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MahaMementoMori: Fables Beyond COVID’s Warning Wall – A monthly series that gently reminds us to remember what life would be like if we succumbed to a pandemic. While settings shift from India to America, and characters change as well, each story explores the vital nature of relationships in life and death.
“You’ve come to the wrong Goddess,” I admonished him. “I have no need for your American dollars. My time in our temple is not dependent on wealth. It is immemorial. I have been here in your father’s father’s father’s father’s village long before your family left to chase fame and fortune across the dark waters.”
He took a deep bow and touched my feet as if he was touching the feet of his guru. I was unmoved. Had he offered me a book, or perhaps a musical instrument, I would have embraced the pardeshi. But this foreigner seemed intent on showing off his wealth. “But Saraswati-Ji, I can convert these to Indian currency if …”
I sat there cold as an unheated temple from the American winter city he was raised in. I cut him off mid-sentence. “Save them for my sister, Laxmi, the Goddess of Wealth. I, the Goddess of Knowledge, have no need for dollars, rupees, yen, or euros. For me, a single word, or one musical note, communicated in the right way, at the right time, to the right person is worth a million dollars, a crore of rupees.”
He stood there stone silent, his arms akimbo. He dared me to say more but being made of Makrana marble from the nearby Rajasthani township, I easily outstared him, remaining seated with the ever-present veena silent in my lap. Perhaps both of us were waiting for the stringed instrument to break the silence.
“Okay Ji,” he said. “May I now finish my sentence?”
I appreciated how he used the respectful “Ji” and the more polite Indian “May I” rather than the boorish American “Can I.” I smiled. “Of course you may.”
“Thank you. Both of my grandmothers were named Saraswati by their parents; and yet, neither of them was permitted one day of formal schooling. Both of them could recite the entire Ramayana by memory, and yet neither of them was asked to lead the Akhand Ramayana Paath in their respective villages. The Brahmin pandits honor you as the Goddess of Knowledge, but just like their nonstop reading of the epic Shri Ramcharitmanas over 24 hours, they’ve discouraged knowledge acquisition by girls nonstop for more than 24 centuries. The vicious cycle eventually results in mothers restricting their own daughters from attending schools. Have you heard of the Stockholm Syndrome?”
“Of course. Please continue.”
“Well, it’s as if generations of Indian women have been held hostage to this educational inequity, and yet, somehow, they feel sympathetic to the same system that limits them. My Mom, who speaks 16 languages, could have been a Nobel Prize Winner, a member of the Sahitya Akademi. But instead, she was limited to a life of tailoring in big American department stores, because so many years ago in Rajasthan her mother refused to let her continue schooling beyond the 5th grade. This was despite the protest of my Mom’s father who insisted that his daughter was a son to him. Have you heard the African adage about educating boys and girls?”
“Of course. Please continue.”
“‘If you educate a boy, you train a man. If you educate a girl, you train a village.’ Research has demonstrated that if you…”
“Please, Beta. You are not here to educate Saraswati, are you? What is it you want?”
“It’s the money, you see. We collected it at my parents’ 50th anniversary. In lieu of gifts or flowers, we suggested a donation for the less fortunate. They recently celebrated their 65th. Fifteen years have transpired, and I have not yet put the funds to good use.”
“There are many fine charities that you …”
This time he interrupted me. “Apologies, but life gets cut short, so sometimes we must be expedient. May I leave this attaché containing the donations with you? Perhaps you can direct it to the most deserving recipients.”
Before he passed away, we launched two Saraswati Schools in the village homes where his parents were born. His request was fulfilled. But truly I was responding to the prayers of a pig-tailed, shoeless, idea-filled village girl who was the great-great-granddaughter of the woman who long ago massaged the tired legs of my visitor’s grandmother. This clever chit of a girl beseeched me to open a school for her and her sisters. Using the attaché stuffed with foreign funds, I responded to her prayers and proudly watched her march into my school where books replaced the gathering of dust.
Dr. Raj Oza has written or contributed to: Globalization, Diaspora, and Work Transformation; Satyalogue // Truthtalk: A Gandhian Guide to (Post)Modern-Day Dilemmas; P.S., Papa’s Stories; and Living in America. He can be reached at satyalogue.com or amazon.com/author/rajoza.