My grandmother looked at me the way grandmothers do: with concern.

Courtesy of Akshay Seth
Courtesy of Akshay Seth

High school memories faded brown like the summer grass seeping through every suburban lawn visible beyond my bedroom window. College loomed in the swirling yellow-reds of fall. And my grandmother, my independent, intelligent, resilient grandmother — the same woman who, years ago, wilted in the face of her husband’s cancer before saying “No”; before bracing herself; before becoming a bedrock of strength for her family — stared me down with those searching, probing eyes.

I saw lips tightening around the trademark scowl and listened quietly as disappointment festered across her face. She didn’t say anything for a while, waiting a few minutes for me to apologize. When I didn’t, she called me a nastik, slammed the door and after the door was securely slammed, didn’t come out for the next few hours.

Nastik. As generations have passed, the word has come to mean a lot of things, all stemming from those binding roots of dissent anchored in variations of “nonbeliever.” As with any overtly religious terminology, there are more colorful iterations. In this case, they include, but are not limited to “infidel,” “immoral,” “impious” — basically anything accusing the heathen in the crosshairs of diverging from a predetermined, brick-layered road to God.

And no, before you ask, I am not a nonbeliever. I have faith in a more significant power: Something, if not someone, sitting on the outside peeking in, sprinkling little instances of wonder into the world to make sure it doesn’t spin too far out of control. How else can anyone explain that one guy who took it upon himself to invent bacon cologne? Or Albert Einstein? Or Scarlett Johansson?

A lot of people chalk it up to chance, but I always felt one of the most resonant confirmations of divinity was the fact that it was left up to us whether or not we choose to believe in its existence. So for me, there is a God. Is it the nice old lady bagging groceries at Whole Foods — the one who always insists on repeating why ‘there ain’t no trace of honesty in the world anymore, for Christ’s sake?’ There’s no way of knowing.

But I was born into an Indian, devoutly Hindu family, which meant I couldn’t just believe in God. I had to prove it. Every week, I tagged along with my family on our trips to the temple so I could sit quietly in the back, listening as my parents lost themselves in their bhajans. Every week, I would pass around my grandfather’s 100 rupee bill so all of us had a chance to rub it between our fingers before pushing it down the wood-gold donation box sitting in front of Saraswati, our Goddess of education. My favorite part was waiting for Dad to hoist me up, hands clasped around my ribcage, so I could reach up and clang the temple greeting bell.

Religion had been a constant in my life, wherever I looked. It had been there each Diwali, the hour we spent in our prayer room before being let loose on store-bought fireworks. It had been there when I was a toddler, an edge on the razor blade the pundit used for my mundan, a ceremonial rite of passage requiring the baby’s head be shaved to expel any impurities. And it was still there. Every week, when my mother and aunts — empowered, educated women — fasted as a sign of singular devotion to their husbands and children.

Yet, it wasn’t just my family. Where I come from, no matter how wide the gap, religion colored in the cracks, because the thing about any way of thinking, regardless of what it may be, is that if it remains unchallenged or ubiquitous, it ceases being just another way of thinking. It becomes a way of life. It becomes the reason why some of my relatives continue dismissing gay marriage as an “unnatural occurrence.” The reason why those same relatives would never approve if I, God forbid, went out with a person who practices Islam.

But was religion ever simply meant to be nothing more than “a way of thinking?” A younger version of me, the one who had two, maybe three friends in life who weren’t Hindu would’ve answered “no.”

Younger Version Of Me moved to the United States. Younger Version Of Me felt the palpable, visible change almost immediately. Hinduism wasn’t already hammered in at every turn in the road. For the first time in my life, I was interacting with peers who didn’t all grow up hearing the same stories. I began questioning myself. How could all these people keep going about their lives as if nothing was amiss, preaching they were backing the “one true” path to heaven when every other faith made the same claim? Did divinity really only show its face to a certain kind of people, all originating from a certain set of traditions and certain geographical locations anyone could point out on a globe?

For many, these discrepancies are a call to arms — just more reason to grapple and spew violence in a world already hobbled by the constant, crippling presence of inequality. The only point of agreement seemed to be that, yes, someone, whoever the fuck it is, is indeed out there, pulling the strings.

I always thought the incongruities were convincing validation that there’s no real way to seek out the nice old lady bagging groceries at Whole Foods. And though I was never one to impose my will on the ones who raised me, the respect didn’t always seem to flow the other way, an unsaid expectation to nod along to my environment merely on account of the color of my skin. It was the same smack-across-the-face reverse culture shock whenever I went back home and saw my relatives sighing disappointedly after, for the millionth time, they’d ask me whether or not I elicited some meaningful revelation from holiday prayers and for the millionth time, I’d say “no.” Everyone felt they were entitled to some assertion about what God was supposed to be like. God is this. God is that. I wanted the ability to just leave it off at “God is.”

My grandmother, brooding behind that slammed door, brewing in her exacting standards and insistence I visit the temple every week, was no different from the people who said I couldn’t. Wasn’t she?
I never did apologize, but I keep going back to something my late Nanu, her husband, said to me after feeling the uncertainty on his grandson’s face.

“You never really believe in it until you need it.”

My independent, intelligent, resilient grandmother — the same woman who, years ago, wilted in the face of her husband’s cancer before saying “No”; before bracing herself; before becoming a bedrock of strength for her family — wouldn’t have survived without that faith in God, in her religion.

I’ve never needed my conviction to get through life, because, simply put, my life — between GPA concerns and making sure my career path doesn’t stumble along to the 2014 World Barista Championships — hasn’t been all too difficult. Until the day it is, Hinduism will always be there, waiting. It will always be the support system I’ve inherited from my parents, my grandmother, my family. But it’s my choice — no, responsibility — to make sure it remains just that: a way of thinking, not life.

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