Memories of fellowship a talisman for peace

ALL THESaturdays in the '90s were the same for me. Our family hung out with my parents' friends, at our place or theirs, in boomtown houses in Silicon Valley or the Hindu temples that sprang up beside them.

In the morning we bathed. My mother taught me that you always wash your hair and body before going to temple or a puja (a prayer ceremony). I'd shower and wear the pyjama juba she picked out for me from the hall closet. That traditional Indian outfit, also known as a salwar kameez, consists of a long tunic, pocketless drawstring pants and an optional scarf.

I remember the visits to my "aunties' and uncles'" houses the most. We made the long drive in our Toyota Corolla across the Altamont Pass, past the windmills. I always fell asleep on long car rides, drowsing away somewhere between Stockton and Mountain View, as my parents discussed the details of the ceremony my mother would help my father, a Hindu priest, perform.

My parents woke me up by parking on some spacious street in a new suburb. We entered the house, added our shoes to the pile at the door and exchanged greetings with other families, all Indian immigrants and their American children.

The rooms smelled of food, incense, flowers, sandalwood and babies. Every weekend my dad performed engagements, weddings, housewarmings and baby-namings.

We sat cross-legged on the living-room carpet, in front of him and the ad hoc altar, often a coffee table draped with fabric. My mother assisted by surrounding him with the ingredients of the ritual — incense, flowers, fruit, nuts, sweet rice pudding, brass lamps filled with oil and hand-rolled cotton wicks, the yellow and red powders turmeric and kumkum. He chanted, and we followed. We rose and knelt, twirled, tossed blessed rice at the idols.

Kids ran around the house, shrieking and playing, too young to behave for the length of the puja. But at the end their parents brought them back for the aarthi: Someone held a tray of oil lamps and moved around the room to bless each person by moving the tray in a clockwise direction three times. The flames danced and blurred. Everyone ate the prasada, the sweet communion pudding. Parents coached their kids on standing still, performing aarthi and giving and receiving with the right hand, never the left.

After my father cajoled everyone into saying grace; we dug in to the meatless potluck dinner. I never wanted to eat as much as my mother wished, so I tried to make variety seem like quantity on my styrofoam plate.

They spoke in Kannada, our South Indian language, switching to English for the latest computer acronyms. Sometimes they played music or sang hymns. Hardly anyone smoked or drank alcohol.

No one seemed in a hurry to leave, except tired children who learned never to take the first "Put on your shoes, we're leaving!" at face value. There was always another bit of family gossip to share, another invitation for next weekend.

Before leaving, the visitors bent down to touch the hosts' feet for a blessing. Then the hosts gave out gifts — fruit, sarees, jewelry, and for the kids, small odd-numbered amounts of money, like $21.

I never remembered the names of those endless Uncles and Aunties, and I felt exasperated with their gifts, attention and questions. Now I am embarrassed that I did not recognize their instant and generous kindness. They would let me sleep in their beds when I needed a nap, let me watch TV or read books in their bedrooms, and even give me a ride home early, an hour out of their way. They gave so much, and I was a greedy, selfish child.

I miss the routine of the parties and the smells and the sounds and the riches of spirit that I thoughtlessly squandered.

Now, when I need to calm myself, I chant the mantra that I remember best, the one that my father had us say before those boomtown potluck suppers. I didn't know what it meant then; even now the meaning isn't why I recite it. It is a talisman, a crutch, a spoken wish for the comforts of fellowship, that ends, "shanti, shanti, shantihi." Peace, peace, peace.

Sumana Harihareswara writes for Bay Area Living each Sunday. You can write to her at