If Anil was alive today, I would have done this prayer this morning. I have done it every year for eleven years of my marriage, except for the year of mourning when Anil’s grandma passed away. I guess that’s how Hindu culture incentivizes marriage for women. Makes you feel like you are part of this exclusive club. Although I am not too familiar, there are probably certain rituals and prayers only married men can perform.
This is a big day in my family. My mom celebrates it with a lot of grandeur and hoopla. Preparations for this day begin on the day of Akshaya Tritiya, an auspicious day that usually comes around in May, when my mom buys the roopu, a small coin with Goddess Lakshmi on one side and Om imprinted on the other side. My mom loves shopping and she would go shopping for several days to buy a new silk sari for the Goddess; the lady of the house (my mom herself) gets to wear it after the prayer is over. Days before the big day, there is frenzied grocery shopping by my mom with some delegated to my dad – flowers for the entire house and the Goddess, banana leaves for the mandap, several puja items, fruit, chickpeas with black skin for the sundal (a snack with soaked and steamed chickpeas in oil and some mustard seeds), and lot of vegetables and other items for a ‘grand lunch’. Invitations are extended to the entire neighborhood and beyond to visit home in the evening to pray and take blessings from Goddess Varalakshmi. A visit is made to the bank on the day before to get all the jewelry out of the safe deposit box to decorate the Goddess. She makes all the preparations the night before, including tying all the flowers into garlands so my dad can hang them across the top of all the doorframes and the front gate, and stitching the ‘pula jada’, basically a plait made of flowers which is as South Indian as anything gets. On the morning of the big day, my mom gets into ‘madi’ (a state of being clean and ‘pure’), takes a binde (a metal utensil with a narrow base, a wide middle and a narrow waist, used for storing water), fills it with water, puts a chembu (a smaller version of binde) on it, then a coconut sitting on the mouth of the chembu, and fixes the Goddess’s face onto it and then ties the new silk sari and decorates her with jewelry she got from the bank the day before, and flowers. At the end of all this, the Goddess looks like an amazing beautifully dressed South Indian lady. In some crazy parallel processing mechanism that only my mom understands (it’s hard to help her on that morning even if you want to; my mom would have a different opinion about this), she makes some twenty dishes simultaneously that include some prasadams (food offerings to God) and some for the ‘grand lunch’. Then begin the prayer recitals which seem to go on and on for hours while all the rest of us in the family are starving and our tummies start growling and the prayer is finally over and we all participate in the very final section of the prayer (my mom thankfully doesn’t expect the rest of us to do all the prayer recitals with her) and then sit down to eat the awesome tasting dishes wishing that we weren’t so ravenously hungry that we couldn’t gobble gobble and taste the dishes at the same time! My four-year old nephew who figured out the deal came out with a fork last year to dig into the prasadams that my mom set out in front of the Goddess as my mom was doing the part of the prayer that involves food offerings!
After waking up from carb coma, a.k.a, late afternoon nap, it’s time to prepare the house for the evening when almost all the ladies in the neighborhood finish prayers in their own homes and come over to pray to my mom’s Varalakshmi and check out/ admire the new sari and any new jewelry that was acquired since the previous year’s puja and chat around for a bit before leaving with a tambulam (traditional gift for puja attendees which includes betel leaves, betel nut, kumkum and turmeric powder in separate sachets, a flower, a fruit and some sundal and perhaps a little trinket). My job generally is to assemble these tambulam totes. The uncles in the neighborhood sit with my dad on the sofas in the living room, chat about upcoming events in the community center and general updates on health status of all the uncles in the neighborhood (my dad is not too much into politics so I don’t remember hearing much conversation on this topic), while munching on the sundal and sometimes any additional prasadam items that my mom made in larger quantities. Ever since the year we had a lady from outside our neighborhood have a ‘faint’ while praying in our puja room, my dad has kept an eye out for anyone outside our neighborhood to make sure this ‘faint’ is not part of a funny prelude to a giant burglary attempt on our Varalakshmi! It’s true – robberies in some communities go up during the festival season!
Once it was my turn to do this puja when I got married, I hesitated a ton before beginning. Once you begin, it’s a commitment for a lifetime (for as long as you have your husband). While the prayer itself is beautiful and fun and has a noble purpose (growth of family and wellbeing and prosperity), it’s also a time for power politics and one upmanship among women in the family. Sure, these are much less in nuclear families compared to those among joint families, but they are there. It’s always on the second Friday (a working day for a career woman like me) of the Sravana month per the Hindu calendar. After some deep conversations with hubby in the first year of marriage, I decided to go all in. I was already wondering what to do with my saree collection from our wedding ceremonies – so, buying a new silk sari every year was out of question. My mom added an additional roopu to her shopping list. I decided on buying a new scarf every year for the Goddess as I really do enjoy wearing them. I have played with the colors and fabric every year and my Varalakshmi collection of scarves gives me a lot of joy and comfort. I tie the scarf like a sari on the Goddess, pleats and pallu and all, and then after undoing the decoration the next day, I wear the scarf and flaunt it for a bit in the evening. For items to be blessed by the Goddess, I have placed anything and everything that’s a symbol for our wellbeing and prosperity in front of her. The prasadams are kept under two items and they are usually prepared by Anil. Our prayer is a silent prayer and a vratam story that is read quietly on our iPad/ iPhone. And we are off to work by 730 in the morning. Instead of the entire neighborhood ladies, (the minimum required is three married ladies – remember this prayer is for married women), we invite our friends over, sometimes make dinner for them and sometimes it’s just drinks and snacks. Instead of a full on tambulam, it’s a trinket – earrings or bracelets or nail polish or eyeshadow or something my girlfriends would enjoy having. A couple years when I needed to work in the evenings, I even made three goodie bags and took them to work to give it to three married women colleagues! Fun times and fun memories! Anything towards prayers for the sake of family wellbeing and growth!!