The swastika

Many of the pictures that I’ve posted on my travels to India include an image that might have surprised some of you.



This photo is of the place where Mahatma Gandhi’s mother gave birth to him. The house is now a museum/shrine and my father and I visited it in Gandhi’s hometown of Porbandar last month. My post on our trip prompted a response from my friend K.S. back in Dallas who wrote: “Again I have learned something new and interesting from you. I only knew the Swastika as a Nazi symbol so was surprised to see it in your photos. I now know that it dates back to ancient India and literally means ‘to be good’ and is considered a sacred symbol in Hinduism and Buddhism. What a shame the Natzi Party bastardized it.”

For more than a decade now, India and being Indian has been a little more cool; Westerners are more familiar with our culture(s) and our cultural idiosyncracies. A few years ago, there was even a show on network TV set in an Indian call center. People have heard about Bollywood and there’s “Lie of Pi” and “Slumdog Millionaire.”

But, still, for most people in the West, the swastika is first associated with Nazis, not Hinduism – even though the symbol has been used as a good luck emblem not only by us but by Buddhists and Jains as well. Swastikas have appeared on petroglyphs in Armenia, a gold necklace in ancient Iran and on Greco-Roman coins.

K.S.’s remark reminded me of a story from my childhood. We had just moved to Texas and my Dad’s nurse was visiting our home for the first time. It was our family’s first stand-alone house, brand-new and seemingly huge, with a big backyard and enough bedrooms to give my brother and me our own rooms. It was also the first house that either of my parents could call their own. Neither of their families had the means to own their own homes in India, and eight years after arriving in America with very little money, they had now built and owned their own home. Looking back now, I realize just how, justifiably, proud my parents must have been – proud to show it to visitors, proud to raise their young family in it.

Anyway, the nurse, whose name was Helen, was a kind person and she was a gracious guest. She just had one piece of advice on the house: Get rid of the swastikas.

I’m sure she didn’t say it quite that way. My parents had hung up Indian tapestries on the walls, which pictured pastoral scenes in the classical style. And in various places there were swastikas. This was 1979 or 1980 in Texas City, Texas. And Helen basically said that it would probably be best if we didn’t have these sorts of things displayed.

This was before I had learned anything about World War II or Nazi Germany. I just understood that, for some reason, the swastika was bad and that we shouldn’t have them around or people would think bad of us. Texas City didn’t have a big Indian community where we could find safety in numbers, or with whom we could “expose” our cultural icons without being judged.

The tapestries came off the walls. And, as I’m only beginning to understand lately, with them began a process of “hiding” my Indian-ness. Not deliberately and not out of shame, but as part of a process of wanting to fit in, normal for any new kid-turned-typical teenager. I’m Indian, certainly, just take a look at me. But I didn’t have to emphasize that. Back then, being Indian was definitely not considered cool. It just made you seem weird. And I wanted to fit in. We settled in small-town Texas, my parents raised their children and we focused on being an “American” family.

A divine walk

The muted buzz gives way to the intense, insistent punctuation of words spoken in rapid-fire Hindi as soon as the SUV doors open.

Sahab, dholi chaiyye? Bhen, dholi lijiye, nah?

1,100 rupees. 900 rupees. There are four-person dholis and those carried only by two. You can take turns sitting, they tell my father and me.

We are surrounded by dholi-wallahs. Dad and I grab hands so we won’t get separated as we push our way forward. There’s no way to get through the group clustered around us, so close to see the red smears of chewed paan in their teeth. No amount of Nai chaiyye – or I don’t want – spoken at first dismissively, yet politely, and then rudely, as rude as you can be, dissuades them. The dholi-wallahs close in tighter, accompanying us as we try to move toward the gate that marks the entrance.

It is a jarring introduction to Palitana, the most sacred of all Jain pilgrimage sites and a must-do for the faithful. The climb is more than 3,600 steps to reach mountain-top cluster of 3,000 marble temples carved out of marble over a period of 900 years, starting in the 11th century. From the ground, the temples look like the miniatures you see for sale at handicrafts stores all over India.

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But first, we must find a way out of the suffocating swarm. I try my most rude dismissals in whatever words come to mind – in English and in my special mishmash I’ll call Hinjrati – which fall on deaf ears. I clearly am not intimidating. But even the rejections by dad, who is speaking perfect Gujarati and Hindi, are ignored. Suddenly, my father is yelling at the top of his lungs, telling them to go away, that we have no need for your services. He is shaking.

Dad is surrounded by dholi-wallahs as we walk the steps to Palitana's temples.

Dad is surrounded by dholi-wallahs as we walk.

Alarmed, I begin to aggressively shove against the dholi-wallahs. I don’t know when or if I have ever seen my dad so upset and I am now angry at these human parasites. I protectively encircle my arm around my dad’s and I yell at them to leave, Ja, ja!  I consider suggesting we abandon our excursion. But dad’s shouting seem to have some effect. Most of them walk away, their voices muted, whining that he would speak to them in such a way.

In front of us lay the steps to Palitana, carved out of the mountainside itself. I try to focus on calming down, on forgetting the disturbing swarm and the four or five dholi-wallahs still trailing us. Step 1.

The guidebooks say the climb takes a couple of hours. When we reached about the one-third mark, dad decided to negotiate with the dholi-wallahs still following us. But they insisted on the same price they quoted at ground level. We turned them down, and mercifully, they began to descend, finally leaving us alone. At this point, it’s been about an hour and we are roughly 1,100 steps up.

For the next two hours, Dad and I climb. We take regular breaks to catch our breath, gaze at the scenery and gauge just how much higher we have to go. And, most importantly, we talk.

Time for worship

Time for worship

To be honest, I’m still processing all that I heard and learned that afternoon, and what and how to write about it. (Quick fun fact: Dad encouraged mom to take music lessons and she was learning how to play sitar before she had to give it up when they moved to America.) There weren’t many surprises; it was more like the backstory was being filled in. Context was added to the history of my father’s life and our journey as a family. It was as if it was finally age-appropriate to him to share the full story with me and for me to receive it.  We talked about my mom and brother, but we also talked about my dad’s relationship with his parents and siblings, his life as a young bachelor doctor, his desire to live abroad – including an unsuccessful attempt to migrate to London – and unexpected anguish in the first few months of being a newlywed.  He spoke of dreams and heartbreak, the painful process of accepting life’s deepest disappointments and remaining optimistic anyway.

It’s a cliche to say it but I don’t think I’m gifted enough as a writer to put it any other way. That day, I was able to interact with my dad as a whole person, and not only as my father. I gained a deeper understanding of what motivates him, his passions and dreams, and amazing effort both he and my mother put out to move to America, make a life there and give me and my brother so much more they they had.

The writer in me recognizes a good story, a tale of a family through three generations, one that leaves one country for another and makes a home within a culture so different from their own. But writing about yourself is tricky and I don’t want to hurt either of my parents by writing so candidly about our history. So I’ll let the voices, the characters, the stories, rumble around my head for a little while longer.

I’m glad we didn’t let the dholi-wallahs make us abandon our trek up to Palitana and back. This day was a gift.