Thursday, June 9, 2011

Holiday Blessings

Diwali is one of the rare Indian festivals celebrated all over India with great pomp, last year Diwali was on November 5. Rare because it is celebrated the all-over-India celebration, not rare as in it only happens every once so often, much like Christmas it is back every year. One of the things people do is clean their houses – very similar to the idea of spring cleaning. Cleaning also involves repainting the house if needed, especially the exterior. Another part of the festival includes sharing wonderful sweets with friends and families. This is also the time many people buy major purchases such as TV, cars etc, so that they are bought on an auspicious day. People buy new clothes, burst crackers and generally have a good time. It is the time of good cheer in India.

Much like the US, however, India too has latched onto Diwali and the gift giving, new household purchases etc. with great gusto. These days you see signs of sales all over the place. But this could be a byproduct of the fact many young unmarried folks have good paying jobs and next to no expenses because they either live at home with parents (this is pretty much a custom – if a child does not stay at home when living in the same city, the assumption is there was a falling out between parents and their child) they have a lot of disposable income, so shopping is just logical thing to do.

My in-laws live in New Delhi and come from a state called Bihar, where a more important festival per their customs is celebrated six days after Diwali called Chhat – literally meaning sixth. It is an amazing event. My mother-in-law (MIL) tells me that this is the only festival that starts by worshiping the “setting sun” and ends by worshiping the “rising sun”.

One woman in a family fasts for 36 hours, because she believes that this will protect her family from harm and bless them with good fortune. This fast is quite austere, not so much as a sip of water is allowed. From past experience my MIL has learned that eating a big meal before the fast begins doesn’t help, if anything she eats a very simple meal. At the end of the first 24 hours in the evening the family dresses up and sets out to a river, pond, or any other water body to pray to the setting sun. My family has done both, they have gone to a river, which has its own charm because there are numerous other families there for the same reason. Nothing in India happens in a small scale. Another year, they filled up the little pond in the gardens in front of their house and did the prayers there.

Everyone returns home after the evening prayers and life goes on as usual, well for the rest of the family not the woman fasting of course. When my MIL fasts I notice she also becomes very quiet. I don’t know if it is because fasting depletes her energies, or fasting and its purpose makes her introspective as she seeks greater oneness with the powers that be.

This is also the time when loads of sweets are prepared at home, for which preparations have been going on for a day or two, to be distributed to all who come to the family’s celebrations and receive it as “prasaad”. It is quite a production and wonderful to watch all the preparations.

Early next morning (thankfully this is a winter festival so the sun doesn’t rise too early, but we are still talking about 5 am). The family dresses up again and sets off to the water body they prayed at the evening before. My MIL steps into the shallow water and waits for the sun to rise. As you can see in the photos there are several difference things on offer. I do not recollect them all, but among them is milk and fruits. First, my MIL offers the milk and then everyone in the family offers a tiny bit to the river and sun from the same pot. After my MIL finished her prayers she is becomes a holy person and her blessings are eagerly sought.

It makes a lot of sense that the morning prayers, which also signal the end of the fasting, is the time when most people show up. So now we have family, friends, colleagues and I don’t know who else show up. Not every Bihari family will have someone fasting, so when a friend or extended family member is doing it they all come to enjoy the company of friends as is typical of any social gathering and wait for the blessings from my MIL.  Total strangers might walk up and ask for her blessings too. After the prayers people walk up and touch her feet for her blessings. She puts kumkum on their forehead and offers them a small packet of sweets prepared the day before at home.

After everyone returns home, meal preparation is in full swing. My MIL is offered the first meal. If you have ever fasted for 36 hours without so much as a drop of water, you don’t simply dive in and eat a meal. You take a little bite, sip some water and wait for it to settle into your stomach, before taking another bite and so it goes on. It is much like offering water or food to a starving person, you can’t simply fill them up.

November December are also months when flu is in the air, not much different than here in the US. My father-in-law (FIL) had caught a cold just before Diwali. By the time Chhat was over he still hadn’t shaken off the cold, in fact it seemed worse than ever. So much against his wishes, after all who likes to go to the doctors, he was taken for a check up. At the hospital, the doctor was convinced that my FIL needed to be in the hospital for observation because he had weakened (a wonderful part if you are lucky to have access to medical help in India is that the hospitals are happy to keep you on for observation instead of sending you home ASAP). My FIL is nearly eighty years old, so it is not so easy for him to bounce back from illnesses. In their hospital room, the doctor was asking my sister-in-law (SIL) questions about the symptoms and progress of my FIL’s illness. While listening to my SIL, he never took his eyes off my FIL. Suddenly, he shouted out at the nurse to put my FIL on the bed and to use the defibrillator. As it happened, my FIL’s was just about fainting when he was swept onto the bed and revived. They later learned that his heart had stopped for a few seconds before starting again.

What a blessing that this happened in the hospital where he had immediate assistance, or we would most likely not have the joy of sharing our lives with him now. As is the case with any heart or head injury, you cannot tell what damages may occur. At first, my SIL told me that he behaved in a very childlike manner. Another change was if he thought of wanting or doing something, it had to be done NOW! He had lost his concept of time. Before his illness, my FIL’s day had a very structured day, he ate 3 meals plus tea and they were always about the same portion size and about the same time everyday. This of course, made him a very healthy man and added to his chances of a better recovery.

My husband was quite worried. Here we are in the States and there they are in India. First, the news of his illness itself is shocking, then, one is never quite sure if you are getting the whole story here, or the family is glossing over some matter. But more than that, no son or daughter can sit in peace without seeing their parent and assuring oneself of their recovery.

Our last trip to India had happened in summer of 2009 (see Blog http://familyandchildcare.blogspot.com/2009/08/summer-travel-to-india-part-i-bombay.html). This year my oldest is in fifth grade and I thought it might be a good time to visit in the winter and it might be more pleasurable for my kids as well, so they won’t be sweltering in the heat, not to mention, we could escape part of the Wisconsin winter. But I kept dithering about our plans. Hearing of my FIL’s illness the decision was taken out of our hands and we immediately made plans to visit in January.

When my youngest heard we were going to India, it is not his favorite thing because he says, “there is no food in India.” A reason, if you need one, not to raise picky eaters. But he was quite sure he wanted to have Christmas at home in the States. Well his wishes must be quite strong that year; we didn’t get tickets until after Christmas. His birthday is the 29th of December. So the next thing he wanted was that his birthday to be celebrated at home too. But we said we had tickets, so we were going.

We set off to the airport in a limo, it was quite funny, my husband and the driver were loading the limo with our luggage and the limo started to slide down the sloped driveway. The funny part was that both the driver and my husband are hanging on to the limo; like they could stop it was sliding down. When we reached the airport check in, we were at the counter for a really long time, before we discovered that while we had a current passport for my older son, his visa was on the older passport which we did not have with us. So we rented a car and headed back to Madison.

We had to reschedule our flights and guess what, we got tickets for the day after my youngest son’s birthday. So once again, his wish came true. Our next attempt to travel went smoothly enough. We arrived in India and the family bought a cake to re-celebrate my younger son’s birthday, so now he got two birthdays!

It was heartening to see my FIL doing well, he was no longer bedridden, he still had a nasty chest congestion that he couldn’t seem to shake, but with the cold weather it would be a tough fight for the fittest, and given his age, it was slow progress. His words a still a little slurred, he still did not have the concept of time. But even in the two short weeks we spent in India (my kids were thrilled because they skipped the first two weeks of school) we saw much improvement in his health. Which was wonderful to see and especially reassuring for my husband.

My husband encouraged my FIL to go out of the house to feel better and less like an ill patient. My FIL was all for it. It was a little amusing to see him get all dressed up every morning and ask, so what are the plans for today. One of the days, my husband said, today we are going to the Bengali Market for lunch. My FIL clapped his hands together and said, let’s go.

In the past I have only ever since him being like the head of the household serious, he does have a sense of humor, and he took great trouble to spend time with my kids and learn of their interests and talk about things they would be interested in. And at least once during our visit he loved to take me and the kids to the Parliament to eat lunch. My FIL has an office in the Parliament. It is the office for the political party my FIL and MIL have spent much of their life supporting and being active party members. The office in the Parliament is to maintain their political party’s presence. It was interesting to note he is next door neighbors with Sonia Gandhi at the Parliament. We didn’t get a chance to see her.

But now, he wanted us to be a part of many outings. It is hard to say if this change was because he had a near death experience which changes people. Where he thought, well I am now living on extra time, so I am going to use it the way I enjoy best and one of them is spending more time with my family in more fun events. Or if the stroke itself was a cause of the change, where he couldn’t control his impulses to have fun, as mentioned earlier, I think he always had that in him, but didn’t openly express it nor do it very often. But now he was all about having as good a time as he could with his family. I think it is a wonderful change, we get our extra time with him and it is such an enjoyable time too.

This year was the last time my MIL was going to fast during Chhat, she is getting older too, and the severe fast takes quite a toll on the body. Her fasting wasn’t for naught, it kept her family safe.

Kalpana Kanwar, Copyright ©June 2011

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