Many of my friends are middle-aged Hindu Indians with successful careers and at least two children. Like me, they came to this country over a decade ago, usually carrying nothing more than a suitcase and a few hundred dollars. Hunger, drive, ambition, talent, and hard work had helped them climb the professional ladder and become financially comfortable, if not wealthy. Now that they had achieved a measure of material success, they applied themselves with the same conscientiousness to raising their children. They wanted to offer their kids the best of the East and West: Eastern tranquility combined with Western go-getting. So we return to the temple.
Last weekend, for instance, I stood before the bronze idol of the elephant god Ganesh at the Hindu temple in Queens, muttering incoherent Sanskrit chants as I clutched the hands of my four-year-old daughter, Ranjini. The temple bells were clanging. Bejewelled women clad in aquamarine and maroon saris rustled by to gain better vantage points. The bare-torsoed Brahmin priest circled a camphor lamp around the idol. The entire congregation clapped their hands and raised their voices in unison as they sang the Hindu song, "Jai Jagdeesh Hare."
I felt like an impostor, a film extra caught in the middle of a strange, surrealistic set. I was part of the scene, yet I wasn't. What was I doing, wearing a parrot green sari, surrounded by Hindu devotees, singing snatches of a song I barely knew? I had become a born-again Hindu, that's what.
Nowadays, on Sundays, instead of chilling out with a ginkgo shake and the newspaper at my local whole-food bakery, I drag my daughter to the temple. Instead of wearing figure-hugging designer clothes, I wear voluminous saris that conceal my stretch marks and love-lumps. I don't scoff at tradition; I attempt to follow it. I have turned into someone I had sworn I would never become: a Hindu mom.
Most people describe the birth of a child as a life-changing experience, and I suppose I should've seen it coming. Parenthood changed my friends, after all. Former atheists became regular churchgoers, saying that it was good for the kids to have "religion, routine and roots." Rebellious artists who had shunned tradition embraced it. Iconoclasts ruefully admitted to becoming carbon copies of their parents. Even my mother had warned me about this. "Wait until you become a mother," she said darkly, whenever I railed against yet another example of Indian orthodoxy. "Then you will become conservative yourself." Not me, I told myself. I will never become a conservative mom like my mother. Famous last words.
It started with small things. I wanted to teach Ranjini Indian values and traditions. I wanted to help her forge an identity. Even if she was profoundly different from her peers in name, religion, eating habits (we are vegetarians), and the festivals we celebrated, I wanted to show Ranjini that she wasn't 'weird.' Perhaps I would start wearing a sari, at least occasionally, just so she would know that it was the national dress of India. Perhaps I would take her to the temple, so that she could listen to the Sanskrit chants that I had heard as a child. Perhaps I would enroll in a vegetarian cooking class. No, that was a bit much.
Before I knew it, my 'experiments' snowballed. I was wearing a sari every day, I was cooking traditional Indian food for every meal instead of the fusion cuisine I favored, I was dragging my family to the temple every weekend, and I was hanging out exclusively with other Indian mothers.
Part of it had to do with re-creating my childhood. When I looked at my friends who had become mothers, I could see two distinct patterns. Some friends came from broken homes, and led chaotic lives, created an environment for their children that was the opposite of their own childhood.
To my surprise, the opposite happened. They didn't create chaotic, interesting lives for their own children. Rather, they veered toward the traditional when they became parents, just like me.
"It has to do with safety," my friend Tom said. Kentucky-born Tom, who became a pony-tailed painter in college, was now a white shoe investment banker with Merrill Lynch. "You want to create a safe environment for your kids," he said. "My childhood in Lexington, Kentucky, was above all safe. Boring, no doubt, but safe. Given a choice between chaotic-interesting and boring-safe, I choose 'safe' hands down."
I too, had chosen to recreate my boring, safe childhood in India, albeit while I was living in America. Hence the sari, the vegetarian cuisine and the weekend visits to the temple.
"With age comes wisdom" is the common saying. For my friends and I, along with age came parenthood, and a flowering of our faith. Perhaps it had to do with the overall domestication that comes with middle age. Whatever the reason, we had embraced religion with a fervor that was almost like keeping up with the Joneses, or the Ramans. Do your kids go to Veda classes? So do mine. I also plan to teach my daughter Bharatanatyam and Carnatic music. And to speak four Indian languages, including Sanskrit, just for good measure.
The beauty of Hinduism is its all-embracing tolerance. While it allows obsessive parents like me to engage in our Hinduism to-do lists, it also allows different Hindus to practice the religion at different levels. There is no common prescription, no Sundays at church, in order to be a good Hindu. This allows me to be a traditional Hindu, but not a conservative, orthodox one. It lets me accept Hindus who are conservative and orthodox; more important, it allows "hard-core Hindus," as I call them, to accept me, instead of disdaining me as a poseur. It allows all of us to view younger, non-devout holdouts with tolerance, even indulgence, rather than disapproval.
While I have made my peace with society in general, recently there have been signs of discord within my own home. My daughter is starting to show signs of rebellion-- she wants to be called Rebecca, after her favorite preschool classmate, she doesn't want to visit the temple because it is too crowded, and she wants to eat ham. I tell myself that I have to be patient, that daughters will always rebel. It is part of their psyche, part of the process. I'll have to wait until Ranjin--aka Rebecca--becomes a mom. Then she'll turn traditional, just like me.