Why doesn't life come with a handbook?
I'VE BEEN ASKING MY DAD, for about 20 years now, for a handbook to being his daughter.
If anyone were to write a guide it would be him; my father has written more than anyone I know, even the bloggers. He may not be up there with Isaac Asimov, who wrote books landing in nine of the 10 major Dewey Decimal classifications. But compared to him, we're all slouches.
Mostly, my dad writes about Hinduism. He's a priest. Some Indian kids growing up in the United States, as I did, have Brahmin parents, meaning that we're in the priestly and "highest" hereditary caste.
But most of the dads don't actually go and perform prayer services in temples and at the houses of other families. Mine does.
His scholarly temperament and love of God inspire him to write thick brochures for each puja (prayer ritual). Growing up in Pennsylvania, Missouri and California, I used to spend hours collating and stapling the
explanations of chants and sacrifices that he photocopied every week at Office Depot.
He used English, as well as Sanskrit, the ancient language of the Hindu mantras, and of course Kannada, the language spoken in his region of India.
Each desktop-published pamphlet was a Rosetta stone of Hinduism.
I couldn't read Sanskrit and could barely sound out Kannada, but my father relied upon my native English fluency to check his text for clanging errors. I often caught bits of Indian English that, in the arrogance of youth, I marked with a red pen.
My mother had already embarrassed my older sister by referring to a car's trunk as its "dickey." So, when I edited his tract on Deepavali, the Indian festival of lights, I took out "honour" and substituted "honor," and changed "off" to "of."
But I only addressed his linguistic biases. As I grew to recognize his other assumptions, and to disagree with them, I kept my differences to myself.
How could I take seriously a religion that lent credence to astrology, the caste system and other rank superstitions? In my house, we didn't use the left hand to give or receive gifts or food. I was born left-handed, and my parents forced it out of me. A woman wasn't supposed to approach the family altar or go to temple while she had her period.
And my father actually answered a correspondent's question about which direction our heads should point when we sleep! (His answer: The scriptures tell us that we shouldn't point north.)
My dad has a graduate degree in civil engineering. As a Caltrans engineer, he received magazines such as Concrete Monthly and wrote out precise, logical reports on roads and bridges. And he somehow applies the same level of rational thought to his faith, which is belief without reason — or, should I say, beyond reason.
That contradiction, to me, called out for resolution, or at least for guidelines telling me which strand of his personality to emulate.
I want a handbook.
Now that I'm not a surly teenager anymore, I'm coming to peace with the contradictions in my heritage. India gave us Gandhi and the caste system, yoga and dowry deaths, the Kama Sutra and Hotmail, my dad and my mom.
My life growing up in the United States layers another level of dichotomy on top of that. Then my family and my childhood crowd in with details till I can't see an outline anymore, just my life as it is, without abstractions.
America is a melting pot, but I feel like one, too, and I won't find out all the ingredients till I'm dead.
My parents taught me to love words. As I edited and collated my dad's puja programs, he would read my stories in the school newspaper.
This, my new weekly column in Bay Area Living, has the largest audience my words have ever had. My dad will rack up quite a bill at the copy shop, printing out my words for all his friends.
Unless, perhaps, I say that I'm not an engineer or a doctor — and I'm dating a white guy.
My dad taught me about writing and editing, but America is teaching me about living my own life. Maybe it's a good thing he never wrote that handbook.
Sumana Harihareswara's column runs in Bay Area Living on Thursdays. You can e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.