Last September, I picked up a pot of yellow chrysanthemums at a store. It was around the time of Ganesh Chaturthi, coincidentally, and as I drove home in an atmosphere permeated with the scent and the color of the beautiful flowers, I felt transported. When I was growing up in South India, chrysanthemums were front and center during the festival season. In flower markets, there would be strings of starkly white jasmine varieties in large conical mounds, along with the scented greenery of marugu and marikkolundu. But to me, the star attraction of this festival was always the yellow samanthi or chrysanthemum. It was bright and cheery, promising happiness and prosperity to all worshippers. Now that I am older and have something to compare it with, I would say that chrysanthemum is to Ganesh Chathurthi what poinsettias are to Christmas.
Keeping with this tradition, on the morning of the Ganesh festival, I decorated our household Ganapathi with a few flowers clipped from the plant and proudly showed it off to my two daughters aged ten and six.
“You know, this is almost exactly how we celebrate this festival back home,” I said. I was taking quite a few liberties here, but the kids hadn’t ever been in India during that particular festival. This would be the closest they came to it, so I thought “No harm, no foul.” “It is so important that we follow these customs and traditions that keep our sense of history alive and link us to the many generations of our ancestors that have gone before us … yes, you have a question?” I smiled beatifically at my ten-year-old, a beacon of the future who would carry on the time-honored traditions.
“Actually, it is more of a comment. I think we are going to be late for school.”
A glance at the clock showed that she was unfortunately accurate, so my lecture on traditions had to be unceremoniously scrapped. But throughout the day, I found myself reveling in the warm fuzziness that the observance of a time-honored custom had given me.
My self-congratulatory attitude was actually caused by the fact that, under normal circumstances, I am very lazy when it comes to observing traditions. Having moved to the United States when I was just becoming an adult, I had never actively organized a festival in my own home. Indian festivals have two parts to them—the puja and the feast. Unfortunately, I never learned to cook the special foods that were made for occasions, such as modak and holige. Since I also didn’t know the appropriate prayers for the pujas, there didn’t seem much point in making a big deal of the occasions. We lived in Montana where temples are about as common as vegetarian crocodiles, so even visiting places of worship on holy days was out. Furthermore, the man I married is very laid-back and basic, whether the issue is something as deep as religious observances or as simple as cooking. So the extent of our festivals was a mention of the day’s significance during the daily morning’s prayer and the making of a standardkheer.
The problem was, I was doing nothing to pass the customs on to my children. Granted, I have made an effort with American festivals like Thanksgiving and Christmas, cooking stuffing and sweet potatoes, and baking cookies, but my family was losing out on the Indian festivals. My procuring of chrysanthemums was a giant step in our religious observances, I decided. Maybe I had turned a corner here.
That evening, I was setting my Prestige pressure cooker to cook rice and dhalon the cooking range, when my younger daughter asked me a question.
“Mom, why do you blow into that thingy?”
I looked at the cooker’s weight in my hand. “This was what my mother always did,” I replied, as memories flooded through me.
It was 2002, and my parents were visiting us in Montana. When I was setting up the cooker one day, my mother asked a question.
“Do you have ants in this place? Funny, but I haven’t seen even one around.”
“No, we don’t,” I replied, mystified. “In summer, they are outside, but we don’t let any get inside.”
“Then why do you blow into your weight valve? I used to do it because in our house in Coimbatore, in the summer, ants would shelter inside it since it was cooler, and I didn’t want them to get cooked.”
Stunned, I stared at her. I routinely did this ritual just because I thought I was carrying on a grand custom, while all along it had only a very mundane reason behind it, that too something that was irrelevant to my own life. I must admit that I felt rather silly at that moment, and resolved to quit the practice. And I thought I had, too.
It was strange how the habit had returned on that particular day. It may have been merely a slip or it might have been because I had been thinking so hard about traditions.
All this cogitation led to another thought. Was this how certain thoughtless habits got turned into cast-in-stone customs over which people humiliated and alienated each other, and even went to war? Do expediency and creativity originally lead to certain ways of doing things, and fear of the unknown and narrow-mindedness take over from there? Traditions no doubt interest and comfort us by making us a part of the continuum of the human race, but sometimes, we turn a blind eye to their irrelevance to our place and time, like my blowing into the cooker’s weight to get rid of phantom ants. If that is so, then it is extremely foolish to hang our identities, our beliefs, and our very lives on practices that are important only because “we’ve always done it this way.”
It also seems to me that these customs come with some kind of an inside track to God and eternal salvation. That is why traditions like honor killings, emotional torture of widows, and caste discrimination, that step beyond intrinsic humanity and basic decency, are not seen as heinous acts committed by unscrupulous people that want to further their own agendas, but tolerated as “the way those people have always lived.”
In a way, I think that the fascination of the United States for many Indians is its irreverence to hide-bound tradition. Oh, yeah, turkey is the tradition for Thanksgiving but you could choose from making it at home from the scratch to buying turkey meat loaves, turkey bologna, or the newest treat for the herbivores amongst us, the tofurkey. And if it doesn’t work out, you call for pizza or Chinese take-out. You do what you can with what you have, and it’s just fine. Traditions are honored, but there is no stigma attached to those that deviate from them. This country has also shown the way to break with traditions that seek to demean or destroy fellow humans in many more significant ways, such as abolition of slavery, granting for civil rights to all, and breaking the taboos of same-sex relationships, and today stands at the head of another great achievement, having elected an African-American as its President. And, to be frank, coming here has certainly given this Indian a chance to take a step back and think about the meanings of some rituals and decide whether I want to hold on or let go, and more importantly, not to feel guilty over it. Passing on principles of respect and tolerance is more important than passing on rituals conducted in the “right” way.
“Is this a tradition too, Mom?” My daughter was still waiting for her answer to her pressure cooker-weight question.
Here was my chance to make my mark, and maybe start my own tradition.
“This is the only way to do it,” I could say in thunderous tones. “Blow into the weight valve if you want to honor your mother. If not, there will be dire consequences.”
Instead, I smiled at her. “No, munni. This is just your Mommy being silly.”
Lakshmi Palecanda recently moved from Montana to India. She can be reached at [email protected]