It is the morning of my grandfather’s 80th birthday celebration and the house is brim-full. My Jayanthi Athai has come from Bangalore with my uncle and older cousins. Piles of jewel-toned saris lay about the house, as do veshtis, the traditional garb for South Indian men. I’ve given up my room for Jayanthi Athai and am staying in my cousin Aaradhana’s room upstairs.
There is commotion everywhere as people scramble over each other. We have to be ready to leave for the temple by 6:50 am. Everyone has to shower, because we must be clean to set foot in god’s house. Miraculously, we all reach on time. The temple is a modest outdoor courtyard with small domed stone buildings that house each of the gods. Ornate painted carvings of various epic stories decorate each building. A calm, pale blue dominates the courtyard, the color of nothing, the color of infinity. Vishnu stands in the center compartment. We all cluster in to the antechamber. My grandfather’s expression changes instantly from excitement to devotion. The room is hot and sticky, though an ancient A/C unit is noisily circulating the air.
Everyone is blessed first, with an offering of mint water to wash the hands and drink. We cup the water in our right hand, our clean hand, when it’s offered. Then, the priest begins chanting. First, he offers the names of my grandfather’s direct descendants for blessing. Our names are barely discernible in the guttural chanting.
Then, the priest begins chanting from the Sama Veda. Three small golden idols stand in front of the larger ones. The large ones are robed in peacock-colored silk, dripping in gold. Vishnu is flanked by Sridevi and Bhudevi. The two goddesses are yet another incarnation of Laxmi. Sridevi represents the spiritual half of Laxmi and Bhudevi represents the material, earthly half. The small golden idols are extensions, representations of the larger ones. They wear simpler saffron robes. As the chanting intensifies, the priest bathes the idols first in water, then in milk, then in honey, then in yogurt, then in chandanam mixed with water. He repeats this process several times. By now, my grandfather and a few other older male relatives have joined in the chanting. Despite the oppressive heat, chills run through me. I feel like I have traveled back to a time where all the men in my family were priests, guiding the masses through the labyrinth that is Hinduism. The men are shirtless and sweating, sacred threads bifurcating their chests. The women are wearing silk saris in every hue, equally knowledgeable. I can see my aunts mouthing along at some parts.
My grandfather’s eyes are dewy. His shoulders bow forward. It is as if he’s surrendering himself to god completely. I think a final acknowledgement of mortality has settled over him. It’s something that I will not understand or embrace until I reach his age. Maybe this is why the young are bidden to respect their elders. Their elders are closer to death.
It is evening. The house is slowly filling with all of my grandfather’s friends and relatives. The crowd ebbs and flows as people step outside to eat at the long tables that have been set up for dinner.
My father whisks me around and introduces me to his cousins, his favorite aunts, my second cousins, my grandparents’ friends, and other distant relatives. I walk hesitantly in my black chiffon sari at first, becoming more comfortable as the night progresses. My broken Tamil hardly suffices for the questions I want to ask. I grasp everyone’s hand, ask if he or she is enjoying the evening. Most of them haven’t seen me since I was a small child. They’ll ask if I remember. I usually respond with a sheepish no. Each of them declares that I’m a “chinnai Sudha”, a mini version of my mother.
My grandmother and grandfather are sitting on two blue plastic chairs, speaking to the guests who pass by. My grandfather jumps up every time someone new comes to shake his hand. I think idly that he’s remarkably spry for an 80 year old. I make a point to tell him later. He laughs his high laugh and responds dramatically that his spirits are invigorated when I tell him that.
Anyone who is younger than my grandfather comes to touch his feet and take his blessings at some point during the night. The men will prostrate themselves, lying belly down on the marble, palms pressed together above their heads. They lift themselves halfway and then collapse on the floor again. The women sit on their knees, heads touching the ground and lifting three times over.
My grandmother told me a story once about a competition between the elephant god, Ganesh, and his brother Muruga. The two brothers decided to race and see who could circumnavigate the world first. Muruga mounted his peacock and set off. Ganesh, being the clever boy he was, had his mother Parvati, and his father Shiva stand in the middle of their living room (I wonder what a god’s living room looks like). Then, he mounts his rat and circles them once. He waits three days for his brother to return from his travels. When Muruga arrives, he is stunned to see his slower brother at home. Ganesh explains to him that his parents are his world, so all he had to do was circle them to win the race.
Before coming to Chennai, I had deliberately chosen to reserve judgment and just “do”. So, when the time comes, I get down on my knees and offer the crown of my head to my grandfather. I don’t think I’ll ever do it again. My ideas about personhood and servility conflict severely with this custom. But for the sake of my grandfather and the world I left behind, I bow.