Portrait of a Time
I was raised, like most children, grazing on the wet-scaled, lily-draped underbelly of classroom politics. I was sent to a K-12 school with 600 children. We all knew each other — recognized each others’ mothers' fashion on our little claymade knees and necks — and would know each other for at least 13 years after the first day of school. In our first years, we sat in assigned groups around brightly painted wooden tables and learned when you write a letter, the recipient's address goes smack in the middle of the envelope and yours goes in a small corner on the left. (I still expect letters in the mail, lovingly stamped, but no one writes me.) We learned fractions and were introduced to the nematodes and mollusks — on which my father quizzed me with an iron voice in the mornings before school — and memorized each other's birthdays; and that was when the polity was introduced to politics.
Oh, the birthdays — such bloodthirsty, gift-hungry, worrisome affairs. Until we were 13, everyone was welcome. No conscientious mother would rob her child's classmate of an invitation for fear of retribution. Our parties were a youthful bacchanalia, no sobriety in the room — save the rueful tired-gray smoke that draped the chaperones' faces. There were streamers and magicians and bouncy houses and return gifts — little bags with chocolates and maybe, if the birthday boy or girl was rich, a Spiderman action figure or a monster truck or — god forbid — a pencil case. Some parents dared to take us to swimming pools, where we all urinated freely, as if bathrooms could never quite be enough. We forced each other under until one of us cried or swam away, lurking in the deep end until the anger had passed. We raced and cannonballed, and the children on the margins — the children that could not swim as well or did not play with us at recess — still made it in, crossed the city walls before nightfall.
It is so early in the morning that the time doesn’t even matter. I’m in the bottom bunk, my sister is above me. Braver than I am, she has taken the top bunk, much closer to our crooked ceiling fan. I’m afraid that it will slice my head in two when I’m asleep, but I’m also afraid that it will slice her head in two when she is asleep. On most nights, I turn the fan off once she has gone to bed. Our father comes through the doorway and switches on the light, and ever since then, I will associate flying with the confusion of a harsh yellow light breaking my sleep. He wakes me without ceremony; he is worried we will miss our flight. As I sit in bed, still under the covers, my mother hands me the clothes I am to wear. I change and fall asleep again. Our father comes back through the door and tells me to repeat after him: “Namo arihantanam, namo siddhanam, namo aryanam, namo upadhyanam, nama loe sabba sahunam.” I repeat after him, too tired to giggle at these unfamiliar words. He tells me that this is a prayer we say before we fly so that we will be safe. On the car ride to the airport, I repeat the words incessantly — the words I can remember, at least — so that we may always be safe, one long prayer for all the journeys we will ever take.
As a child, my parents taught me many things: some magical (don’t make faces; if the winds change direction, your face will get stuck that way), some important (call your grandparents). But my family has never been religious. I was never asked to memorize prayers or to place my faith in rituals. At home, our religion was nothing more than my grandfather’s nightly retellings of the Ramayana, whispered into our ears. Our trips to temples, few and far between, felt like visiting distant relatives — people I had only vaguely heard of and never really known.