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The Heart Remembers

In November of 2010, a family of four sat huddled around a fire in South Carolina. A storm had sprung up, contemptuous of their plans, and now pelted rain into the meager, shaded pavilion where they sat. A priest, clad in a white dhoti and a saffron cloth around his shoulders, read an incantation to Shiva, and poured ghee on the fire, making the flames leap higher.

The mother cast her eyes on the storm as if asking herself whether Shiva was blessing them with this pralay nritya(dance of destruction), or showing his divine indifference? The father, head lowered, tried to follow the Sanskrit intonations. The children, a boy of six and a girl of twelve, were silent, solemn and a little scared. They had fistfuls of grain in their hands, which they threw on the fire, blinking against the smoke and the rain.

That family was us.

Our girl, Aishika, had just been diagnosed with cancer of the lymph nodes. We had taken the news, stoically. I was following the advice of the oncologists with as much diligence as I could, and just putting one foot in front of the other, suspending all effort to guess the outcome. Her dad, a doctor himself, was calling pediatric lymphoma specialists at Johns Hopkins and Harvard, double checking the diagnosis and treatment protocols we had got from the oncologists at the University of South Carolina. The diagnosis is sound, we were told. The treatment protocol is well established.

What else can we do, we asked ourselves. My mother and friends from India suggested, “Do a Mahamrityunjay jap.” “What’s that?” we asked. It sounded sonorous, powerful, but beyond our ken. It’s an incantation made with a fire offering to the Lord Shiva, we found out.

Until then we had given our religion little conscious thought. We went to the temple once a month, stuffed some bills into the daan peti (offerings box), took part in the festivals with other Bengalis. We had never organized a Puja at home, never known a single prayer complete. We went to the Temple and asked the Pujari would he know how to do a Mahamrityunjay jap? He asked who it was for, listened with compassion, and said he would organize everything, gave us a time and date when we should come back for the ceremony.

And so we found ourselves, with rain and thunder and fire and the rolling Sanskrit words, praying for the life of our daughter, as if we were back by the banks of the Indus, praying to Pashupati (Lord of Animals) for the gift of life.

We worship the three-eyed One, who is fragrant and who nourishes all. Like the fruit falls off from the bondage of the stem, may we be liberated from death, from mortality.

Aishika and Adeep in 2012, after she was declared cancer free.

My daughter is now almost an adult. But to this day I have Nataraj (the dancing Shiva) on my bedside table, at hand when my courage meter is ticking downward. And the Mahamrityunjay jap that I had learned that day I repeat now every day for each of my family.

They say when you are faced with mortal danger you can only remember your mother tongue. It took mortal danger to strip away the layers of education, sophistication and bravado that we had acquired in our foreign land.

The heart remembers what the mind forgets.

The family hiking in the Canadian Rockies, 2019

Nandini Sen grew up in Ranchi, Jharkhand, and moved to the USA in 1994. She holds a P.h.D. in Communications from Temple University in Philadelphia and has worked in public health promotion and research. In 2018, looking for a way to reconnect with her roots, she became a partner in Bhubanbari Kolkata, a heritage guest house with a bohemian heart. Her most obedient child is Dobbydog Aerodynamic, aka Aero.

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