A Hundred Unspoken Rules
My uncle Anna has lived through a thousand moons! To celebrate, Anna—literally big brother in Tamil—and his wife Manni will reenact their marriage from 1951. But today is not about him. Today is about the women. It is mangali pondugal, the Brahmin ceremony to remember, honor and seek the blessings of the women who have come before, in anticipation of my aunt and uncle’s remarriage. Three of my father’s four sisters have gathered at their house, and all of his three brother’s wives. A couple cousins. A close friend. The few men in attendance sit outside, reading the newspaper and sipping coffee, ignored.
Inside, the sisters are swathed in nine-yard saris, gold and colored silk wrapped a dozen times around their bodies, which move more slowly than they used to. They set up an altar with two banana leaves, a mirror, fresh flowers and a gold necklace. An oil lamp burns in the corner. They draw designs in rice flour to mark place settings on the floor. They bend down and wipe turmeric paste on their feet as I watch, unsure of when I can participate and when I can’t. This motion is for the married; that one for the eldest; a hundred unspoken rules I don’t know. With each return to India, the years creeping up on me at the same relentless rate as it for my aging aunts, my ignorance of what to do during the Hindu ceremonies seems more glaring. I once could play at the Hindu rituals as a child, and even a young woman, in a way I never could at my friend’s Catholic churches, at their Jewish synagogues. In the temple, it all seemed exotic and removed. But now I am a grown woman and the same motions feel fraudulent in any culture, in all the religions I don’t believe in.
I sit on the couch next to my aunt Akka and Nitya, a cousin’s cousin through marriage, her 8½-month belly extended beneath the fabric of her sari. Beside her is her 98-year-old great grandmother, frail and tired, yet fiercely alive. It is the most natural thing in the world. This continuity of lifelines, blood and birth and memory and an endless history that repeats itself, each time a seemingly singular event. Miracle upon miracle. What used to be a quaint anomaly, my resistance to marriage or my dull inability to find someone to undertake it with, turns into something more sad and unspeakable here with time. To be single in New York City can be an oddity but also the stuff of hit TV shows. To be single in south India is to be a freak of nature. An uncomfortable rift in the Order of Things. The poking jokes from previous trips about finding me a husband have ceased.
I am lost in these thoughts when my aunt Santhi draws me into the fray. She comes and kneels before me, first wipes the turmeric paste across the smooth tops of my feet and then draws a line in another paste, a deeper red that will dye the skin for days, encircling the circumference of my long, bony, half-south Indian feet. I ask her what it means, and she laughs. Tells me it’s just for decoration, nothing else. She brings me over to where the sisters have gathered tightly in the corner of the room, as though a wind has swept them there like leaves. We turn towards Manni as she swishes red water around a shallow stainless basin, repeating mantras with another sister’s prompts. We bow towards her as she tosses flowers upon us, the calendula petals landing on the crowns of our heads—bright yellow against hair black, silver, degrees of black and silver.
Aunt Akka remains on the couch, the only sister present who has lost her husband. Though she is a modern-day widow—ignoring the ancient edicts to shave her head, shed her jewelry and forgo the bindi on her forehead—she will not participate. It seems wrong that I can partake more than she can, though she has brought four children into this world, walked seven times—one for each vow—around the marriage fire, known the smell of the funeral pyre. I have only known campfires, helped my farmer friends deliver kid goats, smelled the deep rich smell of many men. I have buried dear friends, and one lover, but the closest thing I’ve had to a husband is alive and well, although I don’t talk to him much these days. I am from some other world than this tribe of women who have known me all my life, who I am at once connected to and separate from.
Their beliefs guide their rituals which guide their beliefs, completing some perfect circle that starts with the start of life and ends with the end of death, which they know is only another beginning. I only believe in compost and daisies and the thunderous force of lightning storms. In the ability of a baby falcon to fly the first time it leaves the nest. I don’t believe in their gods, though they are colorful and enticing, nor the godheads of the western world I was raised in, whom I find morose and unappealingly asexual. I don’t believe that Hanuman jumped to Sri Lanka or that Vishnu shape-shifted into a woman to lure the bad guys away from the ambrosia or that Moses parted the Red Sea or that God recited anything to anybody anytime.
But I understand the aching need for the rituals. I believe in my grandmother, who I can imagine somewhere between the heat of the oil lamp and the smell of the rice and curry offerings laid out on the banana leaves at the front of the room. She has died all over again, with this return to India, my first since her death two years ago. When she died, I was in Brooklyn, alone, without ceremonies or gods or belief in anything other than the harsh biological knowledge that the generations had shifted up a notch, the family tree growing skyward, leaving me stranded, by my own clumsy will, on a branch that was rising higher from the ground with time. I have cousins who are grandmothers but, now, I have no grandmother on this earth. No god can change this fact.
Everyone else here—the aunts clustered in the corner, the one contentedly alone on the couch, the uncles that will come later to eat—witnessed her final days that were too many in too much discomfort. They spread her ashes where they spread my grandfather’s ashes, at the union of the stagnant waters of the Adyar River and the salty waves of the Bay of Bengal. They fed her spirit food for fourteen days and then left out the salt on the fifteenth day, telling her it was time to go. They waited a year, and marked the passage with more of these Hindu rituals that all seem the same to me. Oil lamps. Platters of fruit and flowers and gold. Food, eaten and offered. A priest.
But, wait, there is no priest today. The puja is short. After the decorated feet and the tossed flowers, it is time to eat. There are women cooking in the kitchen and there are women around the table, and there are women on the couch and sitting cross-legged on the floor before bright green banana leaves, wiped clean with a handful of water and glistening in anticipation. The cooks make the offerings at the altar before passing down the line to serve us—steaming rice and ladlefuls of a half dozen vegetable curries, and golden, deep-fried vadas, crispy on the outside and soft in the middle that we dip into fresh ground chutneys of cilantro, of coconut. The sisters are loud and talk on top of each other, mouths full of food and tumbling Tamil. They reminisce about when their father, fed up with the noise of his eight children, decreed silence during mealtimes. For months the quiet dragged on, nothing but the sound of curd rice and curries lapped up through fingers, until one day, when my cousin Kumar was just a baby, he peed. They only put nappies on girls, not boys in those days, Santhi tells me in English, and Kumar, he just peed, right straight into my grandfather’s pile of white rice. They laugh now as they must have then. The silence ended, then and there.
The cooks clear the banana leaves, sweep the floor clean by hand. And then there is one more motion we are required to make, lining up in pairs. We get down on our knees, curling our bodies to the floor, closing our eyes, bowing to something or someone that resides in the altars of our own making. With our namaskarams, we bend, all of us on our knees, shared blood and belief and disbelief.
Meera Subramanian is an editor of Killing the Buddha and writes about the environment and culture for Nature, InsideClimate News, Virginia Quarterly Review, Orion, and others. Her first book is A River Runs Again: A Natural History of India from the Barren Cliffs of Rajasthan to the Farmlands of Karnataka (PublicAffairs, 2015). Visit her at meerasub.org.