A dozen of family and friends gather around–some elderly women on the couch and other mothers, uncles, and children scattered around the bright lighted living room. A collective group of voices sing Hindu chants and devotional songs.
My voice is not good, while I love to talk–singing has never been one of my talents. Sometimes I can carry a tune but belting out a chant in Hindi or singing the rhythms of a demanding bhajan can be nerve-racking for me. Though now I find myself singing, clinging on to the Hindi words praising lord Krishna. It is the way I feel closest to my Grandma and the way I am helping her soul.
In the past I dreaded singing. I felt I had no understanding much less a connection to the music. It was embarrassing for me as a child being forced to sing at mandir or Hindu temples revealing how little I knew about the Hindi language I did not speak.
Since my Grandma passed away I find myself singing in the company of my family members and friends and reading the meanings of songs during wakes.
But even before the days leading up to my Grandmother’s last rites Hindu ceremony or “shraadh”, I found myself singing and praying with immediate family by the bedside of my ailing Grandma. It was the only way I felt I could soothe her pain when words like “Hang in there Gram” proved no longer effective.
As Rabindranath Tagore once wrote in his collection of poems titled Gitanjali, “When grace is lost from life come with a burst of song.” I think that best describes how I felt when singing to my Grandma during her last few days of life.
For me singing bhajans or Hindu songs during my Grandma’s wakes allowed me to forget about the daily stressors of life, leave it all behind, and concentrate on my Grandma and her passing hopefully into a path of liberation as Hindus would say. But so many, including myself, have taken this power of singing for granted until death crosses your path.
I argue that if you do believe in a higher being, singing is a way to feel one step closer to that being. It is a personal step one makes to sing with devotion, but when done with no intentions besides reaching a peaceful state God feels much closer to you.
But the very act requires one to submit themselves to be heard–the end result could be glorious and aunties and uncles can be asking you to “sing wan more” or the surrounding audience can be wishing to lower down that mike. It is amazing how so many Indo-Caribbean Hindus are drawn to singing as a method of reaching God but also equally amazing how it took me so long to realize you don’t have to be good to sing.
Many Guyanese and Trinidadian Hindus who emigrated from their home countries to this city do not speak Hindi but they carry their culture and religion through music and song. You can imagine the three worlds Hinduism has managed to pass through: from India, to the West Indies, and then to New York City where West Indian immigrants have created a new life, built a thriving Hindu community of temples, and bring their children to experience the religion and culture.
Throughout Queens songbooks are passed around in places of worship and first-generation youth are trained in music schools all over the city to play the harmonium, sitar, dholak, tabla, and sing bhajans in Hindi–though most of these youth do not speak the language too.
There is something universal about the idea of spreading religion through songs when you do not even speak the language you are singing–you feel the divinity behind the words and that is good enough a reason to sing.
My Grandma was a spiritual woman who found joy and excitement in hearing the latest Prakash Gossai bhajans. Singing to her was a way to connect to the Lord and share in the praise of gods and goddesses through song. She could not converse in Hindi either but she represented the many elderly women who know this power–to sing in temples, during pujas or Hindu ceremonies, and among family and friends despite how good of a singer you may be or whether you completely understand the language.
I have walked into pujas and ceremonies where one may be rendering a song that may not exactly pleasing to the ear and members of the audience are secretly wondering when is this song going to end. I know this because those thoughts have entered my mind too. But many of us have not realized that singing brings a certain power or closeness to God for those in need of it.
When you do–like I did this past week–you will understand that singing is not just music but a movement that has transgressed time, place, and language to establish a unique relationship with yourself and a much more powerful force.