The man seemed from another time, a wanderer like the ancient mariner from the regions beyond the clear, blue sky. You could tell by the gleam in his eyes that he possessed the aura of an old soul connected to the great web of life. When he walked, people followed and when he spoke, his words shook their souls with the force of the new.
One day, a woman came and asked him to speak to her son who she felt was a stranger in her own house. He was born here in New Jersey, grew up to be a fine lad eighteen years old but in her opinion very Americanized and out of control. “In spite of several weekends of culture, language classes, yoga classes, temple retreats, trips to India, he follows a different drummer whose beats are at odds with Indian culture,” she whined in despair. When the woman spoke so openly, other parents voiced their anguish at their foreign born kids. It was like a flood of emotional catharsis suddenly let loose from a broken wall of denial.
“Sit down, beti,” spoke the wanderer, “I want to tell you a story.
Once upon a time, there was a land populated by monkeys. They lived a life of plenty. There were many banana trees in the island, the water was azure pure and the fruits were delicious. Life was good. Slowly, the word spread and other animals heard about it, and one fine day, there arrived a family of dogs. The papa dog was smart and was admired by the ruling monkeys. The mama dog settled in her routine of raising her puppies and keeping the home fires burning. After a few months, the puppies learnt how to live like monkeys. They climbed trees, ate bananas, screeched like monkeys and had no idea about the world of dogs, nor did they care to know anything about it.
This distressed the papa dog and the mama dog. So they carted off the puppies to the puppy training center where they learned to wag their tails and to yelp like dogs. But when they came back to their monkey neighbors they forgot all about the ways of the dog. They quickly went back to their comfort zone which was jumping trees in the monkey world. For some time, the puppies navigated two worlds and the parent dogs were happy and bragged about how their off-springs were adjusting to both worlds. But when the puppies became dogs and could live and survive on their own, they chose the world of monkeys which they were exposed to since their birth and to which they felt they belonged. They were happy but the parent dogs were miserable. Their children did not belong to the world of their forefathers. They lost the culture of their ancestors. They could not become like their parents and had no idea about the old world and its great traditions.”
The wise sojourner paused in his recounting and continued. “Now, let’s extend this parable to your world, the world in which you grew up. You went to school in India. Did you have to explain to your classmates, why you worship an elephant faced God with a mouse as traveling companion? Did you have to defend your worshipping the monkey God to your teachers? No. But this is something your children have to do from day one of their schooling in America. Did you do anything to enter their world, to even understand the turmoil, of continuously being exposed to an environment that has nothing to do with anything you do in your home or home country?
Look back at your days growing up. You never had to go to Gita classes, The Hindu center, Chinmaya mission, Vedanta center, or any other organization to learn about Ramayana, Mahabharata, Ganesha, Mahadev, or Chakradhari. All this you learnt from an environment suffused with traditions, rituals, and festivals, from grandparents, aunts, uncles, from temple priests, from the Brahmin who recites the sandhya vandanam, from the baniya who inadvertently lets out, “Hey Ram, kya ho gaya?”, from the many sights, sounds, and the ambience of thousands of years of customs that seeps into your subconscious and gives you an identity via osmosis.
Can you give this to your children born in America just by attending sanitized versions of weekend rituals? They cannot understand your world let alone become part of it. When you want them to join your world to cure your nostalgia, or your own ambivalence about living in two different worlds, they cannot comprehend the reason. And when you insist that they become part of your culture, the wall goes up, they become defensive and rail against your judgment.
Now try to enter their world. They are exposed to another great, humanistic, and scientific culture, a culture where merit is respected and hierarchy and elitism is shunned. They have never played Holi with their neighbors but they have gone trick or treating during Halloween. They have never witnessed a whole nation swept by the euphoria and festivities of Diwali but they have seen the pull of Frosty the Snowman and Rudolf, the red nosed reindeer. The myths that build their soul are not the Ramayana or the Mahabharata, but the Wizard of Oz, the Christmas carol, Merlin and Arthur, Huckleberry Finn and tales of the Mississippi, to name a few. Their villains are Fagin and Scrooge not Ravana or Mareecha. Are you comfortable with this world? Can you have a dialogue with them about the roaring twenties, the great Depression, the Mexican wars, the Trail of Tears or the classics such as Casa Blanca or Elia Kazan’s “On the Waterfront?”
“Then what is the solution, O traveler?” asked the woman.
“If you want your child to be part of the old world, soaking in its eternal values and keeping its traditions, then go back to the world you grew up in and expose them to the world you want them to go back to. Do not go to the fancy, gated NRI communities or the sanitized places for foreign born children. They will learn nothing there except disdain for their culture. Let them delve in the common life of ordinary people. Let them swim with the current of centuries old cultural rivers. The elites come and go; their roots are shallow and are easily swept off their feet by outside influences. But the soul of India lives in its people, in their humble homes. As Gandhiji used to say “India lives in its villages.”
Take your children back when they are young and bring them back when they are grown just as you have immigrated at a much later age. If you cannot do that, then let them be happy in their world. Do not destroy their comfort zone without providing them with an alternative. Let them find their equilibrium in their own way and in the meantime, try to learn about their world, volunteer in their world and meet them half-way.
The audience listened spell-bound. A different wavelength of light penetrated the gloom of their minds. Whether it lights up new frontiers with a dazzling brilliance or whether the little gleam of light gets snuffed by the darkness of denial remains to be seen. While they were still pondering on the tattered fabric of their families, the wanderer quietly rose and vanished into the giant shadows of Time.
And the people looked for him everywhere but he was never seen or heard of again. A few days went by and the woman passed by the same place. On the grassy knoll where the ancient old man walked there was a glossy paper. She picked it up and the words were of Kahlil Gibran.
“Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life's longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow,
which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.
You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth.
The Archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite,
and He bends you with His might that His arrows may go swift and far.
Let your bending in the Archer's hand be for gladness;
For even as He loves the arrow that flies, so He loves also the bow that is stable.”
When the woman finished reading, she pondered for a while on the mystic words that bared the unfathomed depths of a faraway soul. And as she sat in deep meditation, finally comprehending the stunning impact of ancient truths, she suddenly saw the Timeless wanderer. He smiled briefly and vanished just as rapidly as he had come.