A Hindu Hillbilly Elegy
When I hear the first strains of Om Jai Jagdish Hare, I am instantly five years old again, and racing around the exterior of the South Charleston Junior Women’s Club with my friends. We throw salted peanuts into cups of Coke, and scream with joy at the ensuing eruptions of brown foam, only stopping when ordered into the building by our parents for the final stage of the puja–the aarti, the moment when light is offered to the deities.
Out of breath and sticky-handed, we push our way to the front of the room, where photos and idols cluster on a small table weighed down by offerings of fruit and sweets. Aunties in silken saris hold a flat silver thali decorated with designs made in rice and vermillion powder, upon which small cotton balls dipped in ghee have been lit. One by one, we approach them, take hold of one side of the thali, keep our eyes on the flames and the idols as we move the thali through the air. First left, then right, then counter-clockwise. As each of us finishes, we pass our hand over the flame, then over our heads, a motion ingrained in our muscle-memory. Around us, elders clap their hands and sing the aarti, full-throated.
We are a motley crew, this band of Hindus, gathering once a month to pray in southern West Virginia in the mid 1980s. Our families immigrated to the United States from all over India, sometimes by way of Kenya, Tanzania, or Uganda. Work as engineers or physicians has brought us to this tiny state, whose “W” our parents confuse with “V” because we don’t have a “W”-sound in our home languages. In their mouths, “West Virginia” often becomes “Vest Virginia”.
We live in a valley nestled by a river whose name we also struggle to pronounce–Kanawha (another “W” to deal with)–in topography wholly unfamiliar to us. The fact that the leaves change color each fall, then drift to the ground in crunchy piles, is a phenomenon that will perpetually fill us with amazement.
Our immigration to Almost Heaven, West Virginia began in the late 1960s. By 1990, Asians comprised .4% of the state’s 1.7-million person population. Cut that number in half, eliminating the Filipino, Chinese, and Korean communities, and you have the number of South Asians in the state. Cut that number down to Indians of the Hindu faith, and you have less than 2,000 people, statewide. A single Christian mega-church in my hometown had as many members in its congregation as our entire faith did in the whole state.
Hinduism, in its non-polemicized form, is a loose amalgam of texts, mythologies, philosophies, and rituals. It isn’t held together by a Pope or a network of clergy. Our priests act as conductors of ritual, not spiritual advisors. In truth, our religion is largely self-directed, and individualized. Which is fine when you live in a country where many of the other one billion inhabitants also practice their faith that way. Where there is a temple on every corner, and your religion’s holy days are state-sanctioned holidays.
Thus, adherence to the faith proved more difficult for me, often the only Hindu in a sea of Christian classmates. I know that this is not just a Neema-problem–nearly every week, I see an article proclaiming the erosion of faith in America. But that erosion, in my case, was both enacted upon me, and by me.
“I heard that people like you worship cows.”
I was in elementary school the first time someone hurled this phrase at me, much the same way a bloody cow’s head had been hurled at the door of our makeshift temple in the basement of the Jawlekar’s house once in the late 70s.
How does a child explain faith to another child? “We don’t worship cows. We just think they are sacred.” Worship. Sacred. To a Christian kid in West Virginia with limited vocabulary, what was the difference? My polytheistic faith was incomprehensible.
The blue gods, the ones with elephant heads, the ones whose stories my mother recounted, and I hungrily devoured, were mocked by my classmates in the world outside our home.
“Why don’t you eat meat?” they would ask, eyeing my flourescent yellow lemon-rice, stained by turmeric and packed in a biohazard ziploc bag that my thrifty father had taken from the chemical plant. The orange skull and crossbones on the front did nothing to ease my outsider status.
“Hindus don’t believe in violence. Killing animals is a form of violence, so we don’t eat meat.” I gave them the same answers my parents had given me when I asked at our dinner table. But the answers I accepted unquestioningly didn’t suffice.
“What if plants have feelings? What if that carrot is actually screaming when you cut into it? Aren’t you committing violence then?”
Again, I failed to know how to explain. So much of culture and faith had been automated for me, much as they had been for my Christian peers, that I couldn’t provide reasoned responses to their questions. It never occurred to me to turn the microscope on them, on their faith, on their culture. Such is the curse of being the minority, I suppose. It never quite feels safe to challenge dominance in that way.
Instead, their shaming questions pricked tiny holes in my nascent faith, tapping any reserves built up at home and at puja.
My bedtime routine as a child was the same every night. My mom came into my room and patted my back as she sang Gujarati and Sanskrit bhajans to me. I fell asleep each night to the sounds of “Raghupati Raghav” and “Vakratunda Mahakaya”, learning the words long before I learned the meanings.
When I sought to understand, instead of just parrot, and deliberately asked my mom to translate word-for-word, pushing her knowledge of Sanskrit vocabulary beyond its limits, I sometimes found the songs didn’t resonate for me. Singing about Ganpati’s curved trunk, round body, and brilliance of a hundred suns didn’t fill me with a sense of spirituality. It was my mom’s voice that convinced me all was right in the world; not the words that she was singing. I remember wanting desperately to emulate her piety, but failing to understand the source of her devotion. I sang the songs, replicated the rituals, hoping to capture the same holiness I saw on her face when she stood at the altar in our kitchen. Still, no matter how hard I stared at my reflection in the tiny silver idols, I never saw that same look mirrored on my face.
But I’d be lying if I told you that I didn’t sing those bhajans to myself at night when I have trouble sleeping. Or that I don’t say a quick “Bhagvan badha nu bhalu karjo/Bhagvan badha nu rakshan karjo” every time I board a plane, asking God to forgive my mistakes and keep me safe. Or that I didn’t listen to “Raghupati Raghav”, Gandhi’s favorite hymn, on repeat four years ago when my cousin committed suicide at the age of 30, and I inexplicably set up the idols on my altar in front of his picture, lit incense, and sang along.
A sampling of conversion attempts by Christians, in chronological order:
1986: My friend Lindsey invites me to Sunday school. I pressure my mom into letting me go, and after a few sessions, find myself up at the altar being saved. My mom never lets me go back to Sunday school again.
1992: My middle school basketball coach forces our team to say the Lord’s Prayer before every game. Participation is not optional. I can still recite it verbatim today.
1994: Melanie, a Mormon high school classmate, sends blonde-haired, black-suited missionaries to my house. My parents keep the Book of Mormon that is proffered, unsure of how to turn it down, but politely send the missionaries on their way.
1996: Carrie invites me to a Superbowl party at her church. All goes well until halftime, when the pastor turns off the television and asks for people to bow their heads, then encourages people in the room who are ready to accept Jesus into their hearts to raise their hands. I am the only person in the room who is not already a member of the church. I squeeze my eyes shut tight, keep my head bowed, count the minutes until halftime is over and the game begins again.
And then there is the constant question asked every time our brown-skinned family attends a gathering of White West Virginians.
“Have you been saved?”
“Have you been saved?”
“Have you been saved?”
The litany is exhausting. The holes in the fabric of my faith grow larger. I don’t seek to patch them up with Christianity. I simply wish I did not have to explain, or justify, my inherited, out-of-place identity.
My favorite family photo depicts three Indian couples on an autumn road trip. The men, complete with shocks of thick, black hair and patterned bell-bottom pants, the women with luxurious braids and chandlos painted on their foreheads–stand in front of a log grist mill, the reds and orange leaves of West Virginia fall scattered around them. Their children, ranging in age from infancy to ten years old, squirm on laps and scramble towards the edges of the frame.
Each fall, my parents organized a trip to a state park in West Virginia for us and the other West Virginia Gujaratis who became our inherited family. At Pipestem or Hawks Nest or Blackwater Falls, we hiked through deciduous forest, waded in creek beds, rode horses, and sang Bollywood songs and Hindu bhajans by the light of a campfire. We ate khichadi for dinner, and Teays Valley biscuits for breakfast.
Through these trips, I grew to love the wild and wonderful aspects of West Virginia, even as I struggled with the religious and racial elements. Its natural beauty settled into my sensory memory right next to the Hindu puja. West Virginia is the only home I know, though it is not a home that always loves me back.
The same holds true for many of my peers from the Hindu hillbilly crew, the rowdy children who played until it was time to go in for puja. While the tug-of-war between the culture of their homeland and the culture of their new home certainly existed for my parents and their friends, the impact on their identities seemed far less extensive than it was for the Indian-American young people of my generation. By the time our parents moved to America, their identity formation was largely complete. Their work, in some senses, was about re-creating the sensory experiences and rituals of their past. But they always had their past as a point of reference.
For young people in our community, the challenge was different. As adolescents, deep in the throes of identity formation, holding to our parents’ religious faith was much harder. We didn’t have same emotional attachment to the rituals, the sensory memory of what the holidays actually felt like, or what it felt like to share those holidays with family. We had modified rituals, simulations of holidays, held in incongruous spaces with flourescent lighting and shiny linoleum flooring. My mom waxes nostalgic about doing Navratri garba for all nine nights growing up in India. I only know the experience of two weekend garbas held in the same middle school gymnasium where I took phys ed from Monday through Friday.
If anything, the closest approximation to faith for me might be the omnipresent pull to go home to the Mountain State. The way the colors of a West Virginia fall still render me breathless. How the lyrics of John Denver’s “Country Roads” evoke an enormous lump in my throat. It is the “hillbilly” part of my upbringing that has stayed with me, even as so many of the Hindu elements slowly fall away.
One year, when my sister and I both inhabited the “teen” sector of the age spectrum, my parents decided that it wasn’t enough for us to just visit family on our sporadic trips to India. We needed to see the country more broadly. They took us on a trip to South India. A trip on which I often found my angsty teen-self moaning, “Not another temple,” or “Not another palace.”
My aversion stemmed partially from being a teenager, and opposed to any idea my parents had. But I also felt disturbed by the rules that many temples posted out front: Menstruating women were not allowed to enter. Women whose clothing showed their shoulders or legs were not allowed to enter. Men wearing pants, and not lungis–a kind of male sarong–were not allowed to enter.
I wore gaudy Jam shorts and a white t-shirt. My sister had on a sleeveless, shapeless dress. My father wore his usual pants and collared shirt. Vendors outside the temple hawked rented lungis and scarves, urging my father to take them.
He barked at them angrily, muttering, “I’m not giving you money for that dirty fabric.”
Effectively, at each of these temples, the only person allowed to enter was my mom, dressed in the traditional sari. The rest of us had to wait for her outside.
Waiting outside only served to further my discomfort. Hungry children in tattered clothing looked at us with pleading eyes, making a non-verbal motion where they brought their hand to their cracked lips in an eating gesture. Flies buzzed around the head of a man suffering from elephantiasis, a condition caused by parasitic worms that resulted in his leg swelling to massive proportions–like that of an elephant, rendering him immobile. The contrast between the smooth, indulgent marble and gold of the temple, and the ashy, wrinkled texture of the skin stretching over the pauper’s swollen leg, was too much for me to handle. This wasn’t the warm and communal Hinduism of the Junior Women’s Club that I knew and loved. This was organized, institutionalized religion, with all its hypocrisies. And suddenly I wasn’t sure I wanted to be Hindu anymore.
I thought I knew the rituals of Hindu weddings well. The circles my sister and her future husband Kumar would take around the fire. The seven steps they would take, making a vow with each step. I know that our brothers would throw rice into the fire to symbolize their support of my sister as she entered married life. But typing up English translations of the various phases of the ceremony for my sister’s wedding, I reached a stage that confounded: The point in the ceremony where married women were supposed to approach my sister and whisper this phrase–akhand saubhagyavati–into her ear.
“Mom, how would you translate “akhand saubhagyavati”?” I asked.
My mom answered without hesitation. “It means, ‘May you die before your husband’.”
“I’m sorry. What?”
“It comes from the time when women were still forced to commit sati if their husband died before they did. So women would wish each other an early death in order to avoid the prospect of being burned on the funeral pyre.”
Her tone was calm, clear, and matter-of-fact. Meanwhile, my 22-year-old self was filled with righteous feminist rage. My sister was in her final year of residency, unable, or uninvited, to engage in this level of detail when it came to her own wedding. It was up to me to delete the description from the program.
“We’re not doing that,” I proclaimed, syllabylically pounding the delete key on the keyboard for emphasis.
My mom remained adamant that the ritual of women blessing the bride remain part of the ceremony. So we found a compromise: In accordance with my mom’s wishes, on my sister’s wedding day, nine women from our community approached my sister and whispered in her ear. In accordance with mine, instead of saying the akhand saubhagyavati of previous generations, they whispered their own personal wishes for a happy and successful marriage. I watched proudly from the first row, feeling, for once, like I had managed to merge the traditions of my heritage with the ethos of my American upbringing.
In my adult life, ritual has fully supplanted faith when it comes to the question of religion. My partner, Laura, is the product of a Catholic father and a Jewish mother. In October, we go to Navratri garbas held in middle schools in the northern suburbs of Boston. In November, we celebrate Diwali by cooking a big dinner and setting off illegal fireworks. We have a menorah and a Christmas tree in our living room in December, and the tree is decorated with bangles from my trips to India. A tiny altar is hidden away in our pantry, upon which sit Hindu idols, along with a tiny glass Jesus that a student gave me as a gift. Guilt prevents me from discarding it. Sometimes Laura comes home to pervasive smell of incense. Sometimes I fry up a batch of latkes to celebrate Hanukkah. But rarely, usually only in case of a marriage, a funeral, or a high holiday, do either of us cross the threshold of temples, synagogues, or churches.
Last summer, Laura and I made one of our favorite drives, through the Fort Pitt Tunnel–a dimly lit cavern of concrete and tile that spits drivers out onto a bridge with a stunning view of the miniscule but well-placed Pittsburgh skyline. She loves the drive because it reminds her of The Perks of Being a Wallflower and the feeling of being “infinite.” I love the drive because it reminds me of childhood trips to Pittsburgh for Indian groceries, a visit to the Hindu temple, and a momentary reminder that there were indeed places in America where Indians made up more than .2% of the population.
“You know where Hindus on the East Coast ask for their ashes to be scattered?” I asked.
“Pittsburgh, I’m guessing?”
“Yeah, but do you know why?”
She didn’t. Why would she?
Pittsburgh is the Triveni Sangam of the East Coast–the place where three rivers meet. In India, the most holy place for ashes to be scattered is at the confluence of the Yamuna, the Ganga, and the Saraswati rivers. Pittsburgh is the American equivalent: the site where the Monongahela and the Allegheny converge to form the Ohio.
My mom wishes for her ashes be scattered in Sedona, Arizona, but I know that after the West Virginia University School of Medicine is done with my father’s donation of his body to science, his ashes will be scattered at this confluence. So, too, will those of my American citizen aunts and uncles. This Triveni Sangam is my family’s burial ground.
The Christian concept of burial is something I can’t get my head around–a slow, suffocating decomposition at the hands of soil and worms. I briefly considered the Zoroastrian method, having my body placed on the top of a mountain for birds to take heavenwards in their beaks, but this seems both bloody and impractical. In the end, this Hindu ritual is what I want: Cremation. Ashes, the throwing of a blessed coconut into the water, the utterance of hymns I’ve been singing since childhood. A way to return to the mix of Hinduism and Appalachian heritage that have defined me from the beginning.
“Scatter my ashes in Pittsburgh,” I told Laura.
From Pittsburgh, those ashes will float downstream. Winding east, then south, to Wheeling, Moundsville, Parkersburg, Racine, and eventually to Point Pleasant, where they will mingle with the waters of the Kanawha, slowly carrying me homewards.
Neema Avashia‘s work has appeared in the Hong Kong Review, Still: The Journal, The Superstition Review, and is forthcoming in Kestrel. She was a 2018 Peter Taylor Fellow at the Kenyon Review Writer’s Workshop. She is a Civics teacher in the Boston Public Schools, where she as worked for the last 15 years; she was born and raised in southern West Virginia to Indian immigrant parents. Follow her on Twitter, @AvashiaNeema.