Our family had an odd discussion last night over a vegetarian dinner at an Indian restaurant, after coming back from the temple. She’s troubled with the state of the family. It seems that we’re struck with an odd case of bad luck. Looking at her siblings and how their families seem to be so well put-together, she surmised that it’s probably because we lack basic religious knowledge.
I don’t buy that, but I could see how she would come to that conclusion. Her siblings both converted to Baha’i when they were in their mid-20’s. Their kids are confident, friendly, well-adjusted, and seem to have a good idea of their directions in life.
It wasn’t the first time she put this idea out there. I brushed it off, but it’s been in my head for a while. The point came up again yesterday, as she lamented that my brother and I didn’t know any thevarams1. We never went to thevaram classes or became part of the temple youth community. “Look at my brother’s family, his kids know thevarams even though they’re Baha’i,” she said.
My uncle was the lucky one. Didn’t have to worry about helping the family, was the only son in a family of five, managed to finish school and get decent enough results to continue with his education. He followed the plan to the letter. Got his degree, worked as an engineer, got paid major cashish, worked in MNCs, converted to Baha’i and became part of a strong community that looked after each other. Good for him.
Mum’s the eldest in her family. She had to work as soon as she finished secondary school. Her parents were too busy making ends meet to be concerned about the convoluted abstract nature of organized religion. Became a kindergarten teacher, then a nurse. Started a family, worked shifts every single goddamned day, even on weekends. Rarely had breaks. Had to leave my brother and I at the babysitter’s.
Dad had to teach tuition on weekends because he didn’t yet have the paper qualification to earn enough. He worked at RRIM and dealt with shallow petty racists on a daily basis. Amidst all this, he eventually managed to get a university degree from UTM. He then continued with his studies while working in RRIM and giving tuition classes, eventually getting a Master’s degree and then a Ph.D. He invented a new and environmentally-friendly way to process latex that got him a gold medal at an expo in Geneva. (You think you’d hear more about a game-changing invention like this that could revolutionize the rubber industry, but…)
But the beginning of our family was a long, tough slog. They only had time to balik kampung during Deepavali. Rarely had the time or the resources to go on family vacations. But I still have memories of a Port Dickson that wasn’t infested by pollution and seaweed.
Of course, my brother and I were too young to know all this at the time. But dad reminded us yesterday, amidst mouthfuls of thosai. He reminded mum of how our life was back them.
Neither one of my parents had enough time to do all the things they wanted to do. Neither one of my parents had enough time to rest. On my mum’s side, we were the only non-Baha’is. It got pretty lonely at times. On my dad’s side… well, the less said about them the better. (Hint: real-life Tamil drama.) Mum only got her degree a few years ago, through a special course for staff nurses; a 4-year nursing course crammed into 2 years. From Selayang to KL, day in and day out. Revisions until the wee hours of the morning.
And she aced it. Naturally.
Religious knowledge has nothing to do with whatever problems we have. We brought it on ourselves, through our mistakes and our arrogance. My brother has to learn about empathy and gender sensitivity. I have a tendency to only learn from my mistakes when shit hits the fan, and I take people’s kindness for granted at times.
But we learn from them, as hard-headed as we are. We grow. We become better people. We remind ourselves of the obstacles we’ve overcome. We try not to forget. And if we do forget, we get reminded about it from people who care about us.
I’ll be the first to admit that I know next to nothing about my religion. I wish I did, if nothing else then to have a basic academic knowledge of its customs and cultural connotations. It’s something that I’ll eventually get to. But for now, my goals are clear. And learning thevarams just to fit in is not one of them.
1 Thevaram = religious/devotional songs.