The Indian Dream

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When I think of my childhood in India, Ramani always comes to mind. Ramani and her wrinkled face that stretched into a gap-ridden smile, often accompanied by laughter as contagious as an afternoon yawn. Seemingly frail limbs with strength enough to squeeze you breathless by the end of a massage. Thin saris of myriad colors, always with just two accessories: huge, thick silver anklets on her leg. It looked like she had been chained by the legs in a prison and managed to break out. Ramani didn’t give birth to me but she did most other things a mother would do. She stayed in my family’s humble home provided by the Railway Commission, and worked for us day and night. Now she’s nearly 70 and continues to work odd jobs for different families in her village. She’s lived her entire life working as house help, and had little to no classroom education herself. But through her insistence and her savings, somewhere along the way all her grandchildren received college degrees: one has even made her a great grandmother, while another works as an engineer in Dubai. When I heard about how well her grandchildren were doing, I was amazed at the speed at which the circumstances of Ramani’s family have changed, while Ramani herself had stayed so much the same. In a way, her story encapsulates much of the Indian Dream as it is today.

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She always hated photos…


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A second mom to me in many ways

In the 70 years of her lifetime, which coincides with the lifetime of India as an independent country, education has become the Indian Dream. We talk in America of the value of hard work and sayings like pull up your “bootstraps.” While the American conversation is centered around this idea of working hard, perhaps originated from a post-WWII prosperity where hard work gave you a suburban house and two kids, the Indian conversation seems to have been centered around education. In India, education is instead the escape from hard work. From a young age, your family tells you to study hard precisely so you don’t have to “work hard” like they had to, or struggle like they had to. For many families in India (mine included), “hard work” doesn’t bring nostalgic memories of men clocking in at the shipyard/ factory/ office and getting home by 5 to eat dinner with the family in front of the TV. It brings memories of uncertainty around where your next meal would come from. The work of educated jobs in modern India, conversely, is not the debilitating hard work of our country’s past; and for some, education is the only way to escape generations of low social status or caste expectations. So education became the promised land upon which Indians’ dreams were built.

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Whatever the hell that means…

Over time, even this need for education become more specific and demanding. From 1950 to 2005, the number of colleges in India grew by 35 times, while universities multiplied by 18 times.¹ Just from 2008-2015, the number of engineering colleges nearly doubled, while student intake more than doubled to ~2 million a year.² Part of the cultural reason for the increasing demand for education is pure competition. Due to the 1.2 billion population, there are just not enough jobs available for all the qualified applicants, and it’s understood from an early age that you have to study hard enough to beat your peers in this pursuit (the minimum score needed on entrance exams for any chance at medical school seat is around 91%).

As our education becomes more demanding and we become more ambitious, the Indian Dream slowly morphs. Once it was enough to be educated and have 3 meals a day, now it’s about having a job that can afford A/C in your apartment, a car, and children (just look at the Indian conglomerate Tata – its best selling product lines are A/C units and cars). In fact, the middle class now makes up 50% of India’s population, while households with disposable income of $10K has grown twentyfold since 1990³. Upward mobility and the Dream are being realized every day. Ramani’s family realized this middle class mobility in the short space of a lifetime thanks to her insistence on education. Of course, for those who want much higher disposable income, the Dream has often led them to leave India altogether in search of even more learning and opportunity (like Ramani’s grandson). More recently however, stories of Indians moving back to India from the US, or forgoing immigration altogether for a high-paying job in India are increasing.³ Technical education has even afforded us options for our Dream.

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This emphasis on technical education and the speed of advancement have left the Indian Dream in a limbo of contrasts that could only be conjured in the subcontinent. On one hand, education is enough to surpass the centuries-old caste and class barriers that have so structured and defined Indian society. As I mentioned above, Ramani’s grandson works an engineering job that takes him between Dubai and India. No one there needs/ cares to know that his grandmother still works as as house help – and so his class and caste no longer define him as much as his occupation. This is the case for many young Indians working in software/ engineering fields in Indian cities – occupation is the new hierarchy. On the other hand, however, the generation of children that were born to a newly independent India in the 40s still have the memory of strict hierarchy defined by ages past and hardened by the British (this reminds me of Americans who lived before the Civil Rights Bill was passed). The fire of that memory has to run out of fuel, but it cannot be stamped out all at once, as its embers burn through passed down values. To this day, despite all my attempts, Ramani refuses to sit on the same couch as one of us who “own” the house. She always sits on the ground or a small stool. My grandmother, who’s spent the most time with Ramani, finds this to be the natural order of things and asks me to let it go every time I come to India and try to disturb the order. This begs multiple questions: would Ramani’s grandson feel hesitant to sit on the couch as our guest? Does education and a good career (i.e., the Dream) provide you a place at the table when societal baggage says you shouldn’t have one? How inclusive is the Indian Dream really?

I originally thought of writing this six months ago when I visited India in January 2017 and heard about the success of Ramani’s family. I wanted to say something purely about the progress brought by education and hope in my home country. Instead, I couldn’t help but realize that things are not so simple.

In January, I was sitting at my grandmother’s house, just passing the time on a lazy afternoon. We had informed Ramani, through her son-in-law, some days ago that my family had come to visit from the States and we’d like to see her. We received no response or any indication that she would be coming. But that afternoon, she waddled through the door, holding a single straw bag with everything she needed for 2 weeks. When she had hugged all of us and settled in a place on the floor, as the look of sheer surprise faded from our faces, I took a good look at her. She represented at once the future of all that is possible in a progressive and independent India, but also the ancient relics of caste and class-based shackles that forced us to walk when we could’ve been running. I saw in her the simple, forward march of hope.

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Source Notes:

  1. World Bank
  2. All India Council for Technical Education
  3. World Economic Forum
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Grandma’s Suitcase

My grandma loved to travel. I called her Ammamma, which literally translates to “Mom Mom” in English (this was fitting because she did have twice the Mom power). Ammamma went on her final trip this January. When I heard that she was packing up to leave, Mom and I flew over to India. We wanted to help her pack, but really we wanted to convince her to stay. We sat in the hospital waiting room every day for 7 days while she packed her things. She didn’t seem too sure about going at times; we would take turns going in to see her in the ER and convince her to stay. For a while we really thought she was going to listen to us. But in the end she had packed all her things and insisted on leaving. She left so she could finally see the rest of the Earth, but also to see whatever was beyond – this planet was probably too small for her travel bug.

Ammamma left us, but she left behind one red suitcase after all her packing. It was some sort of parting gift to me. I decided to open it: it was big, like the suitcases I would bring to India that were filled with Western chocolates for my cousins. When I opened it, it wasn’t stuffed with chocolate though. There was just a bunch of boxes, different sizes, shapes, and colors. As I peeked into some of the boxes, I realized each box had a message in it along with a vial, and each vial had colors swirling around in them, sort of like lava lamps or the potions in Harry Potter stories. Each one looked and swirled a little differently. I was confused but then I saw a note tucked away behind the top zipper inside of the suitcase. It was written on simple lined paper, like the kind Ammamma used to write God’s name a thousand times every day.

The note said the suitcase was full of her regrets, and I’d have to keep them now. They weren’t regrets of the past, she wrote, since she’s had a long and good life, and we’d spent enough time in each other’s company. No, these were future regrets. All the moments in my life she would regret to miss, since she had to leave for her trip. I would have to carry these future regrets until the right moment, she wrote, because they should never be opened early. The sadness would be too overwhelming if I did that.

Now that I understood, I decided to open the boxes one by one. The first colorful one on top of the others was labeled “Marriage”. I opened the ornate box and found a very decorated vial within. The future regret was swirling around with a bright orange color, dancing around the vial excitedly. I knew it shouldn’t open it yet, so I just loosened the cap a little, just enough to hear the faint noise of wedding trumpets and dancing inside, the smell of food and friends and tears of joy. I tightened up the lid again and read the accompanying note. Ammamma wrote that she would regret not being able to bless me at my wedding, to look my wife up and down and smile with approval. After 63 years together with her husband, she said she could’ve given me a lot of good advice. I put the note and vial away and took out the next box, labeled “Children”.

The second box had a vial with light, airy swirls of pink and blue that seemed to be playing with each other. When I loosened the top a bit, it sounded like innocent laughter and even more innocent tears; it smelled like sleepless nights and baby food and family. Ammamma wrote that she would regret not being able to hold my children in her lap and make silly faces at them. She said she would’ve liked to be there to tell my Mom to relax, to teach her how to be as good a grandma as she was. That last bit of cockiness made me giggle. I put this box away too, and reached for the one labeled “Success”.

This vial was bigger than the other ones, it had separate compartments but all of the regrets were swirling around in a bright blue cloud, speckled with white and gold. It looked like a dream and I could’ve stared at it for days. When I finally opened it just slightly, I heard the sounds of applause, I heard my name being called by announcers at microphones. I smelled the aroma of books, and the intoxication of education and wealth and power. Ammamma wrote that she would regret not being able to clap for me at my PhD graduation, or see the dedication page of my first book with her name on it. She would’ve told her friends about me with pride, she said, would’ve shown them my Wikipedia page. She wished she could’ve been there to comfort me when the first attempt didn’t work out, because she had the faith to know nothing would stop me. She warned me to act on my dreams too, instead of just dreaming about them. With that warning, I finished the note and took one last look at the beautiful blue swirls before putting away the vial and box. With three boxes out of the suitcase, I could tell the next one took up a lot of space – it looked like a heavy regret. I heaved out the box labeled “Growth”.

This vial was even bigger than Success, as big as a basketball, but not as pretty. The regret was swirling around in one thick yellow wave, slowly undulating up and down for what seemed like forever. This one sounded like a regular day, with voices and traffic and arguments and laughter. It smelled like suburbia and trees, and the changing of the seasons. Ammamma wrote that this vial was an exception to the rule. This vial was so big because I’d have to let it out drop-by-drop over the course of a lifetime instead of waiting for specific moments. This regret, she wrote, was for all the regular moments she would never see, all the mistakes I was going to learn from, and the wounds she could no longer kiss. This vial was because she wished so dearly that she could’ve seen me grow, slowly coming to terms with the passage of time like she had. It was because she wished she could continue to be a part of my life. Ammamma left directions: I’d have to open this every now and then, but just a careful drop, because it would be make me sad. Sad to remember her absence, the lack of her gleeful voice on the other end of our weekly phone calls to India. Every time I opened it, I would also need to open the vial she had packed underneath it she wrote. Impatiently, I put down her note and let out a bit of “Growth” before waiting.

Immediately, I saw memories of Ammamma cooking my favorite dishes, going walking with me in the evenings and proudly telling neighbors that I was her grandson. I remembered the way my Mom would lie in her lap and look absolutely vulnerable just because she could be a child again in that one place. I remembered the shouts between Ammamma and my grandpa that would be followed with laughter. And when I remembered all these things, I started to cry uncontrollably. I cried because I wished she was still there with me, just like the note warned me about. Squinting through teary eyes, I put away the vial and desperately reached for the last box, hoping for it to be a huge, but instead found the smallest box yet: “Love”.

When I took out the vial, it was effortlessly light and inside was a viscous swirl of red, but it didn’t look or move like the other regrets. It was perfectly still, constant in every sense. When I opened it slightly, it sounded like the laughter of old friends and the lullaby of a new mother. But it smelled even better, just like hugs from Ammamma. Ammamma wrote that this too was an exception, and it truly was not a regret at all. She said I could open it now and dump it all out, and it would just replenish itself over and over. I remembered her directions from the last box and decided to dump out the Love to cure my sadness, before I even finished reading the note. As it exited the vial, the Love ballooned and enveloped me immediately, I felt that I was floating and someone had wiped away my tears with a mother’s expertise. And then I smelled Ammamma’s hugs. I heard the sound of her voice shouting “Hellllooo Abhi” when I would arrive at her front door in Vijayawada. Then I closed my eyes and I saw it too, so vividly I saw the memory of her racing to hug me at the door when I arrived, telling me it’s been too long, and what will I eat, and why am I still so skinny? I could see her right in front of me, smiling up at me with 5’1” of pure affection, and we both just laughed at the feeling of holding each other again after so long.

Then, just as it started, the vision went away, then the sounds, then the smells. But that floating feeling lingered, and the smile was being so stubborn that I couldn’t help but laugh out loud again. I watched the Love replenish itself and since it was small I just packed it right in my pocket so I would always have it. I put all the other boxes back in the suitcase, just the way Ammamma had arranged them. Just before I zipped up the suitcase, I remembered that I hadn’t finished reading Ammamma’s note for Love, so I sat down to finish her words:

“I left you with so many future regrets because there is so much I wanted to experience with you. When you reach your milestones in life, when you’re married or write your first book, you’re going to feel my absence because of those regrets. But for every future regret I left you, remember that I also left all my love here for you. Consider this love my soul, understand that it is both endless and effortless, and will stay with you long after you’ve made your own final journey.

Love,

Ammamma”

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Grandma, Grandpa, and I during my Bieber hair days

Cracks in My Cell

“How are you doing?” people usually ask, whether or not they know I’ve lost family recently. I don’t answer these days. My external representative takes care of that – the face I put up for the world. He tells people “I’m doing alright”. The word choice is deliberate, it comes with a wild hope that someone will remember my usual answer of “I’m doing great!” and wonder what’s wrong. I need them to wonder because my true self isn’t able to speak out of this cell.

I’m in solitary confinement right now, my self sentenced here by Grief, who says I need to do time for losing my grandma. I tried to plead my case, I told Grief that it’s not what my grandma would want. I told Grief that I’m supposed to be strong right now for my mother’s sake, she has it a lot worse than I do. I told Grief that I have to be the positive one in the family. Don’t you get it? But Grief brought down his gavel devoid of justice and sentenced me to solitary. Loneliness and Doubt carried me with tied arms to my cell of hard grey stone – they opened the padlock door, threw me inside, and stood guard outside. I have a bed, a desk, two cloudy windows, a punching bag, a bathroom, and stone. Lots of grey, bleak, stone.

So I’ve been here for a while now, waiting for my release.

Some days are better than others. I write a lot at my desk since I’m alone; there aren’t as many distractions. There’s an elegance to the introspection. Some days, I work all day and at night my brain is tired and it just sleeps in peace. Other days though, when I go to sleep, the demons crawl out of the corners of the cell. They don’t say much but they show me things. Bad things. The way we waited every day in the hospital with dwindling hope, the sound of my family’s tears, the sight of my grandmother’s final moments. And always the absence of my grandma, they always show me that. It makes me toss and turn and not sleep. Something’s missing, I’m less loved than I was a few months ago. A rage boils within too. When I think about the hospital staff, the shouts of relatives at the chaotic funeral ceremony: rage. I go to my punching bag, I hit it hard. Thud. I’m not satisfied. Thud, thud, thud. Step, punch, step, hands up, jab, jab, rage. The bag just keeps coming back. One day I rage so deeply that I hit it straight out of its chains, just so I could feel like I had defeated something when everything else had me beaten.

There’s two small windows in my grey stone cell, on either side of the locked cell door. I look out for help every now and then on the right side window; I see friends. They’re… busy in their own lives. They’re working towards something important, or they’re a thousand miles away or, they just feel a thousand miles away. They can’t see me through the cell glass, and I don’t knock on the window – why aren’t I able to just knock? I go to the other window on the left side. I can see family in this one. I see a mother that’s lost her mother, a father who’s recently lost his brother, and another grandma who’s lost her son. They’re strong beyond belief, Grief couldn’t contain them to solitary like he did to me. They can’t see me through the cell glass, and I don’t knock on the window – how can I possibly ask these people for help when they’re dealing with so much more than I am? No, I usually walk away from the window instead. But the other day, just as I was walking away I see my Pop coming up to talk to my external representative as usual. My representative is supposed to handle this. He’s going to say that I’m alright but something falters, an error, a break in the system. There’s just tears and mumbling and Loneliness and Doubt step aside for once to let Pop into my cell for a visit.

He sits down with me on the bed and holds me gently on my back; I feel like I’m back on the playground swings and he’s going to push me and catch me. Under his comfort the floodgates are open: the demons came straight out of me this time. Pop, I don’t remember how to hope anymore. How do all these people have so much faith in the afterlife? Why isn’t anyone there for us? Do people really care about me? He senses the depth of the problem and he holds me a little tighter. Suddenly, we’re not in my grey prison anymore, we’re sitting on a park bench in the Dallas winter. The wind nips at my ears and gives a slant to the waterfall springing from my eyes.

My Pop speaks.

Son, there’s no proof I can give you that faith is rewarded in the afterlife. I just know we live a better life when we believe something.

There’s no explanation for why your hope for grandma wasn’t rewarded. I just know that we only get up each day because we continue to have hope.

There’s no way to tell you who truly cares about you and when. I just know you can never blame people, you can only set an example.

He pauses.

We’re transported back into my cell, sitting on the bed, but it doesn’t feel as bleak anymore. His words were churning in my head, then they went down and stopped my tears in their tracks, and continued down until they warmed my heart and made me feel full and gave strength to my legs and feeling to my feet. Then, he pulled something out of his pocket. He gave me an unbreakable nail; it was Faith. Out of the other pocket he pulled an iron hammer; it was Hope.

Pop said: When you’re ready. Your family will be there waiting to love you.

And then he got up, turned around, and walked out of the door. Loneliness and Doubt closed it again when he left. Then I got up, turned around and walked towards the other end of the grey stone wall. I put Faith up to the stone, I searched for a good spot and held it firm in place. I raised my Hope high, I felt my fingers grip the handle with purpose, and I struck hard.

Nothing.

I set Faith again, I raised my Hope and I struck even harder.

Crack. The wall was giving way. I struck and I struck and piece by piece the stone crumbled at my feet and I felt the stir of determination again. I pounded away, Hope and Faith becoming used to me and I to them again. When I was done I looked and saw a hole in the wall, the size of my face. The light of the colors that I missed danced through the gap in the grey stone into my cell, they painted the wall with small glimpses of Happiness: bright blues and fiery reds and playful yellows and greens. Content, and exhausted, I settled onto my bed, kept Faith and Hope under my pillow, and watched the colors dance as I went to sleep.

I’ve been here a while now, but I’m no longer waiting for my release. I’m going to break out soon enough.

Pesky Memories

Do you ever have pesky memories? You know the ones I’m talking about.

The memories you try to keep in the maximum security prisons of your mind. The ones that come from experiences you don’t want to think about. Sometimes they slip past the guards, climb walls, dig tunnels, and get out right? Pesky memories – they’re annoying because they’re always trying to escape when your guard is down, when just for a second your mind wanders, it looks the other way. They slip out in the vulnerable moments: when you’re on a long drive through the countryside, or lying awake at night trying to fall asleep, or hugging someone for the 1,000th time who makes you feel safe. I get them when I’m on planes, when I’m left with nothing but music in my headphones and thoughts in my head. I can feel the locks turning in my mental prisons when we take off, the searchlight turning off in the prison yard, the excitement of all the escaped thoughts who want to run free. By the time we reach cruising altitude, my eyes are closed and the memories are wreaking havoc.

Maybe your pesky memories are like mine?

Maybe you remember the ones you’ve lost that left a mark on you. Do you think about having a cup of tea on the roof with your uncle, watching the sun set over grazing buffalo while he recounts his shipyard days? When I stand on my balcony now with chai, the memories make me wish he was still there to tell me stories. Surely, you think about playing video games and eating Flamin’ Hot Cheetos with your best friend, the one that was taken too early? I remember him when I watch a movie that he would like, when someone mispronounces my name in some way that would’ve made him laugh. Or,

Maybe you remember the land you left behind when you immigrated. Do you think about those moments at the train station, when you roll away from the longing faces who wonder when you’ll be back? They come to mind at the end of every Indian meal, every road with too much honking. You at least remember the nights spent next to your grandparents right, talking about their hopes and dreams for you? I think about those in the quiet moments after a shower when I wonder whether I’m a good person. Or,

Maybe you remember the relationships you left behind. Do you think about the first awkward kiss you had on campus? What about driving away from someone you love, struggling to see the steering wheel through your tears? Some nights when the apartment feels particularly lonely, and I’m staring at the microwave heat something, those memories get out. They always require 15 minutes of wrestling back into their prison cells so they don’t become overwhelming. 15 minutes of telling myself that things happen for a reason. Some memories don’t deserve the light of day. Or,

Maybe you remember all the instances of unrequited love. Do you remember when someone told you they couldn’t love you, but you couldn’t get the damn possibility out of your head? I bet it comes to mind when you hug that person a second too long or listen to just the right Ed Sheeran song. You probably have the pesky memories of all the times you could’ve told someone the way you felt? Maybe even after you said something it didn’t work out anyway. So then there’s just a lot of what ifs swirling around in your head along with the memories. And what ifs are tricky, because they’re hopeful and colorful and seemingly innocent but trust me they belong in your mental prisons too. Or,

Maybe you remember the times you could’ve been better. Do you think about the words you said that caused pain? I guess you wonder why you never called back that friend, the one you loved getting fro-yo with. I think about those words when I lay in the grass with my best friend and look at the clouds. I get those memories when I’m scrolling through my phonebook wondering why I haven’t talked to all these people in so long. Well,

Hopefully when you think about all of that, you realize those pesky memories were born from the moments that made you, like they made me. You know, it’s those moments that built your character, taught you to be better, love more openly, and thank more often. But the memories of those moments don’t allow you peace of mind. The memories are still of mistakes, lapses, sadness, and they belong in the prisons of your mind. It just takes an occasional prison break to remind you why those thoughts deserved a cell in the first place.

So, do you ever have pesky memories? You know the ones I’m talking about.

Little India

If you’re driving through Irving, a nearby suburb of Dallas, TX, you might pass by a neighborhood park known as Thomas Jefferson Park. At first glance, it’s like any small park you might see in suburban America. A grassy field. A small pond with ducks running around. A basketball court. A couple of benches in the shade. When you take a closer look though, you’ll notice something slightly different about this park – every single person walking, playing, or sitting in the park is Indian. In fact, the locals don’t even know it as Thomas Jefferson Park. It’s known as Gandhi Park. And the cricket matches there are no joke.

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Told ya so.

When I moved to Dallas in 1998 with my parents, such a concentration of Indian people would not have been possible. I went to an elementary school where I was one of two Indian kids in my grade, my parents and I only went to Pasand or Tajmahal Imports for Indian food, and there was only one Hindu temple to attend. In 18 years, the population of Indians in Dallas has pretty much exploded. Indian children going to school in Dallas suburbs face no shortage of other Indians in their grade (some have up to >50% Indians in a grade!!). Irving practically has an Indian restaurant on every block, and I can’t even count the number of different Hindu temples my family has visited.

The growth in the Indian community in Dallas is undeniably impressive, especially in Irving. But has it all been good? What does it mean to be an Indian-American when it’s so easy to just be Indian?

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Seems like a conundrum worthy of Philosoraptor

 

There’s certainly some good to this growth. Immediately, new immigrants have access to a sense of community and familiarity, akin to what other immigrant communities have had for years. Namely, we have our own Indiatown now around Irving1, just like all the Chinatowns, Koreatowns, etc. (interestingly, Microsoft Word recognizes Chinatown and Koreatown as words, but Indiatown gets the red squiggly line). This sense of community means we begin to have a more noticeable presence in Dallas. And not least of all, it means we have plenty of good food options to choose from.

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ALL THE FOODS ARE HERE

 

 

But there are also some real drawbacks to the Indian population growth in Dallas. By bunching together in certain neighborhoods, we’re choosing to self-segregate. This belies the so-called “melting pot” that America is supposed to represent. And worse, it can create suspicion among others. It prevents Americans from learning about us. How many of the Trump supporters who’ve harangued Muslims over the past year have actually lived with regular, friendly Muslim neighbors? Self-segregation only reinforces the fact that we’re outsiders.

Also, part of living in America with a hyphenated identity is supposed to be the struggle with the hyphen. Is the hyphen long or short: Do my two identities have a large divide or could they coexist relatively easily? Is the hyphen weighted towards one side: If I had to choose just one, which one would it be? But many Indians around my age who move to Dallas now don’t have to face these same questions. You can ostensibly move here, work in the IT department of a company that is full of Indians, eat Indian food night and day, watch Indian entertainment, and in some cases not even have to speak much English.

If you tread that path, is there any point in moving here? (other than the dolla bills). Indians in Dallas need to be careful. We should certainly embrace our culture and the ease of finding each other in a place that is foreign to us in many ways. But if we don’t simultaneously embrace the learning opportunity of America, a land more heterogeneous than our own, we’re doing an injustice to ourselves. After all, immigration is one of the greatest learning experiences a person can have. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with Gandhi Park, I’m just saying we should invite some non-Indians to come play cricket once in a while.

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Generic bro confused about how to play cricket

Note 1: Irving became a hotspot for Indian immigration due to a couple of reasons: A) Several companies located nearby had large IT needs in the 90’s and Indian immigrants to Dallas, who largely held technical degrees, were prime for filling those needs; B) Irving is centrally located in the greater DFW area and has relatively cheap rents with relatively great schools. It’s the practical Honda Accord of Dallas suburbs.

A Reason for Permanence

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There is an interaction that has become routine in my life.  Let me offer a recent example: I was sitting around a large group of people, some of whom didn’t know me as well as others. I was wearing a sleeveless shirt, so my Batman tattoo was showing prominently on my right shoulder. One of my close friends pointed this out to the group and thus began the routine interaction. Someone usually snickers and asks, “Why would you get THAT tattoo?” Another person usually says “Wow, good luck explaining that to your kids!” There’s also the occasional nonsensical comment about the tattoo being bad for my career (since we all walk around corporate offices in tanktops, obviously).

There’s about a 50/50 chance that someone new to the tattoo will ridicule it or admire it. And there’s a 100% chance that people wonder why anyone in their right mind would permanently put the Batman symbol on their body. The unfortunate thing is that when people ask me about the tattoo, we’re not in a position to have an insightful conversation about it. This often results in me providing a cursory answer or avoiding the question altogether. I can’t explain how I like Batman because he continuously evaluates his own decisions and molds himself into a better person. There’s usually no time.

Well, good thing I have a blog now.

 

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Finally a chance to explain!

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I first noticed Batman after immigrating to the U.S. in ’98 and immediately Americanizing myself through cartoons. Of course I liked the things the other kids liked: the gadgets, the villains, the vehicles. I think most boys had a thing for Poison Ivy too (or was that just me?) I also liked that Batman was an only child like me and owed his ideals to the upbringing he received from his parents and Alfred. But I especially liked how Batman and his city were flawed.

I immigrated from an India that was flawed – our laws, lawmakers, and lawmen were often corruptible and hardly set in stone. You might see your uncle use a bribe to avoid a ticket at one traffic light, and then help a beggar at the next light. Right and wrong never seemed to be black and white when I was in India. In contrast, as a child in America, there seemed to be a lot more rules and a lot more people who were upset when you bent or broke those rules. I never liked this part of America, and always enjoyed the ability to set my own rules when I visited India (i.e. I made sure to engage in public urination whenever I went home).

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Ahhh… freedom

Batman, too, lives in a world where the rules are not absolute. His methods are not conventional and his morals are his own to decide, challenge, and execute. He does not always do the “right” thing as defined by society because he abides by his own moral sense. Criminals do this too – they choose to skirt the laws of society because they find them stifling or unimportant, but the difference is that Batman does this for the sake of other people. Cause no harm to those who don’t deserve it, punish those who hurt others, and create a better society overall. This moral system might evolve over time for Batman, but certain rules are never compromised. For example, regardless of how tempting it might be, Batman refuses to kill the Joker. Doing so would negate the difference between him and the criminals he fights. Each day he remakes the decision not to kill so that his struggle is not just one of personal revenge. This is crucial – Batman makes the conscious decision every day to stand for something.

The desire to examine and decide my way of life is one of my main reasons for having a Batman tattoo. Recognizing that the world operates in a moral “gray area”, I believe in sticking to the principles that I define for myself. These might change over time, but some rules are incontrovertible, like the way I treat true friends or the respect I show people. Too often, people go through life without questioning their moral code or decisions. In other words, they live a life unexamined. Instead, I use Batman’s example to remind myself to lead a deliberate life. To help me, I surround myself with people who are different from me yet understand me. When I talk to my friends, I can look to them to challenge my views and help me grow. Sometimes that just means they tell me when I’m being an ass… Seeing my tattoo every day reminds me to intentionally decide what kind of person I want to be.

Keeping with the theme of being flawed, Batman is one of the few superheroes that are absolutely mortal. He is rich through no merit of his own, but everything else he became was the result of a measured choice to strive for perfection. What is “super” about this is simply a mindset of hunger and belief. Not only does he train himself physically, he is well-versed in literature, sciences, philosophy, and social life (read: ladies). This goes hand-in-hand with leading an examined life. By assessing and challenging your own way of life, you find your weak areas and strive to fill the gaps. Even though the Batman we see in comics and movies has built himself to a near-perfect state, he still finds ways to learn from every new case or villain that he encounters. He makes mistakes but does his best to correct them – such that he never makes them twice.

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One of my favorite scenes from the Dark Knight – after Rachel dies, Batman is conflicted about his decisions and almost gives up being Batman. Yet, he perseveres and decides to learn from the grave mistake he made

The desire to constantly improve myself is another of my main reasons for having a Batman tattoo. If I’m not improving, I’m stagnating. Accordingly, I try to keep in mind the things I’m working on each year – becoming better at my job, becoming more fit, becoming more connected  in my community, etc.. I also like to acknowledge my weaknesses to myself and others– admitting my mistakes ensures that I will mature. With the acknowledgement that there is always more to learn, I aim to never be satisfied with who I am. Seeing my tattoo every day reminds me to keep pushing forward.

It’s unlikely that every person with a Batman tattoo thinks similarly. But as I grew in my appreciation of the character and read the defining graphic novels of his lore, Batman’s morals and desire for self-improvement stuck out to me. More so than the latest Batmobile or costume. When it came time to put needle to skin, I knew why I was really getting this tattoo. It was a concise, visual way to represent ideals that I planned to keep for the rest of my life. 1) Live honorably by consciously deciding the rules you set for yourself and 2) stay humble so you’re always improving.Besides, when your tattoo artist plays Lil’ Wayne music and talks about tattooing people in their private parts, you don’t feel like it’s really happening anyway.

So, for all those who see my tattoo and wonder if I’m “still going to like Batman when I’m 70 years old”, the answer is Yes. Yes, I will still want to examine myself every day and decide the kind of person I want to be. Yes, I will still want to learn and better myself every day.

These values are permanent and this ink on my right shoulder is accordingly, and incredibly, permanent.

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And here’s my tattoo!

Nice vs. Kind

When I was in my sophomore year of college, a close friend asked me to describe her in one word. When I told her that the word “Nice” came to mind, she was visibly disappointed – she wanted me to use any other word because “nice” didn’t mean much to her. Of course, I was confused by her reaction. Didn’t people want to be nice? Through most of high school and the first year of college, I heard most people described me by that one word as well, and I had never felt disappointed by it. After all, we’ve all been raised to think that nice is a good thing.

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When bae don’t make sense

 

Looking back, I realize now why my friend was disappointed. I’ve now met a decent amount of people, and heard these people describe a multitude of other people too. It seems that the first word we use when describing someone is always “nice”:

“He’s such a nice guy, he’s done so much…”

“She’s so nice, super driven…”

“He’s nice, but sometimes he can be an asshole”

No matter where the sentence goes, it usually starts with nice. These days, nice has become a minimum requirement, written into the social contract of modern American interactions, as opposed to something we should strive to be. Society requires “nice-ness” of us when it demands that we all be politically correct. Society also requires “nice-ness” of us when we conduct so much of our communication digitally – since every word is recorded and scrutinized, we’re forced to be much more polite and deliberate. So when my friend in college was disappointed to be described primarily as nice, that’s because nice only meant she had met the bare minimum. Nice just meant that she could have friends and fit into society, but it certainly shouldn’t have defined her as a person.

Now, time for a disclaimer: I’m not saying that being nice is a bad thing. It’s certainly a good thing that society is more accepting and polite. I believe that I’m privileged to spend my time around people that are nice by default. Plenty of mean people exist in the world, people who are racist or bigoted or enjoy inflicting pain on others.

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Mean people probably say stuff like this

 

But keeping in mind the general populace that actually tries to be nice, I just have a suggestion: let’s strive to be kind, not just nice.

What’s the difference between nice and kind? If you check the dictionary, you won’t find much to separate the two. But the way I see it: “nice” is a demeanor we adopt because society requires it, and “kind” is how we act when we truly look to help others. In another sense, the line between nice and kind is often drawn by one thing: honest intention. A nice person may have good intention, but acts “fake” at times because society requires it, while the kind person’s good intentions are always backed up by honesty. It’s actually easy to be nice, to say something that you know will be accepted, even if you don’t mean it. It’s much harder to be someone with the reputation of meaning what they say. When your friend dresses badly for a night out, it’s easy and nice to tell him he looks good. On the other hand, it’s a lot harder to be kind enough to tell that person the truth – but your caring and honesty are often appreciated in the long run. [A personal aside: I might practice kindness a little too much when my Mom asks whether she looks fat in a certain dress.]

When we act kind, we take time out of our day to help someone who needs us. When we act kind, we improve ourselves and the world around us. When we act kind, we go above and beyond what society expects of us. It’s not a requirement, but that’s what makes it so important. Kindness is something we can all strive to implement more in our lives.

If the distinction is still unclear, consider the following example:

You’re walking down a busy street in Austin, TX, near the University of Texas campus. Cars pass by on the road and people are walking up and down the sidewalk, brushing past you while looking at their phone or chatting with their friends. You’re catching up with a friend while walking, someone you haven’t seen in months, so you’re pretty absorbed in the conversation. Both you and your friend are carrying some leftover food from the restaurant you just left. As you walk halfway up one block, you notice a homeless person sitting near a dumpster, and he asks you for food or change. Let’s see how different categories of people react:

Mean

You loudly refuse to help the homeless person and scream at him to get a job. Alternatively, you completely ignore this homeless person’s existence. Either way, you can’t believe he would interrupt the conversation you and your friend were having.

Nice

You politely tell the homeless person that you can’t give him any food today (you need your leftovers for later). You feel bad for a second, but you continue talking to your friend and soon forget. Alternatively, if you have any coin money, you give that to him since you don’t have much need for coins anyway.

Kind

You gladly offer your leftovers, and your friend’s, to the homeless man. You ask him if he needs anything to drink with that and give him any small change if you have it.

Alternatively, you do what my close friend did recently in real life.

I was actually catching up with my friend Zabin in Austin earlier this month, when we walked past a homeless man sleeping next to a dumpster. I hadn’t even noticed him, but Zabin promptly stopped, and I asked what was wrong. She wanted to buy the homeless man some dinner to eat when he woke up. Amazed by her kindness, I followed her across the street to Jimmy John’s where she proceeded to buy a sandwich and water for the man. Before leaving it securely next to the sleeping homeless man, she took the time to write a note, which I took a picture of for my own memory:

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Humanity.

 

When I witnessed my friend’s need to help a fellow human being, I was touched and inspired equally. It matters little if Zabin had been nice to everyone she met on that day – I don’t care too much whether she was careful to be polite and politically correct every moment. Because for one moment, she went above and beyond what anyone really expected her to do as a member of society. And she single-handedly made someone’s day as a result.

There’s a simple way to think of all this: “Nice” is what we do for ourselves, to fit in and feel good about ourselves. “Kind” is what we do for others, to make them feel good. I hope we can all feel inspired to add a moment of kindness to our week or month. Let’s strive to go above and beyond nice.

Have you found good ways to add moments of kindness to your life? Do you disagree with the above? Please comment below! 

 

Explaining Hinduism (An Island of Religions)

As a Hindu living outside of Asia, I’ve been in the uncomfortable situation of explaining Hinduism to someone who’s never met a Hindu before. The kind of situation that used to elicit a sudden rise in the temperature of my face and plenty of “umm’s“ and “uhh’s”. Over the years, I’ve been in this situation several times and my explanation of Hinduism changed and grew just as I did. It wasn’t until the latter half of college that I was able to draw a coherent picture of Hinduism in my head and make my explanation consistent.

These days, when someone asks “What is Hinduism?” I say: Hinduism is really an umbrella term for several types of religions practiced in India. There’s a few principles that most of these religions share, like a belief in reincarnation (the soul returns in another body), karma (what goes around comes around), and dharma (moral and religious duty). But in general, the religion is a very personal one, and can be practiced in many different ways. Many Hindus, for this reason, choose to think of it more as a way of life than as a strict religious doctrine.

[Good speech, right? Mic drop]

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The issue with defining Hinduism is that it’s a reflection of its homeland, India. It is confusing yet simple, diverse yet homogenous, dirty yet pristine, philosophical yet rudimentary. It can be both magnificent in scale and miniscule. If Hinduism had its origins in modern-day northwestern India, then by the time it reached the southern tip of India, it had been transformed and adapted, and those changes would have been sent back to the north as well. In short, there is no single Hinduism. We do not have a single prophet, a single text, or a single unifying vision of God. This is the probably the most unique aspect of my religion, and perhaps the most difficult.

The specific common themes and differences in Hindu practices are a topic for another day. In order to better answer the question “What is Hinduism”, the true key is to understand the open nature of the religion itself. To understand this open nature, I think of the following metaphor:


 

An Island of Religions

Imagine an island somewhere in the Pacific Ocean. We’ll use this island to represent different world religions. The island has diverse and beautiful scenery, including beaches, forests, and rolling hills with distinct boundaries. Some areas of the land are well-trodden by tourists, while other areas at the fringes are not as populated. The land is large, but surrounded on all sides by water that stretches out for miles and miles.

This island represents the Abrahamic religions – Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. Their boundaries are well-defined. If someone believes in the word of the Qu’ran, they are Muslim. If they believe Christ died for their sins, they are Christian. If you don’t believe those things, you usually can’t consider yourself part of that religion. Sure, there are different levels of belief and strictness within each of these religions, and there are people in each religion who live at the fringes, but it’s very easy to draw those lines. Land by its nature is solid and dependable, but limiting.

In contrast, Hinduism has blurred lines. If the Abrahamic religions are the island, then Hinduism is the ocean itself. When you wade into the water, you can’t see where it ends and begins. You’re not sure how far you can go before you end up in deep waters. You could move in any direction and still be in the ocean, no closer to reaching land anywhere.

The possibilities in Hinduism are nearly endless – as a Hindu it’s hard to define what should and should not be considered Hinduism (there are even philosophies in Hinduism that doesn’t believe in the existence of God!). Because of this, it’s easy to feel confused about your own spiritual progress. When you compare yourself to other Hindus, it’s often not an apples-to-apples comparison, and the religion ends up being an entirely personal one. Of course, many Hindus choose to seek community and direction in the midst of all this open-endedness. There are many sects, community groups, collectives, etc. that agree on and follow a decided set of Hindu beliefs. Some follow a particular leader, and others follow a particular book. Whilst being in the ocean, these people are swimming close to the shore.

But if you’re not sticking close to shore, your progress and direction is your own to measure. That’s what is difficult and beautiful about Hinduism. My religion provides some guidelines and examples of good morals, but there are very few hard and fast rules. A person needs to test themselves, grow and change their ideals, perhaps even cease to believe in some things, on their Hindu journey. My beliefs currently are entirely differently from my beliefs as a high school senior, and they are also entirely different from my Hindu friends and family. The only common thread is that we all consider ourselves Hindu: we choose to find ourselves in the ocean, comfortable not setting foot on shore.

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When you’re feeling a bit lost in the ocean…

In case you’re wondering, atheists fit into this metaphor as well. They’re at the island bar not giving a crap.


 

For the reasons above, it’s often hard for Abrahamic faiths to truly understand the nature of Hinduism. I’ve heard multiple times that in faith-based schools, Christian students will study the Bhagavad Gita as an introduction to Hinduism. Yet, is reading a single ”holy” book an appropriate way of trying to understand something that is not Christian? Growing up, I’ve been exposed to the Bhagavad Gita but my family and community never emphasized its role in my religion. It’s not a requirement to be a Hindu, like reading the Bible might be a requirement for being a Christian.

Perhaps a better way to understand and explain Hinduism is to understand the breadth of spiritual beliefs possible amongst Hindus. When we describe our religion, we should draw attention to what is unique about it – our boundaries are ours to define, and no two people have to practice it the same way. Instead of describing Hinduism as one belief system, perhaps we describe it as a collection of beliefs with a few common threads and an emphasis on finding your own path.

Whether you are Hindu or not, by reading this I hope to have shed some light on how to handle the question “What is Hinduism”? What are your reactions to the above?

The Virtues of Being a Mama’s Boy

As I prepare to move out of my parent’s house for the first time since college, I wanted to take some time to reflect on the things i’ve learned while living with them. Hope you enjoy!

I’m dreaming. Running up the spiral staircase of an old castle towards a girl in a red dress. As I climb the last step and move towards her,

*Knock, Knock* A door opens.

I’m awake.

“Abhi, wake up it’s already 12 o’ clock” says the blurry figure of my father at the door. I can’t see him without my glasses so I grunt some acceptance of my waking fate and sit up quickly in bed. How is it noon already? I fumble for my glasses, put them on. I reach for my phone, check the time.

10:07 AM.

Damn trick gets me every time.

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When my dad tricks me into waking up

When you’ve lived with your parents for 24 years, you get annoyed by some things. Sometimes your mom calls you five times a day to check when, how, and what you’ve eaten. Your pop always has one more chore for you to do when you feel like you’ve helped out enough for the day. And perhaps most annoying is the dreaded commute from the suburbs – you don’t expect to deal with that until you have a minivan and two kids. There’s also the stigma in Western society of living with your parents. Most people get a mental image of you sitting in your parent’s basement, playing video games and eating microwaved cheese.

Still, maybe all the above is a small price to pay for the real benefit of living at home. Some of you are probably thinking FREE RENT! No, not that (though it is pretty awesome). Having chosen to live at home after graduation, I’ve had the privilege of learning much from my parents. I’ve seen how a happy marriage works, I’ve understood my parents as individuals and not just parents, and I’ve witnessed how selfless they are with taking care of our family in India. In a nutshell, I’ve been able to work on developing two traits our entire generation needs to work on: gratitude and selflessness. I still have a lot of work to do on both, but this is what I’ve learned so far.

These days, when people my age talk about the future, I hear a lot of “I’s”. I’m hoping to get the promotion in July and then I’ll propose. I’m applying to residencies and I’ll be going abroad. I, I, I. And it’s not our fault either. Since we were young, most of the people I know have been raised with the pressure of the next step. Study hard now so you can go to a good college. Do well in college so you can get a great job. Get promoted quickly so you can reach a good position. We’re climbing and climbing this ladder, and no one thinks to get off midway to wait for his/her parents to catch up.

When I find myself spiraling into this “I” mentality, I think of my friend Parth. Since graduating from UT, Parth went home to Kansas City, leaving behind the huge social circle he developed in Texas. Why? So he could live at home and take care of the family business. When I call Parth to keep in touch and ask about what’s new in life, he does something different than the rest of us. He talks in a “we” mentality. He tells me how he’s managing the business together with his parents, and how the degree he’s working on now will help the family. When I complain about my long commute to work, I think about how Parth is happy to commute to school if it means staying at home. By listening to Parth and by living with my parents, I’ve learned a bit about selflessness. Some days, selflessness is planning your day, week, or month with family in mind. Other days, it’s just taking the time to bring back groceries, or taking your parents somewhere new for dinner. My parents will be the first to tell you that I haven’t mastered this yet, and I won’t argue that, but each day spent at home is a chance to improve.

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This is Parth. Parth takes care of his family. Parth is selfless. Be like Parth

Gratitude comes hand in hand with selflessness. When you’re willing to sacrifice your time for the people around you, you’re not taking them for granted. Living with my parents has taught me to understand them as individuals – people with their own desires, fears, and mistakes. Sometimes we learn a lot from each other, and sometimes we just make each other laugh. To show them I care, I want to show them the world, even if it means dealing with my mom’s constant nagging about walking everywhere. When I travel with my parents, I understand them even better – how do they interact with people they can’t understand, what activities they enjoy, etc. It lets me open up a world for them that they hadn’t explored before, because they were too busy taking care of me. That time they sacrificed for me – that’s a favor i’ll spend a lifetime repaying (and yet how do you ever really repay someone who cleaned your diapers?)

If I want to know how to make time for others, my friend Parker is the best example. [If you want to understand Parker’s views too, check out his recently published blog post on a similar topic – totally unplanned!: Parker’s Blog] Recently, he went on a trip with his 90-year old grandpa, and surprised him by reuniting him with a fellow WWII veteran that fought alongside him. Wow. How many of us who are fortunate enough to have living grandparents have taken the time to truly make them happy? I’d bet very few. If we see our families only as caretakers, then we just take and take. If we stop and try to give, try to learn –then we’re truly being grateful.

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Parker’s grandpa is the only one who brings a hot date when we go to dinner

These days when my Pop gets me with the 12 o’ clock trick, I get up, I get angry, and then I can’t help but smile. Living with your parents definitely has its small annoyances, but I’ve learned some big lessons in how to improve myself. When you live with your parents, you prepare for a life spent thinking of others beyond just yourself. I’d say that’s the best kind of life to live.

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Happy family exploring 🙂

Cleanliness is next to Godliness…?

Last summer, I had the privilege of visiting one of India’s holiest cities, Varanasi (AKA Benares or Kasi) with my friend Shelby and her brother Brian. Varanasi, which sits on the banks of the river Ganga, is home to countless temples and even some important historical sites of the Buddha1. Many Hindus travel to this city in their last days so they may be cremated and have their ashes thrown in to the river. At the heart of all this religious fervor is one of the most famous temples to Siva2, the Kasi Viswanath temple.

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Shelbs and I being touristy in nearby Sarnath outside Varanasi

Shelby, Brian, and I left for the Siva temple on a cloudy summer morning. Winding through small cobblestone alleyways still wet from last night’s rain, we held our noses long enough to get through the dirty streets and out onto the banks of the river. Here, we were able to negotiate with a boatman to ferry us out to the famed Kasi Viswanath temple. The ferry ride provided my first moment of confusion that day. While I was making conversation with the boatman in broken Hindi, he asked me to reach my hand in the Ganga and throw some water on my head. Now, sprinkling holy water on one’s head is a fairly common practice in Hinduism and even other religions. But in this particular instance, I had continuously seen cremated remains being thrown into the river over the past few days. Moreover, the Ganga is well-known for not being exactly pristine3. Needless to say, my reaction to touching the water was somewhat like this:

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Still, to appease the boatman, who started to guilt trip me about whether I was an Indian or a foreigner, I dashed some of the Ganga water on my head. After reaching the temple, I expected to get a good view of the Siva idol that so many had travelled days to see. Yet, when I reached the idol, he was buried in the offerings of the day’s pilgrims. Milk, honey, ashes, leaves, flowers, and other things kept anyone from even seeing the deity. For me and many other Hindus, the act of visually seeing an idol at the end of a pilgrimage is a calming and profound spiritual experience – often known as darsan – but this temple offered no such luck. I exited the temple feeling underwhelmed, looking around to see if anyone else wanted to shrug their shoulders and say, “huh, I guess that’s it”.

The entire experience left me feeling somewhat angry at the messiness of Hinduism. After making it through insanely dirty streets and getting ripped off by every merchant who could tell I was American, I just hoped to enjoy a view of the famous idol. I couldn’t get that because it was buried in offerings that no one bothered to clean. Why couldn’t people enjoy the idol instead of covering it in offerings? In the western culture of America that I’ve grown up in, I’ve often heard the phrase “cleanliness is next to godliness”. Whenever I’ve stepped inside a church or mosque, they’ve been pristine to a fault, regardless of how much foot traffic the holy site experienced. So, standing outside the exit of the Viswanath temple, scratching my head at my underwhelming spiritual experience, I couldn’t help but feel a bit irked.

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Bush being my spirit animal and showing my feelings about the temple experience

I realize that Varanasi doesn’t have the infrastructure of a city like Rome – I can’t expect our holy city to resemble the cleanliness of the Vatican. I realize as well that Varanasi deals with a sheer amount of bodies that many Western holy sites don’t have to contend with. So let’s remove those considerations. I’d argue that our religion is still messy in nature, because of our specific method of ritual prayer. It hardly suffices to sprinkle holy water on an idol during a ritual ceremony. Throwing flower petals in myriad colors is exceedingly common, as is offering substances like honey, butter, etc. onto an idol or into a makeshift fire pit. All of this makes for a mess of leftover petals, congealed sticky stuff, and lots of ash.

Case in point: after I went off to college, my parents converted my room to a prayer room. What was once a normal room now smells distinctly like a temple. The sink is deeply stained by ash and other powders, and at any point there’s bound to be a heap of flower petals in a corner. This has nothing to do with infrastructure or population, and in fact my parents are clean freaks themselves. So why was my room transformed in this way? Why do we feel the need to bury our idols with all these things, why are there so many colors and fires and powders involved in our ritual prayers?

My friend Dhaatri offers an insightful explanation: India’s never been a place for subtlety. From our Bollywood movies down to our food, our culture errs on the side of ornate and obnoxious. Our religious festivals involve lighting firecrackers and lamps, throwing heaps of color at each other, and flying hundreds of colorful kites in the sky. As people that give our full selves in many aspects of life, why should we settle down when it comes to prayer? If we shower our houses and clothes with decorations and colors, why don’t we do the same in our temples? If we love to feast with 20 dishes, why can’t we offer God just that many things when we’re trying to appreciate him? In short, cleanliness by definition is restraint. It means that we try our best to be controlled, to pick up after ourselves politely. What we can appreciate about Hindu prayer then, is that it is unrestrained. There’s a religious fervor here that you have to feel firsthand to understand. What other religion has as many spiritual endeavors that mix with song and dance? Hinduism is a religion where we parade for our Gods, beat the drums and dance till we’re exhausted, just so we know we’ve given all of ourselves in religious pursuit.

[Hindu festival depicted in a popular Hindi movie – the video is obviously dramatized, but the first few minutes provide a good glimpse into how religious celebrations are held in some parts of India]

So in India, maybe cleanliness doesn’t have to be Godliness: maybe there’s a certain beauty in making a mess. This is not an excuse for us to be lazy in the upkeep of our temples, but rather a perspective for understanding the way we pray. The mess that results from religious fervor is entirely different than the one that results from negligence – i.e., I can’t exactly say my room is dirty because of religious fervor. As India’s infrastructure and education improves, I still hope that cities like Varanasi will provide a more welcoming and clean front for its many visitors by cleaning up the negligent messes. But in the future, I’ll accept that my fellow pilgrims shower temple idols with their offerings because that’s just one way of showing devotion.

What are your thoughts on the phrase “Cleanliness is next to godliness”? Does it apply to Hinduism or does the religion approach “godliness” differently? Please comment!

1 – The nearby town of Sarnath is the site of Buddha’s first sermon

2 – As usual, not a reliable source, but good for basic info: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shiva

3- http://www.ibtimes.co.uk/india-million-litres-untreated-sewage-polluting-holy-river-ganga-says-report-1491715