On religion, fatherhood, and seeing the world through their eyes
Trying something different this week, hence the delay. Normal service will resume next week. Have a great weekend.
More and more of us are finding love and raising families with partners whose upbringing was unlike our own. The vectors of difference are many—location, religion, race, all of the above, dozens more lining up behind. You hope these gaps don’t breed conflict. If you’ve already seen “The Rehearsal,” Nathan Fielder’s magnum opus and a Malkovichian exploration of what it means to be a parent today, you’ll have witnessed one of the many ways conflicting belief systems become the architects of unsolid foundations, ready to crumble when children arrive.
When closed minds meet, and one set of beliefs scrape against the other, pain follows, deep incisions from tectonic plates rubbing across ancient fault lines. But if you can meet another culture with an open mind, you can lose—and rediscover—yourself in an alternative timeline of history, thousands of years of teaching to unearth, old viewpoints rendered afresh, hitherto undiscoverable, overgrown ivy pulled back to reveal secret paths. Shortcuts to more joyful ways of living and peaceful equilibrium with the mind. Discovering religions you didn’t grow up with grants you permission to ask questions, to seek answers on your own terms. To hear the stories with the understanding of an adult—not old truths to slavishly believe, but clear allegories on how to live a better life. Religion as an invitation, not a requirement.1
We spent last weekend in rural England with my wife’s family, celebrating Navaratri, an annual celebration of Durga, the Goddess of Strength and Protection. Navaratri translates as “nine nights,” and sees revellers worldwide coming together to celebrate. The biggest of these events occurs in the city of Baroda, in the Indian state of Gujarat, where 50,000 Hindus come together in the spiritual home of Garba—a dance that celebrates feminine energy and fertility.
Our celebration was orders of magnitude smaller, but no less jubilant. A community of Indian immigrants who congregate at this time every year—a hired hall, similar to many across the UK, and all the towns and cities the Indian diaspora have settled in across the world—to worship, dance, eat, and enjoy the company of one other.
The last time we attended Garba was pre-Covid, when Bodhi was only 6 months old. We were still carrying him around, nothing but innocence, aunties cooing over him in his traditional kurta, a prince-in-waiting. Last weekend was different. Wild, in appearance and attitude, his long blonde curls tied into a small ponytail behind his head, having recently relented and finally permitting us to bring some sense of order. It’s like he’s already seen Point Break, and wants his own hair wild and free, just like his namesake.
Their hair has never seen a pair of scissors, outside of a few extreme bobble removal incidents, unsolvable with simpler tools. The first time I cut a bobble out of Padme’s hair my mind raced to Samson, a religious tale from my own childhood, as I snipped the hair loose, terrified it might lead to a loss of her power.
Bodhi was taking it all in, confused as a room of people sung a variation of “Om Jai Jagdish Hare,” a Hindu prayer that somehow became his lullaby and our go-to crutch every time we’ve needed him to calm down as a baby, or help him to sleep as a toddler. It was around 11 pm when the running order hit its climax, and after the initial bewilderment subsided the inevitable yawning began, a Pavlovian response as his brain told him “this song means I go sleep now.”
Padme’s curiosity reached new heights this year, and it infected all around her. Aunties lined up to teach her what each part of the proceeding signified, the steps for the various dances with increased complication throughout the evening. And if following that curiosity sometimes ended up with a sneaky chocolate or Mittai, then that’s to be expected right? Just like I’d sit in the kitchen watching my dad cooking Christmas dinner, knowing it’d result in an early sampling of the turkey, or a delicious preview of the bacon that had cooked atop, repeatedly basted in the juices of the bird.
We watched Padme hold the arti, a small, simple silver tray, during the puja, the focus of everyone’s attention was various depictions of the female goddess Durga—strong, atop a tiger, her eight arms adorned with weapons and lotus flowers (the Sanskrit word being पद्म padma, for those taking notes.) A small flame from the ghee lamp lit her face as she stood in front of a group of people, hundreds of glorious colours across their saris and kurtas, following the lead of those who’ve been here a hundred times before, mentally taking notes, inquisitive about even the smallest detail.
This religion isn’t one I was born into. But through it, I’ve discovered new parts of myself. I can feel you rolling your eyes into their sockets as yet another white man writes about the impact of the Baghavad Gita. But this summer a close family member stayed with us—a woman who has held this manual to life inside her heart for almost as long as it’s been beating—and I was lucky enough to be able to ask her questions and explore my understanding of the text. To dive deeper into the idea of the three gunas, or that one “has the right to your actions, but never to your actions’ fruits.” I might have gotten there a little earlier with some help. Or maybe I wasn’t ready for it. The right messages, arriving at the right time; only when I was ready to grok them completely.
I have my own complicated relationship with religion. In that, I’m not alone. But that’s a different essay, a tale for another time. Though I may not believe the same things as others in the hall last weekend, it would take a father with a stone-filled heart not to feel a sense of pride—seeing his daughter old enough to participate in cultural traditions, her face beaming, watching events occur around her she’s spent the last three years reading about in books. Culture creates rituals. Rituals create a sense of community and belonging. And a sense of belonging makes us feel at home.
How did you like this week’s issue? Your feedback helps me make this great.
Thanks to my wife Sejal Parekh for her input this week, and for making sure I got it right. For those in Barcelona, she’ll be showing work this weekend at Swab Art Fair (which also has some excellent activities for kids.) Beyond excited for it all.
Trying something new this week
Writing about religion, even (especially?) one that isn’t my own, feels precarious, like inching out across a tightrope. There are many spaces online where writers explore religion and parenting hand-in-hand, but those writers tend to have clarity in their beliefs, and courage in their convictions. But talking about these topics from an unfixed perspective feels like a third rail of parenting. Especially so for men—I don’t think I’ve ever talked to another dad about how religion was influencing their approach to fatherhood, and have many close friends I haven’t spoken to about religion at all. I have some who, like me, grew up Catholic, and then went another way. More than one returned to the church when it became clear that, for many, there are only two ways to get your kid into a good school: pay or pray.
When I raised the issue of religion in the community last month, it felt like a floodgate opening—for myself, and others. I’ve been sharing some early thoughts from this essay in the community, details about my own relationship with religion and spirituality, and I’ve invited other dads to share (if comfortable) their own history and perspectives.
This week I want to carry on that conversation, and to try and bridge the gap between the newsletter and the community, by inviting paying subscribers to do so in the Geneva app.