Padmalaya is a century old. The three-story bungalow is tucked away on Krishna Street, a quiet side road in the center of Nungambakkam, Chennai. Things start early here. I rise at 6 with the heat. The house was remodeled in 2009, but the old way of life persists. After brushing my teeth and folding away my mosquito net, I make my way to the kitchen.
Vijayalaxmi Athai1 is already awake, puttering around the stove making lunch for the house. Her hair, greying at the temples, has been steamed into curls from the heat. She wears a simple tunic and pants which might be swapped for a sari later in the day. A tape recording of “om namo Narayanayana,” is playing on a loop in the background. The chant somehow hums its way into the heart. You cease to hear it eventually, like white noise, but some part of you knows it’s there. The rough-hewn dining table is already half-covered with stainless steel containers filled with sadam, rasam, karamedhu, kootu, sambhar, and thairu2. Viji Athai has set aside two steel tumblers of milk for my cousins, a cup of coffee and medication for her father-in-law, and wide, fragrant banana leaves to be used as plates for those who wish. The smell of incense and jasmine flowers lingers in the air.
The three men of the family, including my 9-year-old cousin Abhijit, perform their morning religious rites after bathing. The sacred thread dangles across their bodies, from left shoulder to right hip. At the age of 7, boys are initiated in the poonal ceremony, which symbolizes the transfer of spiritual knowledge. Every Brahmin does a version of the morning ceremony, which takes at least 35 minutes.
I remember watching my grandfather perform his morning rites as a child. He would wake up and bathe first. Then, he would mix red powder (kunkumam) into a paste in his cupped palm with a thin metal stick. With the stick, he painted the naamam, a long red line up the center of his forehead. The religious rites began after this preparation. He offered water to Vishnu to wash his hands and feet, water to drink and bathe with, a small bit of rice as a food offering, fruit, and fragrant jasmine flowers to smell. Then he read selected passages from the Divyapradhmadam, the Tamil translation of Vedic verses. After chanting, he lit a tablet of camphor that has been placed in a gold lamp. He drew circles in the air with the lamp. The sluggish smoke hung in the air for what seemed like hours after it was over.
It’s festival season now, so people trickle in throughout the day. Viji Athai’s cell phone rings incessantly as people inquire about stopping by. Though she took a tumble and shattered her left leg a few months ago, she limps with her walking stick towards the door, offerings and good cheer in tow. It is currently Navratri, a ten-day festival celebrating the goddesses of India. Golu, or dolls, are set out, resembling an elaborate nativity scene for these ten days. Family and friends visit each other to see the golus in each house. These days, families will pick themes such as civic consciousness, scenes from the epics, or fun topics, like cricket, to depict.
The last two days of Navratri are Saraswati pooja and Vijayadasami. Saraswati pooja is a day devoted to Saraswati, the goddess of knowledge.
My family and I used to do an abridged version of Saraswati pooja in Connecticut. We would bring our textbooks down, offer rice, milk, and fruits, say a quick prayer, and then skip studying for the rest of the day. The process is similar here, but it’s more drawn out. We start by giving the standard offerings. Then, Viji Athai calls out the 108 names of Saraswati while the rest of the family echoes them back. The chanting is a hum in your belly, a sound that could have been recorded millennia ago and unearthed just now. Now its time to bless all things related to knowledge and technology in the house. We start on the first floor, smearing chandanam3 and kunkumam on every light switch, telephone, router, and bookshelf we can find. Then, Abhijit presses a flower on top of the object. Prem Athimbere4 follows with the fire, drawing a quick clockwise circle in the air to complete the spell. We run around the house like this, blessing everything in our line of sight, including the solar panels and the 11 air conditioning units on the roof. By the end, everything, from the microwave to my laptop, has been blessed.
The next morning is Vijayadasami, a day during which students meet with their old teachers and receive their blessings. It’s a good day to learn something new. Vijayadasami was the day I started my internship, an auspicious sign I think.
- Father’s sister or aunt on father’s side
- Educate yourself
- Yellow paste similar to the red kunkumam
- Father’s brother or uncle on father’s side