Tuesday, March 31, 2009

But wait, there’s more


Last night I wrote about Ugadi, or Telugu New Year. When we were talking with my amma (mother-in-law) to prepare that post, she filled us in on the full range of preparations and celebrations. I took copious notes.

Here’s a list of what else we could have done (and likely will be doing next year now that I have the lowdown):

- Decorate the mirror with jewelry and a flower on top

- Include betel nuts and leaves with the fruit

- Make sure the lamp faces out (see the picture above -- it amused my amma and produced this note)

- Prepare panchamirtham – literally, five-items elixir, which symbolizes the sweetness and bitterness of life -- a jam-like concoction of cardamom, raisins, honey, raisins, banana, tamarind, jaggery (unrefined, semi-moist molasses-tasting sugar) and rock candy, with neem flowers on top. I realize that’s more than five things, but that’s the list my mother-in-law gave me, and she’s the expert. It’s made the night before and placed on the shrine, then eaten when you drink the milk.

- Break a coconut as you’re praying (the second time) and pour its milk into a bowl with tulsi (basil) leaves

- Decorate front porch with rice flour mandala (this is done after the first prayer)

- Prepare sandalwood (a paste of sandalwood powder and water) and kunkum (I think of this as blessing powder; it’s a vermillion shade of red) and apply both to the forehead after the final prayer

- In the evening, prepare a meal of kesari, payasam, variety rice (tamarind, tomato, coconut, lemon, curd etc.), vada, appalams (you may know this as papadams), and vegetables

- Give the money from the shrine to children

- Visit the temple in the morning or evening


Clearly, I’m going to need to plan ahead – and hit the Indian grocery store. I'll also be consulting the cheat sheet I typed up.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Ugadi


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.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Adam, Eve, Snakes, Sumeria



Yesterday, I was having coffee with a friend, and we were talking about an art exhibition involving bugs, which led the conversation to fears of bugs, spiders and snakes. She’s deathly afraid of snakes, and so naturally we turned to the Bible story of Adam and Eve and the snake’s role in their expulsion from the Garden of Eden.

I knew the general outline of the story, that the snake tricked Eve into going against God’s wishes that she not eat the fruit from the tree of knowledge, and thus represents the Devil. What I didn’t know, and learned from my husband when I got home, is that the story may originate in Sumeria. (I may have learned something about this link in my 7th grade Western Civilization class, but those days are long gone.)

There is a Sumerian creation myth dating to roughly to the 18th century B.C. in which the main mother-goddess (Ninhursag) installs her lover (Enki) in an earthly paradise that has a lush garden feauring eight special plants. Enki gets curious about the plants in the garden, and has his assistant fetch them for him to sample. Ninhursag gets wind of this, becomes enraged, and causes Enki to fall ill in eight ways. Then the other gods persuade Ninhursag to save Enki, and she creates eight goddesses to heal the eight afflictions. The one she creates to help with his rib is called Ninti.

This name is significant because the original semetic form of Eve is "Hawah," meaning life. In Sumerian, "nin" means lady, and "ti" can mean either rib or life. So Ninti means either “lady of the rib” or “lady of life.”

Naturally, on the Internet, you can find sites that both support and refute the theory that Sumerian myths are the true origin of key Bible stories. To me, the parallels are striking, and it’s always made sense to me that early Christians would employ existing mythology to make their new recruits feel more at home in a new faith.

Here's the weird thing, though: I haven't been able to find any mention of a snake in the Sumerian version.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Motor Masala


You can thank my younger brother for this evening's masala.

Dimitri (not his real name) lives in Baltimore, and has, let's face it, been driving a hoopdie for the last few years. He bought it at an auction and it served him well for quite a while, but lately, various issues have cropped up, and this week, the grim reaper of cars came to claim it. Something about a crankshaft no longer being attached.

Naturally, because the grim reaper of cars is a rude dude, this happened while he was far from home. He needed it towed, but the towing doohickey was going to damage the bumper. He was consulting with a heavily accented nearby garage guy about this when he said that he no longer cared about damaging the bumper, as he already had a line on a new ride.

At this, the guy asked if he wanted to sell the car, because it's an Acura and he wanted the parts for his Honda. Dimitri said sure and asked how much. The guy said, wait, I need to call my cousin. After a conversation in a foreign language, they settled on a price, money changed hands there on the street, and my brother asked where the guy is from. Palestine, the guy said.

If you're any kind of gearhead and live in any sort of urban area, you know that, generally speaking, foreign guys who buy Acuras in order to put the parts in Hondas are Hispanic or Asian. Now, it seems, the reputation of the Acura has spread to at least one other ethnic group. Here's my theory: cars are the international language of guys.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Georgie is Fine



Based on the record number of comments (4!) on the post about Georgie’s surgery, I now believe the writing truism that nothing pleases the reading public more than stories about animals and children. Thank you, dear readers, for taking the time to read, comment, and e-mail. I appreciate all of it, and if Georgie could read, so would she.

And now, an update.

She came through surgery like the tank she is, but getting her home was nervewracking. It is not fun to wrestle 95 pounds of semi-liquid dog into and out of the backseat of a Honda Civic, especially when you’re trying to avoid disturbing a whole-ham-sized rear leg. But less than 24 hours later, she is getting up on her own, eating, moaning a bit, and hopefully enjoying the narcotics they sent her home with.

I spent last night on the couch next to her empire of old blankets, and my awesome boss let me work from home today so I could monitor her incision and make sure she didn’t drown in her water bowl. She's already figured out how to deal with the non-functioning leg, and now we just have to keep her quiet enough for the bones to heal and the screws to set. This, to me, is the easy part.

Mowgli, on the other hand, watched the entire procedure in all its gory glory without any problem, but has been very worried about her post-operative well-being. He cringes and starts walking funny when she tripods her way around.

Tonight, it’s couch duty again for me; Mowgli offered to take a shift, but I feel an obligation to her, since I made the decision that got her into this mess. Also, I know it would stress him out if she he couldn’t calm her. She seems to have reserved a particularly keening whine for him; we suspect it’s because she remembers that he delivered her to the vet yesterday morning.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Big Apple Masala

Mowgli and I were recently in New York, visiting family and friends and wandering around the city. We started with half a day at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where even the museum shop cashiers have accents, and overhearing a conversation in English was a rarity. Mowgli’s cousin, who had angelically picked us up from the airport the night before, was with us, as was my mom, who had angelically taken the train up from Baltimore the day after returning from a week in Los Angeles.

At the Empire State Building the next day, all the line attendants and salespeople asked us where we were from as we made our way past posters hawking a virtual helicopter IMAX tour of the city. I realize it’s a sales ploy, but we did have a fun chat with a guy from the Dominican Republic. I asked if he’d read “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” (he hadn’t) because I’d just finished it, and it was written by a Dominicano. I missed my book club meeting about it because of the trip, and was aching to discuss it, but alas, all I could do was recommend it.




Later that day, we met up with the cousin who accompanied us to the museum and took the commuter train home with him to Jersey City. After seeing his (very nice) home, we went over to another of Mowgli’s cousin’s to meet his new baby, who had had a big day. In the morning, his family (mom, dad, both sets of grandparents, and one great-grandmother) had performed his naming ceremony. His name was said (softly, I assume) into his ears, and then written in a dish of uncooked rice, and he was given something sweet for the first time. We admired the baby, enjoyed visiting with the family, and had some excellent food that had been prepared and brought in for the occasion.

We were fortunate to be staying with my cousin and her girlfriend in Murray Hill, which most locals refer to as Curry Hill, as there are at least three Indian restaurants per block, many of them Southern Indian. This cuisine is hard to come by where we live (most Indian restaurants in the U.S. serve Northern food), so the first decision of the day was where to walk for amazing Tamilian food – a far cry from committing to 20 minutes in the car for so-so idli.

One night after drinks with our best man and his wife, we ended up around the corner from the apartment at a greasy, brightly lit place full of cab drivers eating parathas with their hands. Mowgli ordered in Hindi, a language he doesn’t really speak, and was moderately successful – he was asked to repeat part of his order. But soon, we were tearing into parathas with our hands, too.

The next day, we journeyed back to Jersey to visit another cousin and her husband, parents and children. On the R train, an older Indian gentleman asked us for help finding the Rector Street stop, which is where we happened to be getting off. On the PATH train on the way back, an older lady from a South American country flashed three fingers at me twice. I thought she was signing “OK” so I signed “OK” back and gave her a thumbs-up for good measure. Mowgli was laughing the whole time – she wanted help finding the 33rd Street stop, so I went over to her with my map and helped her out.

Our last meal in the city was not Indian, but Ukranian (which is pretty much Polish). We took my cousin and her girlfriend out to thank them for their hospitality, and they returned the favor by taking us around the corner to an amazing Italian pastry shop where Frank Sinatra once dug into cannoli, and many of the customers were Asian. Welcome to New York.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Gone to the Dogs

That's Jim on the left, Georgie on the right.


I really shouldn’t ever say “never” – that word always catches up with me, yanks me out of whatever I’m doing, and proves me wrong. This time, it’s a dog situation.

We had a lovely few days in New York and New Jersey, visiting family and friends, eating ourselves silly and me gleefully behaving like a tourist. There will be at least one post about the trip later, but right now I only mention the journey because less than five minutes after we were back home, Georgie, our girl dog, let out a sound I’ve heard her make only once before. I knew exactly what it meant: She snapped the major ligament in her left rear knee, putting her in pain and making her instantly lame.

Because this also happened four years ago, we knew what the choices would be: surgery to repair the knee; medication, which would guarantee a life of pain and deterioration; or put her down.

Mowgli instantly knew what he wanted to do, but I struggled for three awful days. She is not young. She has another, fairly benign health issue that might or might not indicate something serious. We don’t know how long she has left, with or without putting her through major surgery. The procedure is not cheap, and even though she’s in really good shape for her age, her recovery will be harder this time. And my love and esteem for her aside, she is a dog, and we’re in the middle of a recession for crying out loud.

Here’s the masala part: the man from India, where street dogs are a serious problem and most pet dogs live outside, wanted to do the surgery, arguing that the dogs trust us to take care of them, so we should do everything we can for them. Me, the American who raised the dog from a 10-week-old, wasn’t sure if surgery would be worth it, because of the cost of the surgery and the age of the dog.

We discussed it for days, but the final call was mine because technically, she is my dog. His position struck me as emotionally based, whereas I spent a lot of time trying to work the problem like a math equation, attempting and failing to solve for more than one “X.”

And here’s the “never” part: I said I’d never put her through major surgery at her age. But on Tuesday night, I looked at her and realized I simply couldn’t bear either of the other choices. It’s not logical, I’m still conflicted about spending the money, and yet, my decision came in the blink of an eye.

The surgery will take place on Monday.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Everyone Wants to be Irish When Traveling



A friend of Mowgli's who lives abroad sent me an e-mail about yesterday's post that goes so nicely to the heart of what I was trying to convey about Irish people that I felt compelled to post his words. (With his permission, natch.)

"...wherever I go in the world, I seem to always find an Irish pub. I've started to think it's the greatest export of Ireland. No matter how exhausted I've become with navigating the local language and culture, I can always take a seat inside a pub with Guinness or Murphy's sign above it and find a friendly and comfortable pint which is easy to order by only speaking english.

Maybe you'll have a different experience in your travels, but I really recommend that if you're ever in need of chance to just have a low effort conversation for a bit -- a conversation without needing to strain to parse out the words on the edge of your vocabulary, then set thoughts of stereotypes and cliches aside (or embrace them, whatever) and pop into the pub. Relax, order something like a Murphy's Red, and enjoy hearing and speaking some effortless *english* for an hour or so.

Then again ... I suppose an Indian restaurant might work nearly as well. :)"

Monday, March 16, 2009

Everyone Wants to be Irish



It's a funny little holiday, St. Patrick's Day -- I thoroughly respect Irish people, but I have so say that if I were Irish I might be upset that my country's patron saint's name day has been turned into an international excuse for wearing green and getting legless.

But then again, maybe not. The Irish-born people I've met have been uniformly hilarious and good-natured, and I can see them appreciating the situation. Also, in the 1990s, the Irish government made a decision to leverage the holiday to showcase the country and its people.

It's also possible that Irish people might be proud that one of their country's finest exports delights folks around the world. The photo above, for example, was taken in Krakow.

Happy St. Pat's, everyone. Have a green beer if you feel like it, and if you have a bit too much, remember what Oscar Wilde said: Experience is the name everyone gives to their mistakes. Maybe because he also said this: The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Wedding Traditions Masala


Last night, we were happily included in the wedding celebration of a friend who is of Lebanese descent and was marrying a Turkish man with whom she operates a wonderful restaurant.

We were running late due to an unfortunate combination of scant sleep, a canine incident, and concern over our appearance (the event was at the Ritz, yikes). Fortunately, my on-the-way observation that I've never been to a wedding that started on time proved accurate, and we arrived just in time for the bride's entrance to Handel's "Entrance of the Queen of Sheba."

The ceremony was brief and power-packed with meaning and tradition. There was a reading from Kahlil Gibran -- the slightly counterintuitive one about don't stand in my shadow, you can't grow in the shade and so forth. Next, there was a repetition of traditional Western vows over the exchange of rings.

But then, in succession, was a pair of traditions that were moving in their depth and simplicity. First, a Turkish tradition: the red ribbon that was attached to the rings was cut into pieces by the bride and groom and given to the members of the wedding party. If there was an explanation, I didn't hear it, but I took it to be a literal binding of the couple to the support of their closest friends.

Just now, my husband Mowgli (not his real name) brought me the program, which thoughfully explains that the cutting of the red ribbon makes the marriage official.

Then, a Lebanese tradition: A call-and-response blessing involving the entire audience. The officiant told us that we should stand and raise our right hands, and repeat the phrase, "God bless you" when indicated. We the audience were called upon to say it three times, and each time, it felt both powerful and meaningful.

Whenever the assembled witnesses are asked to give their support of the couple being joined, I am profoundly moved, because I think couples need all the help and love they can get. Last night was no exception, and I think it may have been the most elegant occurence of such a tradition.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

My French Cousin


She's not really French, but that's what I call her, because she went to Paris after college and just never came back.

Now she's on a yearlong world trek with her husband and twin sons, and naturally, they're blogging about it. They started with a semester in service at a cooperative school outside Bangalore, and they just finished the Antarctic portion of the journey. Next up: Macchu Picchu.

Don't be jealous, just be glad they're thoughtfully documenting the trip: http://web.me.com/mariaspada/http%3A__web.me.com_mariaspada/Welcome.html

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Gandhiji's Things Bought, Sold, Bought, Home

My watches, which sadly go unworn.


This morning, I learned about a marvelous thing called the six-word memoir.

Here’s one for Mohandas K. Gandhi, a/k/a Mahatma Gandhi, a/k/a Gandhiji (this last is an affectionate honorific, akin to the Japanese “san”):
Gave everything so India could live.

Here’s how James Otis’ might read:
Sold Gandhi's things for noble reasons?

And Vijay Mallya’s:
Money from beer to buy history.

And that of Antiquorum Auctioneers:
We're here to sell nice watches.

Allow me to expand those out for you (with the exception of Gandhiji, whose role in this story is self-evident.)

James Otis, also called Richard Otis, is a documentarian/art collector/peace activist who was once married to the daughter of the man who created the Muppets. He acquired various items that once belonged to Gandhi, and put them up for auction in order to promote nonviolence.
An uproar ensued. Schoolchildren, politicians and pretty much everyone in India clamored for the return of the items to India. Otis said he’d stop the sale if the Indian government pledged 5% of its budget to fight poverty. The government refused, and Mr. Otis asked the auction house to stop the sale, but they refused, citing potential liability due to too many preregistered buyers as well as the auction contract signed by Mr. Otis.

Following the sale, Mr. Otis pledged the proceeds to charity, and announced plans to complete a 23-day fast in honor of Gandhi (that’s the longest the latter went without food). He has also been quoted as saying that he wished the items had fetched a higher price. One wonders whether other items in his collection might someday achieve that mark (he owns items that once belonged to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Sojourner Truth and the Dalai Lama).

Now, Mr. Mallya, who inherited an empire of various businesses at 27, owns Kingfisher Beer and Kingfisher Airlines, and is a member of Parliament. He was not publicly known as a bidder prior to the auction, but has a history of buying Indian artifacts in order to return them to India (he did this in 2004, with a significant sword). He paid $1.8 million for the four items and has vowed to send them home to Hindustan (a/k/a India).

Finally, the auction house, Antiquorum Auctioneers, whose website proclaims them to be “the world’s premier watch auctioneers.” On February 6, 2009, they issued a press release regarding a “special spring watch auction” of “over 400 important timepieces” including “a watch that belonged to President John F. Kennedy and later Aristotle Onassis; a pocket watch that belonged to Mahatma Gandhi; and a superb selection of Patek Philippe wristwatches …” Prior to the sale, the auction house announced that it had agreed with the U.S. department of Justice to delay the finalization of the sale in order to resolve third-party claims.

About that third party: It’s the Navjivan Institution, which is the only legal heir to Ghandhi’s property. They stepped forward to protest the sale, saying they want to ensure that the artifacts are exhibited such that they can be enjoyed by everyone in India. They took similar steps in 2006, when Gandhi’s letters were up for auction in London. In that case, the government intervened and the letters were returned to the Institution’s custody.

These machinations are all very fascinating, but still, I feel that the real story is how these iconic items left the country in the first place. They are: a pocket watch (a gift from Indira Gandhi, no relation, before she became Prime Minister of India); glasses (given by Gandhi to an army colonel with the comment that they were the “eyes” that had given him the vision to free India); sandals (made by Gandhi and given by him to a British Army officer in appreciation for the latter taking photographs of the former during a trip to London to negotiate for India’s independence); and the plate and bowl (given by Gandhi to one of his great-nieces) from which he may or may not have eaten his last meal.
I’ll post an update if I find out how these pieces of history found their way from my husband's country to mine.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Right Back to Food


A variety of utensils surround an idli mold, which I do not yet know how to use. The spatula on the left, however, is great for sticky brownies, and the one on the right is fantastic for rice. I think the things on top and bottom are for gripping hot things such as idli molds.


Apologies in advance for making you hungry, dear readers. But just as a party always ends up in the kitchen, this blog, it seems, always comes back to food.

About six months ago, a coworker of mine alerted me to the daily presence of a white van outside an office building two blocks away from our building. It seemed to attract numerous South Asians, and so one day I stopped by to ask what was going on.

It turns out that a local vegetarian Indian restaurant sends its daily lunch menu via e-mail, takes orders via e-mail, and distributes the tasty bundles to diners from the aforementioned white van. It’s strictly cash-and-carry.

I might order their food once a month; it’s a bit spicy, but the Southern Indian menus are always a treat, as it’s hard to get good Tamilian food here. Receiving their e-mail menus, though, is a daily bright spot, and today I had a fun e-mail exchange with them.

Their consistently alliterative and enthusiastic menu alone is worth posting:

1. Lucious Lemon Rice
2. Curry 1: Marvelous
Mutur Paneer!!!!!!!!
3. Curry 2: Awesome Alu (Dry)
4.
Mahaparathas MMmmmmmmm
5. Tasty Toor
Dhal
6. Dessert: Great
Gulabjamans YYYYYYYYeah!
7. Yogurt for Yogis
8. Complimentary Pickle

But today, my friends, comes welcome news during these troubled times: they have lowered their prices due to cheaper gas and a better supplier. Eight bucks gets you every item listed above; you just subtract a dollar each if you don’t want yogurt or dessert.

I e-mailed them to ask how the system got started and they replied with this:
“Necessity is the Mother of invention. We needed to get this wonderful food to you- how else in this age? Try it today is GREAT! :-)”

So I wrote back:
“I promise to order next time you offer Tamilian food – it’s hard to get decent idli in this town, and yours are great. I’m still curious -- did a patron who works at XYZ Co. suggest the system?”

And they replied:
“Ok. No.”

I like to think the brevity of that last reply is due to the speed with which today’s orders were pouring in.






Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Stranger in my Own Land



When I lived in Kushiro, on the island of Hokkaido in northern Japan, I was one of about 20 foreigners in a city of 200,000. As a blondish, blue-eyed person who was taller than half the population, it’s fair to say I stuck out. Once when I was taking a walk off the beaten path, a child ran screaming from me, which was only funny later. At the time, it felt like what it was: utter rejection based on nothing but my appearance.

A year ago, my family and I went to India for a wedding reception my in-laws gave me and my husband, Mowgli (not his real name). There, I experienced something similar, but more intense, as it was combined with open staring of the sort that’s somewhat evident in the photo above. It’s not malicious, it’s just unapologetically open.

The local Hindu temple is a place I adore; it is peaceful and beautiful and full of the vibes of people worshipping and meditating. The feeling I get there is akin to how I feel in an empty church. There are rituals I find comforting in both Hinduism and Catholicism, but it is the quietness inside me once the rituals are done that keeps me coming back to the temple.

We went to the temple last Sunday – they are open seven days a week, but we tend to go on Sundays because that’s when they serve the best masala dosas in town. When we walked into the basement to order food, I received an open stare, which I greeted with a smile, as usual. Because of space restrictions, we ended up sitting at the staring guy’s table, which was fine. I was occupied with Mowgli, and he was occupied with his companion. I didn’t talk with him, he didn’t talk with me.

The episode got me thinking, though, about the usefulness of feeling like a stranger in your own country. There is a visceral understanding that comes with being made to feel like an outsider, and it fosters empathy – always a good thing in my book.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Thali


Jewelry looms large in South Indian culture, and marriage is perhaps one of the easiest places to see exactly how large. Among the rituals that take place around betrothal is the groom’s family’s presentation of a thali (TALL-ee) to the bride. It’s a necklace, a long, thick gold chain connected to a string of beads and amulets that signifies the woman’s married status as well as the traditions of the family she’s marrying into. Mine has two discs imprinted with the image of Lakshmi, the goddess of material and spiritual wealth and prosperity.

Mowgli and I have done many things out of sequence, and so I received my thali from my in-laws three weeks after our Western wedding. On the other side of the world, my mother-in-law had purchased it, along with another necklace, several saris, bangles, earrings, and an outfit called a churidar, in anticipation of the wedding. These preparations were comforting; I had been worried about the family accepting me, but the moment I heard my Amma-to-be was going shopping for me, I realized I could relax.

Here in the U.S., a co-worker of Mowgli’s recommended a sari blouse seamstress. Because they are tight, they tend to be custom-made from fabric purchased at the same time as the nine yards that comprise the majority of the garment. Once the blouses were ready, I got a sari-wearing lesson, and the in-laws, Mowgli and I went to the local Hindu temple on a date that was selected for its auspiciousness, with me in an auspiciously yellow sari and Mowgli in new clothes.

As on any other temple visit, we removed our shoes, washed our feet (there’s a low shower for that), and went up to the main altar, where a priest said a special blessing over the thali and Mowgli put it around my neck. The whole process took perhaps five minutes, a far cry from the usual days of ceremonies around Indian weddings. But the brevity didn’t make it any less momentous for me; even without understanding everything about thalis, I know they symbolize commitment just as surely as my wedding ring does.

And just like a wedding ring, a thali is worn constantly. When I asked a masseuse in India if I should take mine off, she very excitedly said “no, no, no, don’t do that,” waving her hands around and looking horrified that I would suggest such a thing.


Recently I’ve been unable to wear my thali because of a (harmless, non-contagious) rash, and its absence has been unsettling after over a year of wearing it nearly 24-7. It has heft and presence and even sound (the two tiny-tiny Lakshmi, as my niece calls them, make a nice friendly jangle against the central bowl-like piece). The soft gold beads bear the marks of wear, just like my wedding ring. And similarly to my ring, I look at it and noodle with it throughout the day, often semi-consciously. It reminds me of my commitment to Mowgli and his family, and it takes me back to the moments in the temple just before he put it on me.

At the temple, I sometimes see women touching their thalis to the four sides of an altar as they walk around it, and that makes me want to know more about its religious functions. But for now, I’m content in the knowledge of what it means to me, and what it says about my mother- and father-in-law’s faith in their son’s choice.