the gods and celebrated life and death, I felt as if indescribable forces had conspired for me to be there that evening. I could not remember the last time I had felt so close to something I could not see.
I don’t think I experienced an epiphany that night; after all, I was only seven years old. I am still grappling with the irony that, in a seemingly god-forsaken temple, I found the seeds of my faith. Having assumed for so long that religion was based upon a series of mandatory guidelines, Nana Ji showed me that spirituality stems from loyalty to a set of chosen beliefs, and gratification for what we value the most. I can now believe in the existence of the divine—or at the very least, something that lies beyond my comprehension—because I could put my trust in someone of this world first. I unconsciously made a transaction, a personal agreement, with my grandfather. I believed in Nana Ji, and he endowed me with the gift of song through his prayer book and through the bhajans he taught me at the altar every morning. He had unknowingly given me a way of accessing the divine: he showed me that through my appreciation for music, I could communicate with God. To me, the intensity of our voices that evening in the temple was the ultimate demonstration of collective faith. The echo of our own voices, the resonance of our song, felt like God’s way of responding to us.
I no longer measure devotion in terms of how many times I attend temple; in fact, I cringe when I listen to people compete over how many times they attend church or temple. Though I believe devotion is important, I know that as soon as religion becomes an obligation, it also becomes a source of bitterness. I used to search for harmony and unity in these places, amidst a chaos of images, rules, and expectations, yet that evening, I found a reason to believe in a dingy back-alley. I know that what I experienced at the temple was real because I was with my grandfather and my sister, two of the people who understand me, and whom I love the most.
The notebook now sits on my bookshelf in my dorm room, next to a single image of an Indian goddess, wielding her sceptre and riding a fierce tiger. My grandfather’s prayer book, with its lingering scent of tiger balm and aftershave, now rests beneath my pillow. I am still in the process of learning what the words mean, but there is something sacred in just muttering the syllables, the way I did at the altar ten years ago with Nana Ji by my side. On the back of his prayer book, there is a simple message, which I recorded at the conclusion of my journal entry:
“Life is a spirit … realize it. Life is a challenge … meet it. Life is a song … sing it.”
I have decided that the best way to venerate God is to, like Nana Ji, celebrate life itself.
I am unsure exactly how to define the nature of my faith, and there are many questions that remain unanswered about my experience in the temple that night. I think that the beauty of conviction lies in its ambiguity. No one said religion was clear, or easy. There is no instruction manual. Just a notebook.
© Shruti Gupta 2007