Sujatha Bagal

Stories and essays on food, travel, culture.

Aksharaabhyaasa (or Vidhyaarambham) – A prayer for a milestone

Growing up in India, it is very easy to feel like you’re drowning in the frequency and number of rituals in any given year. There are the numerous festivals, there are the special rituals unique to every family, the rituals for every life event, and then there are the pujas held at random times during the year to address specific issues – if someone has been sick for a long time, if someone is having difficulty at work or in finding a bride or groom, or if the family is just grateful for a happy occurrence.

Not only do you celebrate the ones in your own home, but you participate in the ones in relatives’ and friends’ houses as well – ‘participate’ meaning you dress up in nice clothes, put on all your jewellery, talk nineteen to the dozen with the gathering of friends and relatives, feast to your heart’s content on festival food and go back home deliciously tired. Yes, rituals in other people’s houses are almost always more fun. Someone else is doing all the work, you see.

Living in the US, it’s a completely different story. We live off of a calendar that makes no mention of any of the festivals, wandering in the desert of no rituals for years. Life runs on a completely different cycle than the one on which we grew up. No, this is not a complaint, just a statement of fact. It is what it is. We each pray in our own way every morning, we get to the temple as often as we can, but festivals come and go unnoticed, unless my parents or in-laws call from India and ask what we did that day.

There are some rituals, though, particularly the ones to do with children that somehow we’ve managed to keep our sights on. When the future is in plain sight is perhaps when you look carefully at your past, at your roots. So we’ve been eager beavers when it comes to making sure our kids are up to date on the rituals meant for them. There’s the little ritual when the baby comes home for the first time from the hospital; a visit to the temple is the baby’s first outing; there’s the naming ceremony; there’s the ceremony for when the baby graduates from milk to solid foods; a ceremony to make an offering of the child’s hair to the family deity (in India, hair would be shaved off completely from the children’s heads, whereas here the priest held a few blades of dried grass right next to our son’s hair and air-snipped as a stand-in); and there’s the ritual before children begin their formal education.

This last one, the ritual for when children are about to start school is a personal favorite. Going off to school is one of the big milestones in the life of a child, his or her first real step as a social being, deserving of proper marking and celebration. The Aksharaabhyaasa is simple, sweet and profound in import, all at the same time.

So this past January, the day before my daughter was to start pre-school, we set up time at the temple to have a priest perform the ceremony for us. The temple’s website helpfully provided the list of items we needed to take – flowers, fruits, about a pound of rice, honey, milk, yogurt, ghee, turmeric, kumkum (vermillion), betel nuts, betel nut leaves, a piece of cloth, a book and a pencil, etc., etc. That Sunday, we dressed my daughter up in her long skirt (langa) and blouse that my sister-in-law and brother-in-law had given her as a gift during my son’s thread ceremony, my son wore his jubba and pyjama and off we went to the temple.

After the initial iteration of our family’s antecedents and a small prayer to invoke the goddess of education, Saraswati, the priest had my daughter sit on her father’s lap and with his hand guiding hers, her finger serving as a writing implement, she traced the first few alphabets of the Kannada script on a rice-filled plate. Then followed a few letters of the English alphabet and then the numbers. Right on cue, good-natured ribbing followed – are you sure you remember your alphabets, the priest teased the husband; he can’t even read my letters anymore, chimed in my mother-in-law. And then it was done.

The next day, Monday, I woke her up gently, telling her she had to go to school. She got up with a start, yelled, “I can hear the school bell. I’m late!” (a dialogue from a Dora book that she found the right moment to apply) and tumbled out of bed. She picked out her outfit – leggings, shirt, frock and boots – slung her backpack over her shoulders (yes, she had filled it with the stuff she wanted to take the night before), said goodbye to her grand-parents and dad, sat in the car with her brother and was off to school.

The next two days were tough. The novelty of the first day wore off mighty quick. She cried on Tuesday and Wednesday. Then Thursday was library day and park day at her school. There has been no looking back since then. Every day she walks in with a wide grin, big arms and a “Hi friends!” for her classmates. I’m not kidding. A couple of them come running and they have a group hug while I stand there taking in all the drama. Oh, yeah. There’s plenty of that!

P.S. We’d had my son’s ceremony at the same temple when he was about three. My in-laws were visiting us then too. We had gone to the Bombay Club across from the White House for dinner then. We decided to replay the episode fully and went to the Bombay Club again. When we got there we found that the entire street and all the streets around the Hay Adams Hotel were cordoned off because then President-elect Obama and his family happened to be housed at that hotel in the days before the inauguration (remember the episode about the Blair House not being available because Bush had the former PM of Australia staying there?).

So we had to park the car a couple of blocks away and we, in our fashionable but flimsy Indian clothes froze by the time we got to the restaurant. We had not expected to stop anywhere after the temple and we were unprepared. Then, the next day we read in the papers that just as we were chowing down on some delicious but bland Indian food, Obama and his family were at the Lincoln Memorial, just a few blocks away, paying homage to the man whose train journey Obama was all set to replicate in a couple of days. One of those so-near-yet-so-far moments that I’m sure will be repeated many times.

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This entry was posted on October 22, 2009 by in Blog, Personal Essays and tagged , , , .
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