After 47 years of of life, I have many endearing memories of my parents. Winding through and colouring them all is the immense feeling of gratitude I have for the constellations and stars, the planetary movements, and the human intersection in their crossroads that led to my birth in the Saran home in Delhi. My good fortune to have been a child to my incredible parents and through them having been blessed with remarkable extended families. Families that socialised me early in life for handling whatever the world sent my way.
Fifty-three years ago, on October 7, my parents were married. A love marriage in a society where arranged marriages were the norm. An inter-caste marriage, too — two families from regions of India that are proud of their marked differences. A Punjabi woman and a UP-wallah man, they made a most incredible couple and even more brilliant parents. They ignored the murmurs of disapproval and unkind gossip that followed their marriage. They encouraged their children to step above such simplistic narrow-mindedness and forgive the perpetrators as being misguided, not malicious. But in our home’s privacy, they acknowledged the damaging behaviour, the smallness of actions, and the lack of civility in the message that came with the insults directed at us. They encouraged us to rise above and forgive the wrongdoer, to remember our hurt and use it as our moral compass when we saw others being impugned as we were. For that tutelage, I thank my parents daily. They were bold outliers in a world where silence and tolerance of familial wrongs often turns into tacit acceptance and approval of bigotry, sowing seeds of hatred and robbing society of decency and cohesive civility.
Across our four ancestral units between the two parents, ours was a rare household where religious holidays of the Hindu calendar were celebrated as if we were living in the 19th century. My parents and grandparents were believers, but in a most agnostic way. To my parents, festivals and religious holidays — of all faiths — were moments to teach us and our relatives and friends the customs and traditions of yore. They even kept alive recipes that would otherwise have easily gotten lost. These times were celebrations of life and living, of sharing and caring and, most importantly, moments to cook and feed, indulge mindfully, respect traditions past, and engage with them as authentically as our present times could afford. Religion was not dogmatic in their hands. Prayer was a way of being and growing. Growth that they hoped would make us better versions of ourselves with each day we lived, each act we committed. Their mindset and adherence to old traditions made us some of the more popular school kids. Beloved, not because of our academic performance, but because we strove to respect others and put their needs ahead of our own.
“You are Hindu! There are no prescriptions or rituals that a Hindu must perform. Hinduism is about having peace and serenity in your mind by leading a life of dharma (conscience) and reaching a realisation that all conscious beings are one and equal. This enables you to grow out of groups and isms into a world where we are all one family and the world a global village. This is Hinduism. It is practised through thought, word and deed.” With these words, penned to help us understand religion at a tender age, my mother freed us from the tyranny of empty ritual and connected us with the planet at large. If one person suffers, we all suffer. If one goes hungry, we all go hungry. My parents taught me that I must give of myself to protect the world beyond my safe space. That, regardless of who joins me, there may come a time when I will be compelled to step out, alone, and effect change. Unbeknownst to me, my parents made me a member of civil society.
Papa is no more, but mom has found even more of her own voice. A voice that mirrors Papa’s in both clarity and content, in daring and humanity. A relative recently said to her, half-jokingly, “I didn’t know you had your own personality and thoughts!” For mom, soulmates with syncretic beliefs didn’t both need to speak — it was smarter for one to take the back seat. When Papa was alive, mom was content to let him shine. She’s always been secure in her own intellect and had no need to push her way into the spotlight.
As we get ready to celebrate the wedding anniversary of two bold humans with unmatched empathy, I find myself in awe of Mom (and Dad, whom she sounds more and more like today) as deeply now as I was as a kid. I also find her words, selfless living, and inclusive, generous spirit a poetically human example of what Bhagavad Gita and Krishna’s teachings are all about. She’s the living embodiment of “the hands that serve are holier than the lips that pray”, although she does both in great measure. When we can live with such values, we can learn to embrace and accept the other and truly be global citizens of a 21st-century world void of the isms that divide us.
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