Lighting the Way
Lighting the Way

Vodka Yonic features a rotating cast of women and nobinary writers from around the world sharing stories that are alternately humorous, sobering, intellectual, erotic, religious or painfully personal. You never know what you’ll find here each week, but we hope this potent mix of stories encourages conversation.

My parents’ morning routine is ingrained in my memory: wake up, shower, light a diya, pray and sip on a cup of chai before work. I admired their regimen, often embarrassed that my mornings consisted of endless Instagram scrolling and chugging a cup of coffee before logging on. No matter how much older I got, or where I lived, there was little room for prayer in my schedule.

Ironically, my parents named me Pooja, which means prayer or worship. Since birth, I was bestowed with this inherent responsibility of being connected to my Hindu faith by virtue of my name. And my family lived the part, too. I was born in India, where religion was a key facet of life: frequent walks to the temple, evening aartis and vegetarianism as the default diet.

After immigrating to the States to pursue the American Dream, my parents traded their temple visits for trips to the mall and their Indian cuisine for Taco Bell and McDonald’s. But one thing remained consistent: lighting their daily diya near the altar of God. My mom even has a precise process: roll pure cotton into a wick, immerse it into a jar of ghee to create a candle, place in an earthen clay bowl or brass holder and ignite with a match. She then closes her eyes, folds her hands and recites a prayer until the flame extinguishes itself.

For my parents, faith is an integral part of their identity. The diya represents purity and goodness as well as evil dispelled by the power of light. They viewed this task as a customary part of our Hindu household and emphasized its symbolism.

Lighting the Way

The author's diya

Faith for me has been more complicated. When I moved to Boston from New York for college, my mom packed a dainty new diya into a box and urged me to light it each morning before class. “Sure,” I told her, knowing perfectly well it would collect dust. Years later, my parents gave my fiancé and me a personalized diya with our initials carved into it as a housewarming gift when we moved into our first apartment. 

It’s small and delicate — and found a permanent home in my dresser. 

Although I don’t identify as an atheist, I’ve never described myself as a believing Hindu, because I long saw it as the faith I was born into. I often felt I had little choice but to conform to Hinduism given how religious my family is. Growing up, I would reluctantly go to Diwali celebrations and auspicious prayer ceremonies without fully understanding what they meant or what we were worshipping. I never thought to ask, and honestly didn’t care.

I battled my own angry tirades with God (or gods, considering the Hindu belief of multiple deities), which further widened the gap between what I chose to believe and practice. Childishly and without substantial evidence, I blamed the misfortunes of my life on God and could not reconcile why negative events occured. Instead of relying on religion to alleviate my burdens, I viewed it as a burden itself.

But the past eight months of pandemic-related lockdown have forced me to reevaluate my faith and my spirituality — after all, there was only so much banana bread I could bake. Isolated in a tiny apartment with my partner and unable to interact with the world, I looked to the higher powers for solace and comfort in an otherwise grim time. 

One morning in mid-April as the pandemic raged, I woke up to my usual dose of MSNBC news, which reported another devastating day of 3,000-plus deaths from COVID-19 in New York City alone. In that moment, I gravitated toward the box that housed my untouched diya. By now, the world was growing accustomed to these staggering numbers and the global panic they brought on. Loved ones were hooked to ventilators, news coverage showed heartbreaking photos of morgues and hospitals at maximum capacity, health care workers were beleaguered, and the economy tanked.

That morning, the diya became a beam of light for me. I lit the wick to feel closer to home. 

In the days that followed, I formed a habit of lighting it each morning after I showered and prepared for another work-from-home day — it was the only constant in an otherwise unprecedented time. This simple change motivated me to voluntarily reunite with my cultural and religious identity on my own terms. I sought out English translations of ancient texts and scriptures that explained the customs and traditions that I witnessed my family practice. I phoned my parents to ask thoughtful questions about why they viewed certain omens as “good” or “bad” and the significance behind the traditions they observe. I fought to change my once-adversarial position with God and solve the enigma of my relationship with my spirituality. 

To this day, I have deliberately lit more than 210 diyas. This Diwali, I plan on telling my parents about my growing interest in my faith. I know they will be delighted. 

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