Monday, June 19, 2006

A puja, a slap, and questions

[The little brown betelnuts surrounding the coconut represent the various planets. Or so the Brahmin explained at some point. "Pour some water over Saturn. No no, Saturn is here!"]

Last week, there was a puja (in honor of the god Ganesh) held at my aunt's, to celebrate the impending arrival of my cousin's first child. A "baby shower" was how it was mentioned to me, though, it wasn't about bringing baby-gifts to the mom. A Ganeshpuja, followed by a meal for the family in attendance.

The night before, I was informed that as the diyar ("dee-year"), i.e. husband's younger brother, I had a role to play. [Yes brother. Indian languages don't have a word for "cousin." In the Hindu joint family, it's all brother or sister. Since my cousin is an only child, I filled in as diyar. The (to Westerners) bewildering nomenclature for relationships in the joint-family is the subject of another post]. "Aney laafo marvo padshey." You'll need to slap her. [my cousin's wife]. Do what? Yep, you heard correctly. N, cousin's wife looked alarmed. My folks had never heard of this. But the collection of assembled aunts (the bearers of all religious knowledge) concurred. Ok, there were only two aunts, but that's a collection. And a third aunt was consulted on the phone in Bombay. Yes yes, the laafa (slap) is part of it. With a glint in the eye, I promised N that I'd practice well overnight.

The puja started at 11 am the next day, so of course we showed up at around 11:20. Amazingly, the priest (pujari, or in Gujarati, maharaj [a term that can mean king. Or cook. Or temple priest. Apparently it's used for Brahmins. Except kings aren't Brahmins. I give up.] showed up on time. "Arrey diyar, hurry up!" as I rush into my aunt's house, all decked up in a fancy silk kurta and churidars. (Thankfully I packed one set!)

Like most Hindu rituals, things were a little chaotic. The living room was the puja room. My cousin and wife, with tikas on their foreheads and a variety of threads and twines on their wrists sitting in front of the shrine, with the maharaj to one side, dressed in saffron, the color of the Brahmins (and angry Sangh Parivar activists). The idol in the center in front of them, and coconuts with a variety of accoutrements (rice, ghee, milk, nuts, fruit) on either side. Apart from my cousin, I was the only guy there. The room was a riot of colorful saris and salwars. The men were outside on the porch, chatting away.

I stood in a corner and took photographs. At one point I shushed my mother, 'cause she was talking to someone. Then I remembered. This ain't church. Folk just gab away as the boy from the caterers circulates with glasses of cold sherbet. The maharaj intones the slokas in super-fast Sanskrit. And, occasionally, in the same chanting monotone, a monition to the assembled camera operators. "Photographers, pay attention!" and periodically, without skipping a beat, instructions in Gujarati to the couple. Add this much ghee to the plate. Put these many grains of rice on the idol. Pour milk on it. 5 spoons of water. Etc. "And what is the name of the kuldevi? (The family goddess?)" Looks of confusion. A few names emerge from the gathered matrons. A conensus emerges. Bhavani. Her name is then invoked in the continuing ritual. [Me, to myself. We have a kuldevi? Live and learn!]

Finally, the aarti dish is elaborately prepared, and everyone quiets down. The ritual is coming to a close.

[Notice the little swastikas on the dish. Nope, nothing to do with neofascism. An ancient Hindu symbol, it's used all over the place in India.]

As the aarti went around the room, people extending their hands over the flame, and bringing them to their faces and heads in a fluid gesture, a sign of reverence and respect, I froze. Should I do that? It's been years since I've participated in any Hindu ritual. It happens but on special occasions in the family, and I've been away in the US for years. How do I honor the First Commandment?

The last time I had any serious role in a Hindu ritual was ... well, I don't know. [A Satyanarayan katha that was done to celebrate my brother's admission to IIT. When I was 10. We both sat for hours with the pujari and the part that I recall with painful clarity was that I had to throw one single grain of rice on the coconut for each of the 1001 names of Vishnu.] Since then, I've been to Hindu temples and been present at rituals, without participating.

Of course, to some, (the same set that went into apoplectic fits at Pope John Paul receiving a tika on his arrival in India), my very presence in this room contaminates me, and is a participation in idolatry.

Well, no. It's a family thing. I'm the only Christian in the family. So no, I don't worship any God but God, and I won't bow to idols. And I probably will not do the aarti thing. But I can respect my family's religious beliefs and be present at family fuctions. And yes, I do eat prasad. And of course I'll say a prayer for my cousin and his wife and the baby.

Oh yeah. What about that laafa? I had to cover my palms in kanku and then gave two light pats on cousin's wife's cheeks. And then the maharaj handed a saffron cloth, twisted together to make a whip-like-thing, and I had to slap her back. Five times. Lightly. Woah! "Arrey diyar bahu dayalu che!" (This diyar is very kind!)

The part that I wasn't told about was that she got to return the slaps.

Boy, it took a lot of scrubbing to get all that red color out!

And why does the diyar have to do this to his bhabhi? No one had a clue. I asked the maharaj as he was leaving. He misunderstood me, and told me that diyars are kinder than jeths (elder brother of the husband). "Diyar jeththi vahlo" But why a slap, he didn't say.

Umm. Don't tell anyone. But I'm actually older than my cousin. I'm not a diyar but a jeth Whoops! Posted by Picasa


St. Izzy said...

[inserting tongue into cheek]

I'm pretty sure there's something in both 1 Corinthians and Romans about vegetables offered to idols.

[removing tongue from cheek]

Gashwin said...

Hehe --- yep yep. I didn't eat the coconut too. But then, maybe I am weak in the faith? ;-)