Of Grandfathers and Gods

by Jain Willis

My grandfather Padmanabh died ten years ago, but it’s been nearly twelve since I last saw him. I don’t have many memories of him; he lived far away and didn’t visit often. Whenever he would call, I would quickly pass the phone off to my mom, since I had a hard time understanding his thick Indian accent. He always smelled of smoke, and he was always laughing. He would encourage my little brother’s disgusting jokes and give us hugs. When he stayed with us that last time, for my aunt’s wedding, he would wander around the house with a bowl as he shaved.

And then two years later, he was gone. I woke up in the middle of the night to the sound of my mother crying, as she told my dad that her father had died of a heart attack. I curled myself up tight and cried myself to sleep.

I always regretted not really knowing him; but it never really struck me how little I knew him until I was in India, meeting his family and lost in an alien culture.

“We have,” Mayur says, stretching his legs out and leaning back in his chair, “eighty-eight thousand gods. And Krishna—you know Krishna? He had sixteen thousand wives.” He looks at me and opens his eyes wide.

Pallivi, his wife, laughs. “Don’t speak nonsense,” she says.

We are in my great-grandmother’s living room in Mumbai, the window open as a light rain falls on the coconut trees outside. I sit on the swing, rocking slowly back and forth, listening to my relatives tell me about Hindu gods. My great-grandma, Malti, sits on the couch, sucking on rice crisps and listening. Pallivi is her much younger cousin, with blue rheumy eyes and diabetes.

Mayur leans forward and holds up three fingers. “G. O. D. We have three gods that make up one. Generator,” he folds down a finger, “that is Brahma, who created the world; then Organizer,” another finger, “who is Vishnu; and Destroyer,” the last finger, “Shiva, who dances to destroy the world. G. O. D. God. They are all separate, but they are really all one.”

I nod, even though he’s told me this before. My family thinks that because I am American, I know nothing about Hinduism. They seem to forget that I have just spent the past three months in India researching just that. But I don’t mind that they tell me the same stories over and over; I enjoy hearing them.

I have spent several evenings at Pallivi and Mayur’s flat. Once, Pallivi showed me the shelf where she keeps statues of all the gods she likes to worship. She told me a little bit about each one. One, she said, had many wives and concubines. “Much like Padma,” she half-laughed, and I looked down, because I don’t like it when they talk about my grandpa that way. She handed me what looked like a marble egg, calling it a lingam, which I know is the phallic representation of the god Shiva, the destroyer of Mayur’s G.O.D. I took it and turned it over in my hands, and realized I’d seen it before.

Not that exact lingam, though. My sister has a very similar egg, which my mom gave her when we were little. Once, when my mom was a child, she realized she had nothing to give her father for Christmas. She went through all his things, and came up with this egg. She wrapped it up as nicely as her little self could and proudly presented it to him on Christmas morning. He kindly thanked her for such a kind gift, then gave it back to her when she was a teenager. My grandfather had never struck me as a religious man. My mom says he never discussed his religion with her. She didn’t know the symbolism behind her gift. But at that moment, when Pallivi handed me that egg, I started to understand what religion had meant to my grandpa.

Now, at Mayur’s insistence, Pallivi is telling me the story of the god Ganesha. The famous elephant-headed god, found everywhere across India (on rickshaws, purses, jewelry, shop signs, cell phones, and more), has always been my favorite of the Hindu pantheon. A carved wooden Ganesha has always hung besides the front door of my Utah home.

Shiva, Pallivi tells me, went away to war and left his wife, Parvati, at home. While he was gone, Parvati gave birth to a son and named him Ganesha. When Parvati was bathing, she told her son to guard the door. Shiva came home from war and found a boy outside his wife’s rooms. He was angry and cut off the boy’s head. Parvati came out and cried, “What have you done? You have killed our son!” Shiva went to find a head to replace the one he had cut off. He found an elephant and took its head and put it on his son’s body.

Pallivi finishes and looks at me. “Do you know why his ears are so big?”

“Because, he has an elephant head?” I guess.

She laughs. “It is because he must be able to hear everything you tell him. You can whisper your secrets to him, and he will always hear them. And his belly is so big,” she stretches her arms out to show his round stomach, “because he keeps all those secrets inside of him.”

I think to myself that this is a good reason to have a big belly.

Mayur suddenly stands. “Come, I will take you to the temple.”

I stand as well. “Temple?”

“Ganapati Temple—Ganesha. Just down the road. Come.”

I give Malti an uncertain look, but she just waves me on. Pallivi stays behind with Malti. I follow Mayur out of the building and down the street. It has stopped raining and is growing hot. Even after several weeks in this neighborhood, I don’t know where anything is. I have to make sure I stay close to Mayur and don’t get lost. He leads me across the road and past the office buildings. We take a slight left and go through some trees, and I find myself at a temple.

I have just spent the past three months in a different Indian city, visiting various temples and collecting stories of Hindu goddesses, but this temple is different from all the other ones I have visited. Instead of images of goddesses in colorful saris staring down at me, I am faced with a rock. A very large rock.

The temple itself isn’t much more than a metal canopy. Benches line the perimeter, and people sit there with bags of flowers and coconuts and fabric, their offerings to Ganesha. There is a crowd of people climbing the stairs to the dais in the center of the temple. A priest stands there, accepting people’s offerings and blessing them in return. Behind him is a huge boulder, easily ten feet tall. Mayur goes forward and joins the crowd. I hang back, watching. I can make out the image of Ganesha, protruding from the rock. The rock is brown with white stripes, but the priests have painted Ganesha orange and hung garlands around him. It is a very simple image; I can make out a trunk and a belly but not much else.

As I wait for Mayur, I walk around the rock. To the right, there is pool of slimy green water set into the ground. Women unwrap their saris and climb down the stairs to dip themselves in the water. Each day, a different god is worshipped at this pool. I don’t know who they are worshipping today.

Mayur appears beside me, and we walk back to one of the benches. He sits down and motions for me to sit next to him. I ask him about the image of Ganesha. He says that many, many years ago, before this part of the city was built, this rock was part of the hillside. The villagers one day noticed the image of Ganesha and began worshipping it. The city grew and the hill disappeared, but the rock remained. A temple was built around it, and people have been coming to it ever since.

I nod and watch the people around us. I watch and listen and feel—and I wish that instead of Mayur, kind as he is, I had Padmanabh by my side.

Even though they all call him Padma here, I only know him as my grandfather. Each time they say it, I have to link Padma to Padmanabh to Grandpa. My grandma always called him Pat. I see that each name holds a different person. Pallivi likes to tell me stories about when she and Mayur would visit my grandparents in the States. I’ve heard them all several times over the past month. I have to press Malti to tell me about my grandpa. “Padma,” she says, “what a naughty boy!” I wheedle stories out of her, such as when my grandfather and his friends set off dozens of fireworks in the street and ended up spending the night in jail.

In the ten years since my grandfather died, I’ve grown to love him more than I did when he was alive. One of my biggest regrets is that I could not explore his homeland with him by my side. I didn’t know him well; I’d never been to his home in California. He’d never told me anything about Hinduism; everything I knew I’d found out on my own. I know more about it than my own mother, who has been visiting India since she was four.

All my life I have yearned to go to India; I’ve always felt it a part of me. I’ve looked at that Ganesha by our front door every morning and connected with him. And now, in a land of dirt and heat and thousands of gods, I find myself connecting with Padma.

Like the Hindu G.O.D., I see three separate beings—Grandpa, Padma, and Pat—that make up one man. And finally, in the land of his birth, through the small pieces that others can give me, I’ve begun to know my grandfather.