Every evening at dusk we would be sent up-up-stairs to light the lamp and say our prayers aloud. I can see the deerskin that my grandmother used to sit on, I can smell the oil and vibhuthi, feel the softness of the silk of a swami's dhothi treasured in a pretty carved sandalwood box. I see the pictures of lovely goddesses and pretty gods. Among them also the image of mother Mary and infant Jesus, kept there for the benefit of Jacob our boy servant sent from a Kerala village.
The lamp-lighting and prayers were invariably punctuated with quarrels and they ended with a hurried '...shanthi shanti shanthi'.
After the prayer session, all would run down the narrow stairs. I cannot recall what excitement awaited, but the running happened. Being the littlest of all, I was rather slow and therefore left behind. That is when fear took over. Shadows loomed and the little girl was sure one of them was 'boochandi' come to do evil things to her. Terror squeezed her breathless as her feet stumbled down the stairs. All the while she sang at the top of her voice, half to take strength from the noise, half to appear brave to the others laughing at the bottom landing.
I remember sidling up to my grandfather one night as he reclined on his armchair, preparing his betel leaves. I asked him why we had to pray every single day. He probably thought it was blasphemy, but proceeded to explain, " Have you watched the wheel? Any point on the circumference keeps going up or down as the wheel moves. But look at the centre - it stays unmoved whatever happens to the wheel. People who pray are like the centre of the wheel." Grandfather's reply left me disappointed. Why was he talking about wheels?
When I went to my parents during the vacation, I'd listen as my father sang bhajans in his inimitable way . I'd lie on my mother's lap and doze off. My mother often said that it was 'ashreekaram' - inauspicious - to sleep at dusk during prayers. But even today prayers induce sleep, especially in the evening.
Adoloscence came with doubts and questions. Did I really think that god sat and answered prayers? Why pray for stuff when you can work and get it . Yes work was worship.
Time and tide didn't wait; child bearing brought humility and faith. "Please keep my children healthy, wealthy, wise, happy, lucky, goodlooking, smart, efficient, useful individuals. May they get the good that they deserve and deserve the good that they get...." thus went my prayers. I felt quite smug with my 'complete 'prayer. It included all that they would need....... or did it? I remembered Tithonus.
Tithonus, a character in Greek mythology had prayed for immortal life, but he had forgotten to ask for everlasting youth. So the unfortunate fellow was destined to live endlessly, an old old man while his wife,the lovely Aurora- Dawn rose with renewed youth every morning. ( The poem by Tennyson is a must read)
So the tale of Tithonus led me to total surrender as I told god that he knew what was good for my children and may his will be done. Only give the strength to face the tests.
Today I realise that individuals cannot know peace unless there is balance all around. And my brief, but momentous prayer goes: Give, this day, peace - Shanthi... Shanthi....Shanthi.
I have come full circle.
I cannot hope that the power of prayers, the vibrations they create will bring peace between communities or balance in nature. They may not make terrorists less terrible or corrupt people honest. They may not even make a hostile person amiable or a hurt heart heal. All I can do is nurture peace within me and among the people I meet.