It smells the same, even after all these years—the smell of tens of thousands of prayers exhaled above palms pressed to the heart, thousands of bare feet padding into the prayer room, thousands upon thousands of incense sticks lit in front of the same statues, day in and day out.
How could this building have the bones to help me mourn my mother? It had not even existed during those years when she was one of the temple’s most loyal visitors.
I begin removing my shoes. I balance on one foot to slip off one sandal. The scratchy straps of the sandals have bitten away at the polish. My mother had always insisted that unpainted nails with sandals were an affront to humanity. She had a lot of opinions on such things; I had only listened with half an ear.
Putting the sandal into one of the cubbies lining the wall, I switch to the other foot, the cold tile prickling at the newly unshod foot as I struggle to take off my second sandal.
A sign above the shoe cubbies, in crooked lettering, admonishes all “patrens to Pleeze remove ALL shoes before entering the TEMPLE.” The corners of my mouth start to lift into their customary sneer at this blithe disregard of how the English language should look, but the sneer dies, half-formed.
My mother’s spelling had been the same. “Ma, when are you going to learn how to spell in English?” I don’t know how many times I must have asked that question.
“If you learned to read Bengali, Hindi, Burmese or one of the other six languages I can spell perfectly in, perhaps I would not have to use your ugly language,” she would retort in Bengali, hands on her hips, shaking that crooked index finger at me until we both started to laugh. Despite my teasing, she never stopped putting notes in my lunches, notes that said that I should listen well, be respectful to my teachers, learn everything. I tossed all those notes away with the rest of the meal scraps, never suspecting that there would come a day when I would wish beyond wishing to have the chance to look at her handwriting just once more.
I shuffle into the main room of the temple. The cheap carpeting should be supporting cubicles in some corporate building rather than clumps of barefooted individuals milling around to find a place on the floor to wait for the prayers to begin.
I follow my father and brother toward the front of the room to make the obligatory offering to the deities. My father stuffs money through the opening in an ornate wooden box, one bill for each of us.
Any depiction of the Hindu pantheon will invariably be festooned, garlanded and overrun with flowers, and these icons are no different. When a deity presides within the four corners of a frame, that frame will in turn support twice its own weight in flowers. And the statues…from the minute one of these clay beings is carved, no millimeter of his or her holy personage remains pollen free—from the tip of Shiva’s head to the arch of Durga’s foot, pink, red, yellow, and orange petals mingle and mutter into each other, quarreling for space.
Before we were shunned from the Bengali community, my mother was one of the volunteers who would go to the temple early on the day of any puja (a festival celebrating one god or goddess or another) to help the priest prepare the pictures and statues. I call it a temple, but it was always just a rented space in the same strip mall as a McDonald’s. And I call him a priest, but he was really just Mr. Chatterjee, who always smelled like faintly moldering leaves, or laundry that has been closed up in an idle dryer too long.
Sometimes I would accompany my mother on these early morning trips. I would carry the extra flowers, but she always carried the garland she would have made that morning, special for the statue of Durga. She would have woken before the sun, bathed, and then spent hours picking the roses she had managed to wrestle from the Georgia clay, stringing them with the chrysanthemums that lined the front walkway. The chrysanthemums always grew much more exuberantly than any other flower, spilling over each other, eager to disprove their last-place status in the flower world.
Bengali pujas were really the only part of Hinduism I ever liked. The people of Bengal are too filled with their own self-importance to ever be truly humble to their gods. As a result, they are able to throw a pretty decent puja with more food than the stupidities of religious dogma. At least, that was the way it once was.
An usher-type individual places a hand on my shoulder and tries to move me away from my father and brother, “Women to one side, please, please women to that side, men on this side.” She gives me a slight push.
“What do you mean?” I blink at her, uncertain I have heard correctly.
“Women to one side, men to this side,” she repeats, her singsong accent triggering the anger that accompanies me everywhere these days.
“This is a Hindu temple,” I say, the words oozing past my clenched jaw. “Since when do we make men and women sit separately?”
“This is how it has been for a long time.”
“Tell me where it says anywhere that we are supposed to separate by sex?” I say, allowing my voice to increase in volume on the word sex, watching its effect ripple through the room as an ocean of heads turn towards me. My father and brother do not notice—they are too busy looking for a place to sit. I watch them shy away from the crowded regions of the floor to find a relatively unoccupied corner toward the side.
Another woman walks up and whispers in the usher-woman’s ear; the usher shrugs and turns away to find someone else to herd. I recognize the whispering woman. It is Lena-mashi. She had once been one of my mother’s closest friends. She turns away without meeting my eyes.
This separation by gender must have been put into practice during the years my family was ostracized from the community. Apparently, Hindu self-awareness had spilled over to even the Bengalis, and they had responded in their typically anti-climactic way by messing with seating arrangements.
It had started even before 9-11, this swing to conservative practices—more time on prayers and chanting, strictly vegetarian meals at the pujas.
“This is not how Hinduism is supposed to be practiced,” my father would intone at the various puja-committee meetings. “Where is it written that vegetarianism is holy? Where is it written that we must have this chant before that one? These are ignorant practices we have brought from the villages. They have no place here.”
Eventually, my father’s indulgence in the sound of his own voice went from being tolerated to becoming a point of contention, and then from being a point of contention to being the last straw. Three planes were taken off course, the Towers fell, and we were no longer welcome at the Bengali society’s functions. Dissent during wartime isn’t tolerated, particularly in the confines of a middle-class immigrant community.
And yet, a decade later, here we are, once again.
My father and brother are sitting on the floor, an island amongst a crowd of people. They both sit with straight backs, staring ahead without speaking. I settle down next to them, becoming tangled in the lengths of the sari as I lower myself to the floor.
I had chosen the sari from my mother’s stash that morning, randomly picking it amongst all the ones neatly ironed and stacked in the almira. When I opened the almira’s doors, her scent had rolled toward me—spicy curry with a dash of the sweet powder she would rub into her skin after every shower.
I stood there in front of that brutish piece of furniture for a few minutes, breathing in the scent of my mother. I reached out to touch the brightly colored silk, but a jagged edge of my bitten nails snagged on the cloth, causing a few threads to pull tight and pucker the fabric. My hands trembled as I tried to smooth it out, hide what I had done.
The process of attempting to put on that sari became a glowering testament of all that I had never bothered to learn. I wrapped and unwrapped the silk, unable to get the pleats right, looking at the clock every few seconds, nervous at how much time was passing in my ineptitude. My father hated to be late.
At one point, I sat down on the floor, the silk of the sari rippling around me.
My brother came into the room and stood for a moment to look at me in the glory of my inability. He went over to the almira and picked out a sari of raw silk, a coarser fabric than the slippy-shiny stuff I had been grappling with all morning.
“I heard her teaching one of the neighbors how to put one of these on once. She said that it was easier to do with the raw silk. Something about the fabric.” I took the cloth from him. We stared at each other for a moment, and then he walked away.
Now in the temple and finally safely on the floor, I look around the room, recognizing more faces. Many of these people had been such claustrophobic influences over my childhood. My memory of them all is betrayed as I see what ten years does to the physical self. As I stare, some stare back. Others whisper behind their hands as they look from me to my father to my brother back to me. Others turn away, trying not to see our three orphaned souls huddled together.
Our ouster from the community had not happened all at once. It had been gradual. My mother had noticed the signs early on.
“Chatterjee-da had a barbecue last week for his son’s graduation. He invited so many people, but not us,” she commented one day over dinner.
“Oh, that old man is angry over what I said at the last committee meeting. It does not matter,” my father responded, turning back to watching Jeopardy, his fingers suspended over his plate, a few stray pieces of turmeric-stained rice dotting his fingers. My mother looked worried, but said nothing.
Then, invitations from members of my parents’ own favorite circle—the so-called “younger set”—began to come further and further apart. My mother would spend dinnertime wondering why everyone was always too busy to come by for a quick meal of dal and rooti. My father laughed it off, saying that everyone would come to their senses eventually.
After a few months, my father was not quite so sanguine, and my mother was despondent.
Lena-mashi came over one day to tell my mother in whispered tones: “Sujo-da should stop talking so wrongly, stop starting so many arguments, otherwise, no one will want you to come to their houses, Boudi.”
“He is just saying what he thinks. Why is that so wrong?” I recognized that note in my mother’s voice—it is not for nothing that the tiger is Bengali. I half suspect the tiger learned its fierce trade from a Bengali wife.
“Boudi, I am sorry. I just wanted to tell you. They are going to ask Sujo-da to leave the puja committee.” My mother did not say another word and simply showed Lena-mashi the door.
As a founding member of the puja committee, my father had expected to be part of it until the day he died. When he was no longer welcome at the meetings, it was clear we had been dismissed from the community.
An institution that had played such a large role in our lives was gone, just like that. True to form, we simply pretended it had never existed. We discovered other things to occupy our time and attention.
My father joined a group of meditation devotees who formed an investment club. Meditation and making money seemed to my father to be the very best blend of East and West. When the club started making money, the group felt that it was the reward of a higher power.
“Mila! We made over $200 in one day! Can you imagine how rich our meditation investing will make us?” I was away at college, and his voice reminded me of everything I missed and was running from at the same time.
The group’s belief in its destiny made them reckless, and they responded to losses by investing even more “daringly”, until eventually, there was nothing left. My father had a crisis of faith. My mother said nothing.
My brother had many friends in the Bengali community, childhood friends who had been born within months of each other, had taken baths together, had started toward adolescence as a unit. After our ouster, their parents would no longer allow them to spend time with him. These lost friends were replaced by soccer team friends, tennis team friends, and then eventually by legions of girlfriends. He was able to ignore all of the house rules my parents had put into place during my own teen years, partly because he was a boy and partly because my father was simply too distracted with his meditation-investing, and then his meditation-losing, to care. My mother said nothing.
I had gone away to college soon after the ouster. Freedom, friends, and classes all helped relegate our loss of community into the “not such a big deal” column in the tabulation of my life.
It was really only my mother who suffered. Despite her facility with languages of the Asian continent, she had never learned the language of her adopted country to any level of fluency. Her social circle was comprised of other Bengali matrons. Without them, she was left to her own limited devices. The rest of us did not notice. My mother played her role as the self-sacrificing Bengali mother a little too well. We did not even take her for granted. We simply forgot she existed outside her role as supporting actress in the drama of our own lives.
While we were busy not noticing, my mother’s existence turned inward, much like a dying star that increases its density and mass around a central point until there is nowhere left to go. The thing about dying stars is that, eventually, something in space and time must be ripped apart to release the pressure.
Spring break my freshman year, I walked into the house with a bag of laundry and dumped it in a corner of the kitchen.
“It is the right of every American college student to bring home her dirty clothes for her mother to clean,” I explained to my mother. My mother always seemed to enjoy my soliloquies on axioms of American life, particularly enjoying ripping the axioms apart with ferocity. This time, she simply smiled at me and then turned back to her cooking. I was a little surprised, but quickly lost sight of that thought as my father and brother followed me into the kitchen and my father’s inevitable questions began.
“How are your classes?”
“How many math classes are you taking?”
“Just the one, Dad.”
“But you could take more if you wanted to?”
“Yes, but why would I want to?”
“Because math is important.”
“Maybe, but there are other subjects out there.”
“No Dad, like literature, languages, history, those kinds of things.”
“What? Those subjects are hobbies. I am not paying so much for your schooling to have you waste your time taking useless subjects.”
And from there went the usual clichéd argument. It lasted through dinner and almost to the time we all went to bed, with a break for the evening showing of Jeopardy. None of us noticed that my mother had not participated in the conversation.
It was not until toward the end of my visit that I almost realized something was wrong. I was sitting at the kitchen table, drinking the tea+milk that magically appeared in front of me every day, no matter when I dragged myself out of bed.
“Ma,” I said, “why are you letting me sleep in every day? You hate people sleeping late.” My mother shrugged and smiled, turning back to cleaning the inside of the microwave. I took a few more sips of my tea, wondering how I was going to get some money out of my father for the jacket I had seen on sale at the mall.
“Ma, in psych class we learned that the transition from adolescence to adulthood can be made more traumatic if parents try to keep children heading into their twenties to the same habits and likes and dislikes they had as teenagers. Is that what you’re doing here? Letting me sleep late to break a habit from my childhood? How did you know to do that?”
My mother just shook her head. Puzzled, I looked at her back, which was still turned to me.
“Are you mad at me, Mom? What did I do?”
She smiled and put a plate of food down in front of me, placed her hand on my cheek and then walked back to the microwave. I began to eat, putting her strangeness off to her being old. All adults over the age of thirty were strange and old.
Somehow successful in parting my father from some money, I made it to the mall that day. The route home took me past the site where the new Hindu temple was being built. The community was graduating from a strip-mall existence to a free standing building complete with its own parking lot.
As I waited for the car ahead of me to disgorge a mildly alarming number of bespectacled older women in cotton saris, I looked over to see my mother standing in front of the half-constructed shell of the temple with a group of Indians. Even to my purposefully unknowledgeable eyes it was apparent that these people were not Bengalis. It surprised me to see my mother out of the house among people that I did not know. They were all listening to one woman, whose arms were gesturing in that hyper excitable way that all beings from the South Asian subcontinent seem to practice, as if the most important ideas require exertion of physical energy to make sense. I wondered what they could possibly be discussing. I lost track of that thought as my favorite song came on the radio. I continued driving along home, my mother forgotten in the storm of whatever inane thoughts were rattling around in my head that day.
A year later, it became clear that I was one of the few people who had ever seen my mother amongst those who were now referred to as her “associates.”
“Miss,” said the agent from the Department of Homeland Security, “this is important. Can you give me any details about any of the people around your mother that day?” I could almost see what was going through his mind. Was I protecting someone? Was my family part of a larger conspiracy to bring down apple pie and the American Way? How to explain that I was so self-centered that I could not recall a single detail about any of the people who would eventually be the architects of my mother’s death?
“The woman doing all the talking was dressed all in black,” I said, looking down at the table and picking at an invisible splinter.
“Dressed all in black, that’s all you remember, that this woman was dressed all in black?”
“That was unusual for an Indian woman, even a non-Bengali,” I answered. The agent sighed.
They eventually let me go, finally convinced that I truly was just stupid and not part of some huge South Asian conspiracy.
As it turned out, my mother had made friends with the kinds of people she would once have warned me against. Radical. Non-Bengali. Some not even Indian. They spoke of revenge for murders of Hindus in Bangladesh and Kashmir, of needing the world to understand the dangers posed by fundamentalist Muslims, of the American government and its ineptitude in ridding the world of danger. They spoke of these things, and my mother listened. As she listened, she formed a plan. As was her way, my mother’s plan was one in which she was the only one who got hurt.
My mother is dead, and here I am again in our local Hindu temple.
For the past year, I have been unable to stop myself from imagining her last moments. Was she scared? Did she figure out that there would be children at that prayer service in the mosque? Is that why she never went inside, is that why she stayed in the parking lot? How much pain was there? What did those friends say to convince her that self-immolation was the answer?
“We will go to the puja tomorrow,” my father announced one year and twenty-eight days after her death. My brother and I looked up from our uneaten dinners in surprise.
“Baba,” my brother said slowly, gently. “We can’t go. They don’t want us there.” I nodded.
“Your Lena-mashi was here yesterday. She said they were going to say a special blessing. We will go.” My father nodded, as if the matter were decided. But then, looking at us, he became unsure. “I just think we should go…” he began, in an uncharacteristically pleading tone. He did not have to finish the thought. We would go, because she would have wanted it.
And so here we are. The room begins to hush, and I hear the priest shuffling behind the stage, readying the bells and other accoutrements of a Hindu prayer. I can’t remember the protocol…Do they blow a conch shell at the beginning? Is the shanti water going to be used today, that holy water that is supposed to bring peace to anyone who receives it? There had always been a joking moment in previous years, when the priest would pour a handful or two over my outspoken father’s head. He would always make the same joke, asking whether it would turn the gray hairs back to black.
My mother is dead, and I am using all my strength to not run screaming from this room. We had been summarily dismissed from the community these walls represent, and, as we now know, one of us spent years looking for a way to get back. The only one of us who would be happy to be here today, within these walls, is the one who was sacrificed.
There was once a demon so powerful it could be killed by no god, and a woman was brought in to solve the problem. Durga, the mother goddess. My mother offered a prayer to her whenever we left the house, saying “Durga, Durga” to remind the goddess to take care of our home in our absence, one mother to another.
I never noticed the clues to the end of my mother’s story. Now, it is all I think about. Her story’s end is what has brought the three remaining members of the family back together, what has allowed us to see each other again. I reach out and place my fingertips on my father’s and my brother’s arms. I hope that somehow my mother knows what she has accomplished.