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The wrong way to pray?
With the publication tomorrow of his latest novel Family Life, Akhil Sharma reflects on how he came to prayer, without God.
I grew up in a very religious family. My family is Brahmin which is the priestly caste and while this has no meaning for most sensible people, my mother used to tell me that I had had to do good for seven lifetimes to become a Brahmin and by my being a naughty boy I was ruining it all.
In India my mother used to bake extra rotis at every meal to feed the cows that wandered our Delhi neighborhood. In America my parents remained very pious. They pray three or four times every day and usually they burn incense when they do this. They pray at an altar in their bedroom and they pray so much that they have taped a sheet of aluminum foil to the ceiling above the altar so that the ceiling doesn’t get stained by incense smoke.
I was never religious. I used to watch my mother tell small lies and I would think that there couldn’t be a God because otherwise she wouldn’t lie. I knew of course not to say anything about my beliefs because then my mother would get angry.
My quiet indifference towards religion turned into antipathy after my brother’s accident. I had an older brother who dived into a swimming pool, struck his head on the bottom of the pool, remained underwater for three minutes and when he was pulled out, he had suffered severe brain damage. This was in 1981. We had moved to America by then and I was ten and my brother fourteen. The brain damage was so severe that Anup lost his ability to walk or talk, to feed himself, to roll over in his sleep. My antipathy came not from this, but from what happened afterwards.
My brother was in hospitals for two years and then my parents decided to bring him home and take care of him themselves. This caused our family to collapse. My parents used to fight so often and so loudly that the walls would vibrate with rage.
Soon after my parents brought my brother home, my mother began to invite miracle workers to come and wake Anup. These miracle workers were strange men. They were not gurus or priests but candy shop owners, engineers, accountants. They would tell my mother that they had learned of a cure for people like Anup from a saint in India or that God had visited them in a dream. My mother said that her reasoning for allowing these people to try their cures was that “If a cure is free and causes no harm, then why not try.” To me this logic was reasonable. One should try everything; one had to try everything.
But I once asked her if she thought that Anup could actually get better from some strange cure like a man bending one of Anup’s fingers back till Anup’s eyes waters and cursing him as he did this. My mother was in the kitchen when I asked her the question. She was cooking an elaborate meal for the miracle worker who was visiting that day – this is something she did always. My mother, without even pausing for thought, said, “Why not? God can do anything, why not this.” It was then that I began to realize that my mother believed that she was in a contest with God. In Hinduism there are many stories of saints who do something that shows such devotion that God is shamed into honoring their request. I understood then that my mother might not believe that any one miracle worker might not fix Anup, but that her faith would.
To me the miracle workers were crazy and my mother’s belief that her faith could wake Anup was crazy.
I became scared. To me the miracle workers were crazy and my mother’s belief that her faith could wake Anup was crazy. And her craziness was having a direct effect on me. One of the reasons that my mother had decided to take my brother out of the hospital was so that she could try cures which the hospitals would not allow her to try, things like putting the ashes of burnt prayers into the Isocal milk that we used to put into his gastro-intestinal tube. But her taking Anup out of the hospital was causing the constant fights. This is when I began to hate religion and view it as superstition.
I left my parents’ house when I was seventeen which was twenty five years ago. Anup died two years ago in February. I have changed a great deal over the decades and one of the ways that I have changed is that I pray all the time. When I wake in the morning, I say, “God, thank you for letting me be alive.” I say, “God, through the day let me be brave, keep me from dishonesty, keep me from being selfish.” Also, through the day, I pray for the people I pass on the street or who come to mind. I ask that God give them all the things I would want for myself: good health, peace of mind, that their loved ones are taken care of.
This praying started about five years ago. I was writing a novel and having a truly horrific time. I was going slightly crazy. One day, I became so overwhelmed with despair that I couldn’t get off the sofa. At that point I remembered an article that I had read in Reader’s Digest when I was a child. The article had said that the easiest way to become happy is to think of other people first and the easiest way to do this was to pray for them and ask that they get the things that you would want for yourself.
I don’t believe in God. I don’t believe in life after death or miracles. What I have found is that praying helps me think about things in a way that I would not otherwise. When I pray for somebody else, the focusing on the other person takes me out of myself and when I finish and return to myself, my own skin no longer feels as tight. I continue to have the same problems that I had before the prayer, but now I have a sense of peace and an awareness that to have problems is part of being alive and of being human.
I periodically talk to my parents about my prayers. My mother then tells me that I am praying incorrectly, that I need to do my prayers in a particular way. When she says this, I pray for her. And as I say my prayer, as I ask that God give her peace of mind, that God give her satisfaction with her life, I see that my mother must be living a life of deprivation if she cannot accept an intimacy like the one I am offering. Usually after I finish praying, I kiss her and tell her I love her.
For eight-year-old Ajay Mishra and his older brother Birju, family life in Delhi in the late 1970s follows a comfortable, predictable routine: bathing on the roof, queuing for milk, playing day-long games of cricket in the street. Everything changes when their father finds a job in America, a land of carpets and elevators, swimsuits and hot water.