Nisha Ramalingam steps onto the crowded train. Where could she—ah, there it is, the beautiful invitation of an empty seat after a long and rather tiring day. The orange dullness of the seat no longer bothers her as it once had. Nowadays, she could only have faith that the person before her wasn’t menstruating, didn’t have a life threatening disease, or, God forbid, wasn’t a homeless person; her new red cashmere coat is, after all, very fragile.
As she sits down, she checks the time on her phone, and of course, the idiotic thing continues to glitch. Cursing under her breath, she immediately cracks out the battery, puts it back into the phone, readjusts the cover, and frantically presses the power button, which of course, would still take the ridiculously endless five minutes to turn on. Why is it that time always takes too long when one is late to some event? “Be there on time or no debate for the next week,” her mother had said, and taking debate practice away was not an option anymore, as Ms. Feldman would notice, the coaches would threaten, and the novice preparation wouldn’t get done.
She doesn’t even understand why she has to be at the temple today anyway; it is, to her rationalized, scientific brain, quite pointless, her mother’s sun and moon cycles. Instead of being home on a reassuringly humdrum Tuesday, maybe drinking some peppermint tea, definitely reading her latest copy of Foreign Policy Magazine, she has to get home, grab a gaudy sari, wrap it around herself in a nonsensical fashion, and trip on over to the temple, where she is to be forced to sing something devotional, listen to the brass temple bells clanging, and choke her way through the smoke of the pyre that would be lit in honor of something as foolish as the moon being full.
Her mother is a stalwart at these things, waking up at 5:00 A.M. to hold morning worship in their tiny prayer room—the chanting is what usually wakes Nisha up most mornings—and fasting during Tuesdays and Thursdays to please the multi-faceted Gods of Hindu lore. And, in a soft and silent way, it is comforting to always wake up to her mother’s murmuring, to smell the gentle jasmine of the incense wafting through the kitchen, and to know that, even in the darkest hours of the night, there would always be a small oil lamp illuminating the white-marbled prayer room with a gentle golden glow so that her midnight water trips to the kitchen wouldn’t result in an impromptu shower.
She does, though very grudgingly, follow her mother’s lead on the tangible tradition—accompanying her mother to the temple whenever possible, heading the temple youth group, and taking those wretched singing lessons that always end in her being berated by her well-meaning but overly strict teacher. The traditions never really mean anything on their own—she knows the meanings of the Sanskrit script she reads, but doesn’t believe in their supposed mantric power—but she holds on for her family and her desperate attempt to grasp at the threads of herself, her identity in this fast and frightening city.
What truly excites Nisha is that esoteric depth that the oldest teachings involve. The love of Hindu mythology that had taken root in Nisha’s early vacations in India as a bored first grader in her grandfather’s study—all grandfathers have some religious mythology texts in their studies in India, apparently, perhaps because they realize that their young nieces, nephews, and then grandchildren would, at some point come toddling over for a story—has never died within her, and she knows that she will be analyzing and philosophizing about Hindu tradition and idealism tradition long after she leaves home, and why that isn’t enough? Isn’t thinking about God more important than doing these meaningless things to get him on our side?
A man next to her jostles her as he gets up to go, and runs out without even a single backwards glance. She hates that, hates the lack of manners on this New York City train, the juxtaposition of a Wall Street man sitting while a pregnant woman struggles to stand, hates the fact that the subway isn’t hers alone to think, to dream, and perhaps most importantly, to sleep a dreamless sleep after a long day of wading through the quagmire of high school.
“Be there,” her mother had insisted, and when she looks down, her phone still hasn’t turned on. The bright light with the HTC logo, which is supposed to mean that the phone is “loading”, seems to be mocking her lack of punctuality. She reminds herself to get an iPhone as soon as her family’s contract with this delinquent piece of machinery is over. Her mother’s words loom over her, chastising her, evoking within her that respect, that fear, and scolding her not so subtly about her lack of interest.
Her family has already started to search for family members, and friends of friends of friends of family, and temples in the Chicago area, jinxing the entire college process, she thinks. It makes her outraged that they simply assume that she would receive admission because she’s “a good person”. She sighs, wishes that she had the gall to tell her mother that she may not be able to do all of this. Yes, she would miss this, she supposed, next year, but how is she supposed to do it? How is she supposed to uphold the whole temple on Saturday morning affair when she would have a midterm on every Monday, probably; how she would complete the preliminary prayers every morning without waking her roommate up? But the thought of leaving home, leaving everything that she has known, to create this new daily schedule that may not be filled with scolding and henpecking, with love and richness of culture, with this tradition that has, at the same time, been forced upon her yet been worn as a second skin by her, is antithetical and blissful, and she doesn’t know what she wants.
The digital analog of her phone comes alive, its gray electronica steel holding her gaze. “6:42,” she mutters to herself. She is already too late.
Neeta D’Souza, Age 17, Grade 12, Stuyvesant High School, Silver Key