Shine on!


Most important conversations in my family occur during dinner. This one did too. While telling us the ‘highs and lows’ of his day, Ryan’s face fell and those sparkly eyes darkened.

“I had a very low time today. I felt bad about it for most part of the day”. He said.

We waited quietly for him to continue.

“Some friends called me dim and not smart like them because I don’t belong to the high level of math that they do. I only work on grade level!’

He must have seen my face because he quickly said to me, “Its OK mom! I feel better now. I have already forgiven them in my heart. I thought of Jesus on the cross when he looked up in heaven and said ‘Forgive them father for they know not what they have done!’ I followed his example and I forgave them!”

I was angry. I was angry at those children who made my son’s heart hurt. I was angry at their insensitivity. I didn’t want to acknowledge that they too are seven year olds, and they speak their minds. They haven’t perfected the art of diplomacy yet. My first reaction was anger! While my seven year old son’s first reaction was sadness and then the spirit of forgiveness. I was humbled instantly.

Ryan’s spirituality is intense, honest and simple. With the precious innocence that only little children possess he has gleaned the core truth from the unnecessary complexities of faith espoused by dogmatic religious fanatics. God, to him, is like a universal parent to all. A parent, who is omnipotent, omniscient. When he goes to steal a cookie, behind mommy’s back, he stops himself thinking, even if mommy doesn’t know about it, God is watching. God won’t give him a punishment but he will be disappointed. Like most children, he aims to please, and like most, he fears the disappointment of grown ups and God.

I feared about the intensity of his faith at one point. I have said before, true faith is a thing of beauty but there is a fine line between being faithful and being high handed about one’s belief. I want my children to grow up with a mind which doesn’t fester in narrow minded thoughts but one that lets in the fresh breeze of new ideas and beliefs. I want them to not simply accept, but question, argue and be inclusive of all that is right and all that need to be righted.

Ryan’s thoughts on the role of women and homosexuality is so poignant in its simplicity that it indeed makes one think ‘What is so complex about it?’ He believes God loves all and all his children are equal in his eyes. So why can’t women become priests in most religions and what is the problem with a human loving another, no matter what gender? Seriously! What indeed is the problem! If a child of seven years can look at the issue with such pristine clarity, why can’t the learned grown ups? Why do we analyze God’s love so? His simplicity in faith is something I aspire to achieve and the world would be a better place if more and more people just focus on their love for God instead of judging others’ love for Him.

It took me time to understand my boy. I remember reading a book to him when he was no more than five or six, where a pigeon takes it upon himself to drive a bus and gets in all sort of trouble. The last question of the book was, should the pigeon be allowed to drive. The obvious answer to that question was an emphatic ‘no’ for all the mayhem he caused. Ryan responded with a ‘yes’, he should be given a chance to drive. Everybody deserves a chance and maybe the pigeon will do better next time.

His thoughts were, and still are, unexpected. I listen to his responses, his explanations on life and its working and pause to ponder upon it. He has a depth in his thinking which belies his age. He has that unique combination of wisdom and innocence. He asks me if ‘other than me’ do we have any maid service since most of his friends have cleaning ladies to clean their house. And he asks his dad, a week prior to his eighth birthday,

Dad, am I who you expected me to be?’

The one word that comes to mind when I think of my son is joyful. He is so utterly and completely full of joy in his little life. He has the ability to find joy in the simplest of things, like a line of ants marching by, or a wild daffodil growing in our backyard, or the action figure that he takes to bed with him. It seems like he possesses an inner light that keeps his soul shining brightly. I often wish I could borrow some of his light to lighten my inner being on a particularly dark day. He does share his light with me so I can send positivism out to the universe I interact with. He is like a drop of golden glitter on the canvas of my life and the glitter keeps spreading and glowing, making my life sparkle with joy.

He came home on Valentine’s Day with a bunch of little cards from his little friends and one big anonymous card. It was a written by a child, that was obvious. It had a red heart inside. The message was short yet meaningful! A second grader had written to him:

Ryan, thanks for being there!

That is the kind of man, I hope he grows up to be, who will be there for another in his/her time of need.

I asked him on the eve of his birthday, “How does it feel to be growing up Ryan? How does it feel to be you? How has the ride been so far?”

With his usual cheer, he replied, “Great mom! The ride so far has been just great. I had to make a few pit stops once in a while but I filled myself with gas, and then I was ready to go. I was back on the ride again – all the way to heaven!”

Hope you have a long, joyful ride, son. Hope your ride to heaven is of course, very long, but never monotonous but filled with all the wonders, all the joy, some challenges, some sorrows but predominantly happiness and color and spirit that you carry in your heart and that you radiate to the world around you.

Happy birthday, child. Shine on!!

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Hug them tighter…


There were probably more than ten thousand people on Dashwashamedh Ghat in Varanasi that evening to watch the evening puja. And my two-year old daughter decided to assert her new-found independence amongst that mass of humanity. She rebelled in Sean’s arms, scrambled down and started walking away to explore the chaos around her on her own two feet and in her own terms. She looked back at us and dared us to challenge her stand – the days of molly coddling me are over, parents! Deal with it.

For the uninitiated, Dashwashamedh Ghat is the most important ghat on the bank of the holy river Ganga, in the city of Varanasi in India. Varanasi is one place where ancient India has been preserved in its essence and ambiance. The old city seems to be warped in time, continuing the ancient heritage with the rituals, the lighting and floating of the diyas, the chants, the priests, the faith. To me, Varanasi, especially the old city, still retains the aura of the India that we read about in history books. The mystics, the sadhus, the beliefs, the believers – Varanasi is the confluence of all these. And Dashwashamedh Ghat happens to be the most famous of the ghats on the banks of the river Ganges where one can see the mass of humanity proclaiming their faith – seeking and hopefully finding too.

Sahana took off and immediately got lost. I shrieked, Sean sprinted towards the direction she headed, she hadn’t made too much progress since she had been picked up by a sadhu (holy man) and the two were chatting like long-lost friends.

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The gentleman said a lot to Sean with a beaming smile, Sean returned the beaming smile but shrugged helplessly when it came to conversation. The man kept Sahana on his lap and continued to introduce her to his fellow sadhus. They all talked to her, laughed with her, let her touch their white matted beards, tug their matted hair and touch the beads around their necks, blessed her and gave her some fruit. Sean and I tagged along behind them, not taking our eyes off our precious daughter, yet the camaraderie between the little girl and those men were so evident, we didn’t have the heart to intrude. Finally, when all the talk was done, all the laughter was shared, the man handed Sahana back to us with a final blessing to the child.

Next day we went to a temple, where Sean was allowed to go in. It was crowded, the seekers were seeking blessings from the goddess, we were mere spectators of the ritual and of the celebration of the faith. Sahana let go of my finger and walked along to stand next to a blind man who was playing a harmonium and singing devotional songs. She listened intently for a while, with the air of a connoisseur, and then decided such music deserved some dancing. She started twirling and dancing in front of the blind man. People stopped to watch, the murmur stopped, the priests paused. There was this little baby girl in a white frock and a dark-skinned, blind old man in white kurta and pajama. The world belonged to them. The moment was surreal. A crowd formed around them. A man standing next to me said in a reverent whisper, “The goddess is in that child, you see. The goddess is dancing to the music. God manifests itself in children, and you see the proof. The child is one with the goddess now!”

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We were in Ubud, Bali, when Sahana was about seven months old. We were walking along the beautiful city with Sahana in our arms when a matronly lady came running out of a house, smiling and chattering to us in her own language she took Sahana from our arms and started walking back to her house. Sean and I were so surprised at this sweet, smiling assault that we couldn’t react for a few seconds. We, then, ran after the lady quietly and entered her house. She was showing the baby to her family members and although we didn’t understand anything that was being said, we understood the universal language of love. We stood there basking in the reflected glory of baby Sahana till the family had their fill of her gummy smiles and belly laughs and handed her back to her expectant parents so we could continue our leisurely sojourn through the city. A lot was said to us in their language and some treats were given to us for the little one.

A very dear friend wrote a letter to Sahana right after she was born. Her first letter. In the letter, our friend said to her not to believe when people say the world is not a good place at all. The world is so beautiful and she will discover it for herself one day – the beauty of it all. I truly believe that is true. I think she is already on her way to discovering how beautiful our world is. How can she not when her life has been and is constantly touched and blessed by all the love that surrounds her?

Last year we went back to Kolkata, India during the summer. I asked my children to tell me what they liked the most about Kolkata and what they liked the least. The least liked aspect of Kolkata was the smell and the honking of the cars. The most liked aspect was the love that they felt everywhere they went. Grandparents, uncles, aunts, the autodriver who advised their mother, after seeing they were drenched in a summer rain, ‘Didi, make sure you go home and have the little ones take hot showers, so they don’t catch a cold” ; the bus driver, who held their hand so they could get down safely from the rickety public bus, the local sweet shop owner who always gave a special sweetmeat to the kiddos, as a special treat for going by his sweet shop.

My children have been touched by so much love in their lives that sometimes I wonder how could they not turn out well. They have felt the love in so many places, in so many ways, by so many people, in so many countries. How can they remain immune to the good will and love that surround them?

Hug your children a little tighter friends, so they feel the warmth. And they remember the warmth. So they can carry the warmth with them when they grow up and share it with those who are unloved and cast aside. Heaven knows, we need a lot of that love and warmth to obliterate the suffering and pain caused by cold hearts. The world needs more loving, hope the loved ones can provide.

That time of the year.


Every year around this time, I wallow in self-pity. As the leaves start changing colors, the heat of the summer wanes, the blue of the sky simply dazzles my eye, the wispy clouds float aimlessly, I look up and my mind dissociates to travel back in time. Between cooking and cleaning and working and driving the children around my heart remembers the beat of the dhak from a long, long time ago. Durga puja – the biggest festival of the Bengalis is about to begin.

The myth goes somewhat like this:

Mahishashur, a demon, won over the heart of creator Brahma by his devotion and earned a boon that no man or deity can destroy him. He initially desired immortality but since immortality can only be achieved by a god, Brahma asked him to choose another wish. He chose to be  killed by a woman, thinking no woman can be powerful enough to destroy him. Brahma granted him this wish.

His victory complete, he wrecked havoc on the abode of the gods in heaven and defeated them in war. He acclaimed the throne of Indra while the defeated gods ran to the safe sanctuary of Lord Shiva to seek his help. Shiva and the other gods, with their collective energy, created a brilliant, formidable force in the shape of a young woman. She was Shakti (power) endowed with divine gifts. She was the evil slayer, who finally destroyed the evil force and prevailed the good.

In Bengal, however, Devi Durga is more than the destroyer of evil. She comes to us as the much beloved daughter coming home to her parent’s house after a year. The societal structure has been skilfully woven in to this myth and made this festival a very personal and endearing one for most Bengalis. Durga is not only the revered goddess, she is our very own, our dear girl, come back to us for a visit after a long absence. The women, after marriage, are expected to leave their parents’ home and make a new life with her husband’s family. In rural Bengal, it was not easy for daughters to visit their parents’ home often due to distance, transportation, responsibilities. It was indeed a time to celebrate when the daughters finally came to visit. The same concept was passed on to Devi Durga, thus blurring the divide between godliness and humanity. I absolutely love this merging of the abstract with the concrete. Pujo is not just about celebrating the home-coming of the goddess but also the home-coming of many, many other daughters who couldn’t come back to their ancestral homes any other time of the year.

I haven’t been back to my home town Kolkata during Durga puja for over ten years now. This year I couldn’t even go to the local celebration because of work. When I looked at my schedule, I was crestfallen. I won’t get to see even a glimpse of the goddess this year? But now that the day is upon us, I am strangely not that sad anymore. I have those memories hidden in my heart in a beautiful gift wrapped package, waiting for me to open. So that is what I did. And this is what I found.

My first memory of Durga puja is the sky, always the sky. I remember looking up at the brilliant blue sky on a clear day as a little girl counting days till school closed for puja vacations. Our family had our own puja primarily done by my grandmother, who probably knew more mantras than the priest conducting the puja, but could only help in the capacity of an assistant due to her gender. A woman couldn’t be a priest. Durga puja of my childhood is one of unadulterated joy – we wore new clothes every day for four days of the puja, unending games with cousins, no lessons to prepare, we always seemed to stay under the radar of the grown ups since they were busy with their friends and family members. I remember us playing ‘detectives’. Some of us older cousins always assumed the role of the main detectives – Sherlock Holmes and others of his ilk while the younger cousins reveled in the roles of our side kicks – till they got a bit older and rebelled against this injustice. There were good foods galore, the taste of which I can still taste if I close my eyes, late nights, lot of laughter, camaraderie, just a bubble of happiness surrounding us. We knew the bubble was going to pop in four days and real life would be back with a vengeance. But those four days of puja was special and different and structure free.

The family puja finally stopped due to financial constraint when I was about nine. But Durga continued to come to Kolkata and Bengal every year, no matter. As I got older, the four days of Durga puja changed meaning for me. From teenage, I felt the absence of any sort of spiritualism in Durga puja in the opulence and grandeur that I saw all around me. Durga puja, however, remained as a symbol of happy times when life was vastly different from the structure and routine that kept us prisoners. It was a ritual, a joyous celebration. Durga, in my doubting, skeptic mind ceased to be a goddess, but she continued to be that young woman who came to her parents’ house with her four children to rest her weary bones. Durga puja was synonymous with sunshiny mornings, smiling mother, flutter causing dhaak beats, music blaring through microphones in the pandals nearby, the rustle of the new clothes, the limp due to blisters caused by new shoes.

And the crushes of Pujo romance!!! I remember taking umpteenth rounds within a marked perimeter with giggling girl friends so we could catch a glimpse of the young men who caused our hearts to beat a little faster. The stolen glances were all we had and they were enough. Pujo romances were not meant to last. They had the mystery and aura of those magical days. As I grew up, I simply stayed home during the colorful, bright and crowded evenings of those four days. But I still felt this veneer of good will and  joyous spirit enveloping me. I long for that feeling. There was a collective sense of joy, rejoicing and abandonment. We were in unison in this feeling of letting go of our real lives for four short days. There was still poverty and sorrow, the homeless people, living on the streets, and that didn’t escape me. But even the little girl, sleeping on the streets with her family donned a new ribbon in her wild and unkempt hair, and skipped around in the pujo pandals.

There were unpleasantness in the crowd – pickpockets, eve teasing, the nasty man rubbing against an unsuspecting girl – but the distance has made those memories fade away. I have gleaned only the good and saved only the treasures. At this time of the year, the blue sky with wispy clouds is the only continuity I have left. The sky still reminds me that it is time for that special daughter to come home to us. I look up and get lost. When I look down and around, my real life painfully reminds me, I am far, far away from home. I speak fondly of those days, but my family can not relate. They don’t share the same memories.

Friends and family back home complain of the traffic jam, the crowd, the unnecessary opulence, the competitions that pujo pandals have these days. Durga pujo has lost its spirituality. Where is Durga in all this glitter, they ask. And I agree. This grandeur of pandals, this show of wealth – designer clothes and new jewellery, is not what Durga pujo is all about! For me, Durga pujo is all about reconciliation, reunion with family and with one’s inner self, it is about the special search within us to draw inspiration from the goddess to slay our inner demons and emerge victorious. And as I have already mentioned, Durga pujo, for me, is about happiness in letting go of structure and routine, just for a few days.

One year, I will go back home and try to relive my memories. I sincerely hope I will find those feelings that I wrapped up in my heart before I left home. If I don’t, no matter, I will keep the ones I have safe,  and open them each year as Durga gets ready to make her descent to earth, bringing with her, her children, her lion, the repentant ashur at her feet and most importantly happiness and joy!