My father recently arrived home from India with a tired smile on his face and a slim package tucked under his arm. “Here,” he said, offering me the grey-brown envelope as he walked through the door. “I brought these back from Delhi.”
My curiosity piqued, I grabbed the package and emptied its contents onto the kitchen counter. Inside was a bright yellow binder full of photos of our extended family spanning the last century, most of them prints I had never seen before. Wide-eyed, I pored over the shots of my elder cousins as squirming young children, grainy depictions of sari-clad relatives arranged carefully in chairs, and even a nearly unbelievable still of my grandfather in the same frame as Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru.
I was glued to the pages. I am a diaspora child, a half-Indian born and raised in the U.S. thanks to the life that my father built on sweat and sacrifice — living thousands of miles from his home country not the least of those sacrifices. As I’ve grown, I’ve striven to acquire a taste for the ancestral culture that I so desperately long to know yet can never fully belong to. Even with visits to family in New Delhi every few years (followed, of course, by ambitious campaigns to watch Bollywood music videos without subtitles and stints of wearing salwar kameez to Mass), my tongue still stumbles over non-native Hindi syllables and goes numb from masala too hot for my weak American taste buds. I savor whatever bits of my Indian heritage I can, and these photos were sating my deep hunger to touch my roots.
My gaze settled on a black-and-white portrait of my grandmother, Shakuntala Mithal, bejeweled and breathtaking on her wedding day at just 19 years old. Her adornments gleamed in the camera flash, but her eyes flamed even brighter. It was her look — the one she would flash at people from underneath her thick arched eyebrows with characteristic defiant fire. She would fix it on someone for a few seconds, studying them intently, sizing them up and figuring out their stance, their ambitions, their everything — and learning in the process how to get them to see things her way. It was the look of a woman who had shirked convention time and again, be it by refusing to get her nose pierced as a girl of 13 or by lying down across thresholds of British textile shops to boycott the cloth and protest colonial rule (pinching the heels of anyone who dared to step over her, of course). It was the look of a woman who had said, “Fine, I’ll marry, but only if he’s brilliant,” a decree that had brought her to the very day the photo was taken as she wed a surgeon and professor who fit the bill.
- 5th Annual Young Alumni Essay Contest
- 1st Place: “The lookout,” Austin Hagwood '15
- 2nd Place: “River town,” John DiTillo '08, '15M.A.
- 2nd Place: “Between these walls,” Erin Ramsey-Tooher '09
- 2nd Place: “Snow, rock and flesh,” Steven Salido Fisher '16
- 2nd Place: “The foolish father,” William Kearney '08
- HM: "Narratives," Mary-Kate Burns '16
- HM: "The last letter," Grace Chiarella '14
- HM: "Home in the heartland," Sara Felsenstein '12
- HM: "The wedding gift," Maya Jain '17
- HM: "In lieu of a response," Ellen Roof '15
Sukhbir, my grandfather, was indeed brilliant, and strong-willed too, with a heart for using his talent as a physician to serve anyone he possibly could. He was also Jain while she was Hindu, and when their three children came into the picture, my grandfather insisted that they be raised Jain. It was non-negotiable — not even Shakuntala’s daunting strength of will could change his mind. And so the woman who had thus far remained silent on little in her life was to hold her tongue on the question of her children’s religion.
So Jain they were, but their father was busy with the career that spanned three continents and kept him up through the night performing emergency surgeries, and they remained more or less lukewarm to faith. Time marched forward, and my father’s siblings fell away from their half-baked Jainism, not even keeping the surname reflecting the denomination, and very little religion seems to have survived into my cousins’ generation. (“Mom says she thinks that I was born an atheist,” my cousin Meenu once mused lightly.) The children of the would-be Hindus, now former Jains, had petered into “nones,” identifying with no formal faith tradition.
My father, though, the baby of the family, became engaged to my mother decades after his siblings had already raised their families. Shortly before my parents were married, my grandmother and my father found themselves discussing the upcoming nuptials. He was Jain. She was Catholic. So my grandma, not new to the issue of interfaith marriage, posed the question: how were they going to raise children? With which faith?
My father began to give a waffling answer. “I think we’ll teach them both traditions and let them decide on their own when they’re old enough,” he explained.
She gave him a look — her look. “Religion comes from the mother,” she said simply, “and Elizabeth is a good woman.”
That was all she had to say on the matter, but her words carried a world of meaning, one that my father says he didn’t fully appreciate until much later.
This was so much more than the pronouncement of a woman who had wanted to raise her children within her faith tradition and then was denied that opportunity. What she gave my parents, truly, was the greatest wedding gift she could have possibly given: the freedom to choose.
The freedom to make a decision for the wellbeing of their children then and there rather than to postpone it through a hasty compromise that could invite conflict later. The freedom to approach the question of their children’s upbringing with confidence, not wishy-washiness that placed responsibility for the family’s philosophical and moral development on the children’s shoulders. My father’s ambitious proposition to “teach them both traditions” may have on the surface seemed a way to placate both families, but it could just as easily have toppled into our learning muddled halves of each faith and ultimately choosing neither.
But instead, my grandmother relinquished my siblings and me to be Americans, to be Catholics, a particularity very different from her own. She gave us license to be what we are, with a foot in each world — even if it meant one foot were to take hold more strongly than the other.
Perhaps she felt my mother’s Catholicism was closer to her Hinduism than a “none” would have been. The last time I was in Delhi was Christmas of 2015, three months after my grandma’s passing. Her puja altar, the site of her daily Hindu devotions, was still set up in her room, covered with a collection of holy objects she held dear. I was dumbstruck to see intermixed with the statuettes of Ganesh and Krishna a crucifix and a rosary.
Mysterious indeed. I wish I could ask her about them.
It’s a great compliment to tell me that I look like her — or even better, that I act like her. There is certainly something kindred between us, and not just because I pluck my eyebrows so that they arch like hers and try desperately to grow my hair longer than it’s willing to. (She once chided me, “Why is your hair short! You always used to keep it long,” and I’ve been trying to tease length and strength from its brittle dark brown ends ever since.) We are both in touch with the mystical dimension of life, and that combined with our stubborn refusal to merely pursue the practical has earned the two of us a collective three degrees in philosophy and theology. Once my father even told me that I have something of her look and the accompanying ability to cut to the core of who a person is — a prospect that thrilled me.
And yet the woman who told me that I was a “classic Indian beauty” at a time when I felt more awkward American high schooler escapes my reach. Her body was cremated the day of her death, and I couldn’t travel to India then to mourn alongside my cousins. In the absence of a body to bury, I seek closure in that precious yellow binder of photos, flipping through it again and again to find that fierce undying fire of hers enshrined within its pages.
And I pray for her. I pray for her in the tradition that was not her own and yet was the very tradition she gave me — Our Fathers and Hail Marys, Masses offered, candles at the Grotto.
It’s the least I can do to thank the Hindu woman who told a Jain man to raise me Catholic.
Maya Jain’s essay received an honorable mention in this magazine’s 2017 Young Alumni Essay Contest. Jain is currently a Fulbright Fellow in Peru, where she teaches English as a New Language and researches syncretism, or the blending of religious tradition, in sacred artwork.