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Making Family Traditions From Scratch

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Mar 3, 2016

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It was literally an afterthought. I begged and borrowed some rangoli and some candles from kindly neighbours on the afternoon of Diwali and raced against time to have some semblance of holiday decoration by evening.

Thankfully, my 18-month-old’s standards were low. He was excited to see the lighting and colours of the pathetic little rangoli I was able to scrape together. But I doubt he’ll be as easy to please in the coming years. I’ll have to up the ante or… can I actually do what I wanted to do, what I had been doing every Diwali before this fellow was born: pack up and run?

I do not care for most prevailing cultural and religious traditions. In particular, I hate Diwali and what it has come to mean: the smoke, the noise and the shivering dogs on my bed. But I have little love for the other festivals; they intrude into my life by way of the air I breathe, the hours I spend in traffic and the sound that assaults my ears as loud and very drunk processions make their way slowly to some water body. Celebrating these occasions even in a private space among friends and family feels like an endorsement of the public revelry. I was happy to be away from it during the years I was out of the country studying and, once back, I made it a tradition to run from these traditions.

Yet, in the past two years, after the birth of my son, I have been homebound for the holidays. The first year was about celebrating my son’s First Everything. The theme of the second year has been: “He is a little older now, so he will enjoy it!” That is what had me on my knees making a ridiculously bad rangoli; it was like a switch turned on in my head. Back in the day I was all like, “These traditions must die!” But then the switch flipped, and suddenly I was worried about my son growing up not knowing these customs. How would he know where he came from without them?

Cultural and religious traditions — the ones that are fixed in the calendar every year and come with a set of mandated activities — give us a sense of belonging and, in many ways, shape our identity. On festival days, we greet our neighbours who we may otherwise ignore; we get together with family; we trudge across town to reconnect with friends or associates; we come out of our homes to decorate common spaces; we burst crackers together and throw colours at each other for a collective experience. These experiences are a part of my life, and the fact that I shared them with so many others, despite my reluctance, roots me to this milieu. Whether I like it or not, I belong. That is the switch that turns on: the need to pass on a sense of belonging to the next generation. You want to them to be able to say — this is what I do because this is who I am.

It was confusing there for a while, trying to separate my desire for traditions from the specific traditions I don’t like or agree with. Because, I definitely wanted traditions around my house — just, none of the obvious ones. We’d have to pick the few we like, then, and create some of our own.

For instance, Christmas, I feel warmly toward. This goes back to my own tradition as a lonely student in a cold, Midwestern US town, when Christmas was the one time in a year that I would get to meet with extended family coming together on the US East Coast from across the country. It felt festive and like home even though I was thousands of miles from India. Now, with so many of my immediate family, cousins and friends around, it may not be too hard to bring them together once a year to recreate that warmth.

A family vacation with the dogs to the mountains or a river will be as mandatory to us as Diwali candles are to others. This was a tradition even before my son was born. He is “old enough” now and enjoys the dogs, the outdoors and car journeys. It would be a break from our otherwise scheduled and routine lives and an opportunity for him to see us free of stress and responsibilities.

A trip or two each year to see the more distant family would also be something worth putting on the calendar. It is something I grew up doing with unthinkable frequency. The families were large on both sides, and it was endless fun when a lot of us got together for weddings, 60th birthdays, even sombre ones, like death and death anniversaries. Now, with everyone scattered around the globe, it will not be like that for my son. But if we make the effort maybe my son will have the opportunity to know his extended family and in the process create the kind of memories I have.

I want traditions that are family traditions, traditions that the whole family can get behind. Family traditions, if they’re good ones, have a happy place in our memories. They are what we look forward to each year and what we fondly reminisce about when we think of the “good old days.”

The list might have to change as my son grows out of some things and grows into others. The activities may evolve, change in frequency, expand as more people are born and married, but hopefully they will sustain, however ‘untraditional’ they seem to others. Because family roots you in the way traditions do. We may not always agree with family, but we do see ourselves in them.

This is what we do because this is who we are.

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Written By Jyoti Ganapathi

Jyoti Ganapathi did her BA in Economics & Psychology from Knox College, US and a Masters in HR from University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She returned to India to work in the family business. Riding the entrepreneurial wave, along with her husband, she started Dosa Inc- a South Indian food truck in 2012, fulfilling a dream that they always had. She is an intermittent writer and is currently absolutely loving NPR podcasts!

  1. shenoi

    Well written essay. In my opinion many of us who are educated in Macualay education, passed through convent and college face the problem of justifying the relevance of ritual to day to day life, But the grounding in tradition passed on from grand parents, the joy of creative thinking in performing certain tasks of rituals and meeting of friends and relatives beckons to have relook
    You have brought out the dilemma well, best wishes

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