Dr. Nazneen Ahmed
My retired father in law has been unusually busy this week. He’s had several trips to Wickes, all his tools are strewn over the dining room table, and the room hums daily with the sounds of banging and drilling. He’s relocating our family’s shrine to Ganpati.
It all started this summer. For years, my mother in law has had her shrine in our kitchen, on top of the fridge. It’s been there for so long that the daily burning of an oil lamp has permanently coated the corner of that part of the ceiling and walls with a layer of black oily soot that no amount of Cilit Bang has been able to remove. Every morning and evening, her hair dripping wet, she would pull out the stepladder propped between fridge and freezer, and carefully make her ascent to the shrine. She would take a clean cloth from her stack used only for the shrine, clean everything slowly and carefully and go about her prayers, offering Ganpati a piece of fruit, a flower, or some Petit Filous.
But that all changed this summer. We had family over from India, three of my mother in law’s five siblings, and a debate ensued about whether the location of my mother in law’s shrine was appropriate. Her family criticised its position, above an electronic item, and said that its location within the house wasn’t auspicious. They pointed to the corner of the dining room as the best place for it. The theological justifications for this placing were lost on me, articulated in Gujarati which I’m only just getting to grips with. But I suspect they might also have been lost on my mother in law who has always had a more intuitive rather than scriptural grasp of her faith.
So now Ganpati is on the move and my dad is building a special set of corner shelves for him.
I tell this story because I think it’s both a tale of diasporic faith being subject to the power of authentic “back home” faith, and because it’s also a story of suburban, domestic faith and space. My mother in law immediately demurred to her siblings’ critiques of the location of the shrine because she believed that they held more knowledge of Hindu scripture and were closer to the faith than she is, living as she has been in the UK for over thirty years.
But the location of the shrine wasn’t something she’d ever brought up with her priest either. Southampton has a relatively active mandir, but it’s not somewhere that we visit on a weekly basis. It’s a bit of a drive and it’s difficult to get parking. She is therefore not on that kind of intimate level with the priest to invite him round and ask him to inspect the location of the shrine. Maybe it would have been in “right place” if we’d lived in close proximity to the temple, and not suburbia. Maybe it would have been in the “right place” if we’d lived in India. But just because she doesn’t attend the mandir every day doesn’t mean she isn’t devout, nor does the fact that her shrine was above the fridge for perhaps decades, discount those daily ministrations to it. It’s just the way that she has practised her faith, personally, vernacularly, in diaspora, in suburbia, at home.