On Death, Ritual, and Memory
A story from a modern Indian
My parents moved in with me, not the other way around, two and a half years ago. For me, it was the challenge of becoming roommates with these figures from my past life.
I was making plans for a Saturday, when Ma reminded me that she was going to be busy with Babaji ka shradh that day, a religious rite to honour my deceased grandfather.
In the Hindu faith, this is a regular practice. Our family conducts these shradhs twice a year in the Hindu Calendar — once on the anniversary of the death of my grandfather, and once for a period of fifteen days called Pitr Paksh where we honour all ancestors.
These are not celebrations. Rather, they are somber events, where my parents perform a number of religious rites — including inviting a pandit to our home, feeding him, giving him dakshina and asking him to conduct the death rites in Sanskrit.
As a long time atheist, I usually don’t get involved. It’s a harmless ritual, and my parents can do whatever they want.
From a cynical point of view however, the performance, and the memory, is almost meaningless.
My grandfather died forty years ago; I never got to meet him. From what I’ve been told, he was a taskmaster and a strict parent. Whenever I’ve spoken to my father about him, it’s never a fond memory.
And yet, as a ritual, the performance has importance. It is an anchor to a point in the past. It is an anchor of gratitude for time spent together. Whether positive or negative, they spent time together in a meaningless world.
At this point, it’s cliché to mention “the overwhelm of modern life.” And yet there are millions of ambitious people in India alone who experience it.
They pay constant attention to the news, stay “hungry” in a job or a business, be parents, and try to have hobbies and friendships and financial stability. They try to have a good, fulfilling life. All while trying to honour their roots and carve an identity.
To understand that is to become an adult and a “modern Indian”. In my own journey to become both those things, these rituals are stories within a heritage.
My parents moved in with me, not the other way around, two and a half years ago. For me, it has been a chance to become an adult.
The ritual of the shradh represents a gratitude for time spent together, whether good or bad. I am fortunate enough to still have my parents, so how do I show them the same gratitude?
We can be roommates; I can split the responsibilities and costs of the house. We can be friends; I can let go of gripes and ignore their shortcomings, and they can do the same for me. We can ensure that the other is okay.
At some point, sooner or later, our paths will diverge again. My choice to chase my ambitions might lead me to move away. How do I show gratitude from far away?
I can call. Stay in touch. Counsel them and listen to their gripes. We’ve done that for many years before.
Our paths may also diverge by death.
My father’s had a triple bypass surgery, and we’re all lucky he’s alive. And he’s alive because he’s been disciplined with his fitness since the age of 38 or so. But none of us know how long he will survive, and that hits home a lot harder now as an adult.
So what will I do, if one or both of my parents die? How will I show gratitude?
Should I perform the same shradh in the same ways? A conservative would say so, rudely*.
*In research, I came across a classic right-wing website talking about the powers of ancient chants and the stupidity of modern youth. Barf.
To me, the answer at the moment seems to be gratitude for time spent together. We have some decent memories, and plenty of terrible ones. Not too many great memories together, but a few.
Life is a whirlwind of chaos, and to have someone hold your hand in the tornado is the small and solitary comfort.
Perhaps their inspiration is an arguably aging tradition, but it holds a value as a ritual and an excuse to remember.
“I prefer daan over dharma, I want to decide what I want to do, but whatever the offer be, [the ritual] is what tethers [our ancestors] to us.” — Mom
In these past two years, I’ve seen my parents truly just become my roommates, albeit roommates with lots of baggage.
And I’ve learned to remain strong, remain attentive and helpful, and do my best to take care of them and myself.
So then what will be my ritual as a modern Indian? What good deed will I do to remember them? And as a writer, to what degree will I articulate these stories?
My ritual is the responsibility to ensure we can all have the dignity of our own experiences. And when they pass, it’ll be some ritual of remembrance and gratitude for time spent together.
Perhaps these answers will become more mechanically sound in the future. Mentally, this is where I am right now.