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This past weekend was Diwali, the Hindu New Year. I associate Diwali with being at home among family, with rows upon rows of traditional lamps, and with the triumph of good over evil. But Diwali’s beauty can feel ephemeral. The dancing firelight eventually vanishes. The epic Ramayana, from which some stories of the triumph of good originates, doesn’t end so happily after all. The semester’s work comes crashing back after a weekend of cooking, cleaning, and family worship, and it’s like you had only been folded into a world of your own foolish construction.
This year, Diwali reminds me of my father, who underwent major back surgery about this time last year. The surgery was successful and my father is healthy. But for every year leading up to it, my father, a natural and skilled athlete, an intrinsically brave man, was perpetually in pain. I have vague memories of this fact, when he was a little bit more irritable after a long day of performing procedures as an indefatigable physician, or when he did not want to eat dinner at the dining table and instead watched TV from the couch. Still, it was only after I read about ankylosing spondylitis, the autoimmune arthritic condition that my dad has, on an organization’s website that I realized the degree to which people with this condition feel pain: “Bad days felt like grizzly bear claws and teeth ripping through my connective tissue and joints.” And, “I struggle to keep my mind positive and just want to cry… which on occasion I do.” For a time, I hardly believed that my father felt this kind of pain, because if I am having the least bit of discomfort, he is the first to advise ibuprofen. It is as if the fact that he has suffered from chronic pain means nothing for how others should learn to bear it, too.
A few weeks before the surgery, my mother called me and told me exuberantly that my father had finally signed up to take theological exams at the temple. These exams are meant to teach scripture of this particular Hindu tradition and ways of understanding the world and our place in it. They’re open to anyone and are purely for spiritual discovery and fulfillment. My mom had been urging my dad to take them for years, since, in her view, without the positive pressure of an exam, it’s tough to find time to read anything at all. After eleven years of taking the same exams, I can say with confidence that I’ve found this to be true. But my father always resisted, brushing it off jokingly as unnecessary, citing his busy work schedule as a valid reason not to do it.
“He’s finally decided to do it!” my mother was smiling at me from behind the screen. From behind her, out of the frame, my father called back, “Don’t get your hopes up too high!” I was shocked; I couldn’t be sure that his decision wasn’t just a brief, noncommittal comment to assuage my mother.
There are times when I resent the added burden of studying for this exam, when my friends on campus are stressed about spring semester midterms, and I am stressed about all of those things plus the fact that I am miserably underprepared for an exam — one that is supposed to tell me how to salvage the fate of my soul after death. The kicker is that having read by now thousands of pages on the subject, I still look at my father and think, here is a person who wastes no time drowning in theoretical faith. For him, faith is nothing like leaping off the edge, or a blinding firework, beautiful but short-lived. He is a person who enacts those theories and concepts that I only memorize. He is a person who is put to the test not once a year by pen and paper, but by nature. The word faithful has a longitudinal connotation, after all.
Diwali reminds me of my father because it’s not always jubilant and loud. Sometimes, like in the pandemic when we will not visit family members, it is quiet. It’s less like a firework and more like an image I cherish from the Bhagavad Gita: a lamp in a windless place. It is still and warm; it is transparent and yet substantial.
Six years ago, I stood in the winding line of a ride called “Leap of Faith” at a resort in the Bahamas. From the railing, I could see him, sitting in a reclining chair surrounded by our shoes and towels. While the anxiety preceding a near-vertical slide into a shark tank rose, none of us mourned the absence of the lone family member who sat near the edge of the pool reading. That’s because it happens every time. My dad always spearheads vacation planning, hurtling headlong into the logistics for every excursion, and then sits out when the moment — to lie on the salt-encrusted surfboard, to buckle into a humongous roller coaster — arrives.
It was me, my brother and mom and cousins, and aunt and uncle, who leapt off the edge that day and came up sputtering at the end of the slide with chlorine in our eyes and noses. But it was my father, that day and every day, who gave faith a new meaning, steady and quiet, performing nothing, and needing no occasion but normalcy to find good in the dark. This Diwali, when the last light dissolves, I remember this.
Pranati P. Parikh ’21 is a joint Religion and Comparative Literature concentrator in Adams House. Her column appears on alternate Wednesdays.
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