My mother-in-law and Aunt Bala, however, aren't fazed by all this. They have been doing the puja every year for more than 25 years, they say with pride and pleasure, and the goddess has showered her blessings on their families. Aunt Bala, for instance, cites as an example of the goddess' benevolence the example of a close family member who underwent a successful surgery to remove a malignant tumor.

My mother-in-law holds similar views. Although she is a rationalist who has studied in Harvard and travelled the world as a women's right advocate, educator, and manager, her faith lays claim to a large part of her heart. Come August, my mother-in-law marks the date for Varalakshmi Puja.

This year, my mother-in-law and I welcomed Goddess Lakshmi into our house by singing a traditional song, "Lakshmi Raave Ma Entikki," which means, "Lakshmi, please come into my house" in the Telegu language. We carried the silver kalasha-pot into my mother-in-law's spacious puja-room and set it down on a bed of rice. My father-in-law officiated as priest and master of ceremonies. The previous day, he had decorated the puja-room with Christmas lights, flower garlands, strings of mango-leaves, and young banana trees on either side of the entrance. The whole effect was quite stunning.

At 10:15, we all sat down to do the puja. My two daughters, ages 9 and 5, inheritors of this faith, were forcibly conscripted into the ritual. They had been happily watching the Cartoon Network all morning as the adults in the household rushed around getting ready. My mother-in-law ended the puja by tying turmeric-stained twine around the wrists of all the women in the household--me, my daughters, and finally herself. This was our protective amulet and a mark of our faith, which we couldn't remove for a week or so. It was well past noon by then and we all fell on the delicious food-offerings.

But the celebration was not over, as it had been when Aunt Bala left for work immediately after finishing the puja in New York. This time, about a dozen ladies from our neighborhood visited us that evening dressed in their finest silks. We offered them sweets and urged them to sing for the goddess. When they stood up to leave, we gave them haldi (turmeric or yellow sandalwood) and kumkum (vermilion powder), which are traditionally offered to married women,along with tiny photo-frames--souvenirs that my mother-in-law had bought in Florida when visiting her daughter. The ladies loved the American keepsake.

It was late when the last guest left. "Perhaps next year when both kids are in full-time school, I can initiate you into this puja," my mother-in-law ventured. That means she will teach me the mantras, and which I will repeat after her while mimicking her actions in performing this puja instead of just observing her as I did this year.

I smiled and nodded. I knew that it would take me a while to get the hang of the rituals; it would take me many years to perfect the menu and the ritual food-offering. But this seemed like a small price to pay for the faith that the goddess inspired in my mother-in-law, Aunt Bala, and legions of South Indian women.

I took a deep breath. I was ready for the plunge.

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