God and Other Things I’m Clueless About
By Nysa Dharan
November 30, 2022
Graphic by Vy Truong
I ran into my Kindergarten class on stubby legs and announced to my classmates — who were raised in all different religions — that my grandfather, Bhajan ji, was currently hanging out with all the other Hindu gods and that he, himself, was one of them.
I found similarities in old pictures and shrines of Sai Ram. I outlined the black-and-white wrinkles on his picture and pondered how lucky I was to have the divine in my family line. I mean, I was practically Jesus, right? Daughter of God?
Funnily enough, my gullible six-year-old peers wholeheartedly believed me. I mean, when you’re that age and shown an Indian guy who looks vaguely like another Indian guy, there’s not a lot left to question. I was a miracle baby, a sort-of deity. I carried my pride and a gold sign of Om on my puffed chest.
I didn’t understand, then, why hot tears rolled down my grandmother’s cheeks when she described her bright memories of her husband.
“I wish you could’ve met him,” she sobbed, hugging my stiff body to her chest.
I was confused. I had met him. I met him every night in the stories I told myself before bed, and in the colors that dazzled when I closed my eyes. I had met him in his silent, pulsing heartbeat that pushed my legs forward. I had met him in the pictures I caressed and the temples I visited. How could I not, when he was the only constant I had had for years? How could I not, when he was the air around me and the gravity that clung me to earth?
Grief was no stranger to me. My mother and grandmother had long grieved the home they lost, and the lives they could have lived. When forced to flee Kashmir in 1990, they began to use grief to propel them further, but it left dusty sentiment that gathered in the corners of our basement. And as I played in the dirt, I felt it sink into my pores, into my blood. I began to grieve for a girl who hadn’t met her grandfather – long before I knew what the word ‘grief’ meant. He disappeared behind my eyes and his weight no longer grounded me.
Loss began to seep into the way my mother traced the slope of my nose, a nose I’d hated because of its long, flared nostrils and strong, bony structure. Words such as ‘aquiline’ became remnants of a man that I never was and never could be. Gap-toothed smiles after winning math competitions were shimmering reflections of his dissertation I would never read.
Suddenly, I felt the loss cloak my skin like feeble armor, invisible threads sewing in and out of each other like my grandfather’s death had done to my mother and grandmother. I had wished for so long to grab the ends of my mother’s strings and pull so she would unravel and bare her grief to me in whole. But the truth was that fear was both snipping away at my umbilical cord and creating a cocoon of my own to match her. I was mirroring her loss in a somber pirouette, spinning until I couldn’t see my own hands in front of me. I was spiraling, weaving, and everything in between.
My catharsis came in the eighth grade, when I sported a side part and shell necklace, fidgeting in my Birkenstocks. For someone so new I was so raw, gnawing on my lip till I could taste iron on my tongue. I was desperate for faith but too arrogant to adhere to one. I read Nietzche and Camus and rejected both. I was pretentious. I chewed gum with annoying smacks and didn’t flat iron the back of my hair. And I thought my problems were far too complicated and embarrassing to tell my mother.
My mother and I didn’t get along when we spoke. She loved to give solutions to issues and I loved to mull over them. We both vented when we were angry and we got angry a lot. She commented on my choice of clothing and I contemplated throwing our microwave out the window. We were clashing, grinding, rusted gears that just couldn’t seem to get the clock to move. Our arguments were practices in time travel, a continued culmination of years of repressed emotion and intrusive thoughts.
That day I asked for help, though. I didn’t mention anything specific, and when she asked for details I hastily snapped, “It’s none of your business.”
She gave me that perplexed look she always gave me when she was thinking hard and simultaneously wishing she took a parenting class before she had me. I had given her nothing to work with. But I just wanted her to say something – anything – so I could use that excuse to start pouring out my boiling anger on the kitchen table.
“I know you think you’re too good for faith,” she said carefully, “But I think it would take the world off your shoulders if you just tried.”
I bit back a harsh reply. Her response was a cop-out, an easy echo of my generic cry for help. Here it was, golden and blazing, my opportunity to yell and scream and bring that very world crashing down on the both of us. I had convinced an elementary school of my divinity, and now I would convince my mother of our eternal damnation.
But all I said was a meek, “Okay.”
That night, in my room, I tried to emulate that connection with faith. Hyper-aware of how I sounded speaking in the dry bedroom air, I felt myself retreat to when I believed in my grandfather's divine status. I found my heart starting to beat slower as if it wasn’t beaten by an organ in my own chest.
I don’t know what I talked about. But I know that I spoke like he was right there on my creaky desk chair. Even though I wasn’t six years old anymore, when he was the air I breathed, I still felt that whiffed breeze on the top of my ear, a strand of hair falling out of place. I started to see grief not as a gaping hole inside my stomach but instead as a yarn interwoven with a crochet hook, nicking my throat until honest residue dribbled out.
Maybe my grandfather isn’t God in the biblical terms of the modern day. But he listens. And sometimes, I think that’s all God needs to be. An ear and a hand to caress your hair, a shoulder to rest on and a heartbeat to keep time. I’ve never met God. And I’ve never met my grandfather. But really, I think they have a lot in common. And that’s enough for me. ■