© Nick Brandt
It is early morning, November 1999. I am sitting on the floor next to my mother repeating phrases the priest is reciting from his holy scriptures. I look half asleep, though weirdly earnest in my attempt to pay attention. I've no idea what's being said, or why, and as no one is bothering to look up from the floor, I survey the plethora of objects and food that surround us; rice, fruit, incense, flowers, pictures, statues, copper plates, and so forth, all laid out to a godly plan. The statue of Shiva Nataraja, which is my contribution to the pooja (ritual prayer), is there too, as are old black and white photos of my father, his parents, brother, and other deceased relatives. So much religious paraphernalia to distract the sight, yet my gaze keeps drifting back to the flame of the candle, the only living entity in this elaborate ritual for the dead.
The young woman in the video I am watching is me, fifteen years ago. She looks much the same as I do now, but she is a world away from my life. The ten-day religious event, Sapta, was organised in Mumbai as a remembrance for my dad, who died of a sudden heart attack in his sleep when I was a child. I made the trip to India with my mother as a completion, to participate in the ritual circle as a final grieving together for a husband and father. It was a time when I had a very different relationship with my mum, before my younger sister had her two daughters and her role as a grandmother subsumed all other family interests.
At the time, I admired her generosity. The Sapta was free for anyone in the local community who wished to attend. A priest sat on a podium for seven hours each day, and using readings, hymns and celebratory dances, he taught the audience the life lessons and wisdom gleaned from the great myths and legends of the Mahabharata and Bhagvad Gita. Lunch, dinner and tea was also provided.
I discovered the video of this event by chance, while doing research for my novel, and it is a strange experience to watch the accepting and pliant young woman I was. I behaved exactly as was expected of me; followed instructions from the priest that made no sense to me, wore clothes that covered my skin, touched the feet of all the elders I met, and most of all, I didn't argue for my own opinion in any religious or social situation. My role was to be the invisible ‘good’ daughter, who did everything at her mother's behest.
During the two decades between my father's death and the Sapta, my mother was a strong and powerful matriarch. She courageously held down a full-time job and raised four children on her own. Yet, as the archetypal matriarch of a Hindu upbringing, she still perceived her role within the bounds of a religious and sexist culture, i.e. to ensure first and foremost that her girls were married and settled with children. In the years since, sadly, rituals for the dead have become the defining narrative of her life. While the pendulum has swung wide, building the potential for a different path, she has remained clinging to a religion and identity that promotes a circle of repetition, not one of change and expansion.
Being part of the ceremonies and rituals, the whole quasi-religiosity of the environment I was engulfed within for those weeks in India, became far more than a farewell to my father. As a child, I had not been allowed to attend his original funeral, and the gift of finally being able to say goodbye initiated a more essential journey to cast off my fear of religion and culture.
Watching the videos so many years after the Sapta happened feels like my life has evolved another full swing of the pendulum, from a place of rebellion, resistance and anger, when I didn't want to understand my mum's perspective nor see my own selfishness, to re-negotiating the past and differentiating between ‘duty’ and freedom of choice. By unleashing the wild and creative creature within me, I have learned to appreciate the choices my mother made, as well as realising that I do not have to live my life within the matriarch's domain.
Freedom, however, comes at a price, and it is not an easy proposition. It lies in the discipline and will to tell the truth. Not some intellectual psychology-based truth about the inner workings of the human psyche and the universe, but the hard hitting truth of what is actually happening in our experience of the world and the people around us. The notion of ‘growth’ and ‘self-development’ has become such a fad in the modern world. For example, the ‘calming headband’ that helps you take control of anxiety by detecting changes in your brain's electrical field, the ‘mood-tracking app’ that identifies the triggers of depression so you can learn to avoid them, the ‘meditation app’ which claims to effectively treat everything from stress to addiction to relationship problems. We are so easily sold on the instantaneous and external pumping up of our egos, which in fact, barely scratches the surface.
There is no magic pill. The most profound lesson I've learned in my life is that 90% of our thoughts, attitudes and values are formed by negativity and criticalness, i.e. the human's decision-making framework is primarily about what it takes to survive in the competitive jungle. When I faced the reality of ‘seeing’ this was who I was, I wept and howled as though from the depths of a bottomless pit. I descended into the darkest part of my soul, a painful and frightening place from where I initially found it impossible to gauge how I would, or could, ever change.
The good news is that we do have the power to ‘change our thoughts’ and make decisions from a perspective of freedom!
It takes work! It takes developing a genuine awareness of our ‘self’ in order to see and accept the reality of our criticalness. Then we must engage with the darkness. We must walk through the fire and feel the heat and the anger and the rage, and learn to work with it with courage and compassion, for ourselves and for others. This ‘work’ takes years (perhaps a lifetime) and it is this spirit that is so atypical to the kind of spirituality in religion, which is a fake salvation peddled by religious cronies, who criticise all people and paths that are not in agreement with theirs. The work is to seek and find the truth, to learn that we do not die when we speak or express it, and that as a consequence, we can be truly liberated and free!
One aspect of what a ‘conscious freedom’ means for me is choosing not to have children, to not follow in my mother's footsteps, nor to unquestioningly accept the parameters of culture set down for me as a woman. I'm aware this choice means I may have ‘missed out’ on some innate experience of motherhood that I can never have. However, this is the very essence of ‘choice’. Sometimes, when I speak with my mother, I sense that motherhood did not come as ‘naturally’ to her as she expected, or thought it should. Perhaps, deep down, buried beneath the religiosity and strictures of culture, there is a woman who wished she had made different choices. Perhaps it would have meant that I would not be here, alive, today. It is humbling to contemplate that I may not be so crucial to the survival of life on the planet...because if I am really not needed anywhere, then the only choice is to embrace being ‘here,’ exactly where I am!