Monday, March 30, 2009


Last Friday morning, as soon as we got up, Mowgli told me to close my eyes and led me into our closet. His eyes were closed, too, which made for stumbly progress. Once there, he lit a tiny oil lamp and we looked into a mirror that he’d placed on the shrine that resides there. Here’s what we saw:

Two apples, two bananas, two lemons, and a small bunch of grapes. American and Indian money, placed on a piece of new clothing. A packet of nine pulses (legumes) and grains called navadhaniyam (literally: nine grains), and a container with nine colors of crystals, called navaratnam (literally: nine gems). The aforementioned lamp, a stick of incense, a small statue of Ganesh (the Hindu god that governs auspicious beginnings and good luck).

We prayed, fed and walked the dogs (not part of the ritual, but a necessary part of our morning routine), showered, and then Mowgli boiled some milk with sugar and cardamom. He brought this up to the shrine, and lit three things: the lamp (which had since gone out), a stick of incense, and a nub of camphor in a tiny silver dish. He took the camphor in his right hand, supported with his left, and moved it in a clockwise circle three times, trailing its black smoke. Then we drank the milk, finished getting dressed and went to work.

This is how we celebrate Ugadi (“oo-GA-dee”), or Telugu New Year. It’s a recognition of the day Brahma created the universe, and marks the first day of the Telugu lunar calendar. There’s also Tamil New Year and Kerala New Year and many others; the dates shift from year to year because they're based on the Hindu calendar. We celebrate Telugu New Year because it originated in the region that Mowgli’s parents are from. Each region’s ritual is slightly different, but all are a puja with the purpose of welcoming the new year.

You may be wondering, as I did before I asked my mother-in-law, what happens to the fruit once the ceremony is over. Her answer: You eat it. You may also be wondering what I think of all this.

I consider myself a religious dilettante: I’ve never been able to get myself to commit to a particular house of worship, maybe because I’m curious about different faiths. I believe that it doesn’t matter how you pay attention to your spiritual life, or what shape, form or name of creator or god you pray to. For me, the most important thing is to pay attention to something bigger than myself.

Religious curiosity aside, I also participate in Hindu rituals to get closer to my husband. There are thousands of years of cultural, religious and spiritual depth behind the rituals he’s been performing for over 30 years, and they play a sizeable role in who he is. The most effective, and perhaps only, way for me to get some of that inside my skin is to go through the same motions he does. Even though they sometimes feel awkward, it’s like any other skill. It becomes more natural as you practice, and after a while, it’s second nature.

I don’t know any Hindu prayers yet, and in terms of a structured religious life, I’m in praying kindergarten. When I pray, regardless of whether I'm in a temple or a church or my car, I tend to have a single word in my head: Please. Even with that one word, I’m sometimes moved to tears. When I think about why that might be, I’m reminded of one of my favorite lines in Catholic rituals: Let us proclaim the mystery of faith.

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