The language of the heavens

Off the Beat

Related Posts

नहि सुशिक्षितो ऽपि नटबटुः स्वस्कन्धमारोदुं पटुः

“No matter how well-trained the tumbler’s boy, he will never be able to stand on his own shoulders”

This is the saying my mother used to tell me every time I overstepped my boundaries or disappointed her. Throughout my life, I’ve had a strenuous relationship with my mother, mostly stemming from our personality differences. I am the complete opposite of my mother. Where she is calm and collected, I am loud and fiery; where she is sweet, I am sour. When I became a teenager, she chalked up our inherent personality differences to the universal phase of life where teenage daughters are prone to hate their mothers. But the disconnect ran deeper than that. I resented my mother for never paying me any attention — for forgetting about my piano recitals and refusing to indulge in my hobbies. I resented her for dedicating what seemed like all of her time to a religion that could very well be completely made up. But no amount of resentment in the world could stop me from loving the Sanskrit stories she told. And she loved telling me stories. 

She would prop a book up next to the stove, reading the script to me while she cooked. She told me stories of gods with 10 arms, each armed with weapons, bringing their divine quality to the darkest parts of the world. Floating around our kitchen, she seemed to take on that quality herself: 10 hands, armed with kitchen utensils and the folktales that she fed me. The bedtime stories were filled with the gory tales of demons wreaking havoc on the earth and the gods that constantly battled them. My mother had a story for everything — from the explanation for God’s omnipresence to the square circumference of the Palace of Heaven (which, according to canon text, is about 800 miles in circumference and 40 miles in height). And eventually, using transliterated English text, she taught me some of the script itself. 

My mother can speak five languages, has a gift for cooking and somehow never seems to age. She can fluently read Classical Sanskrit, the ancient language that is the precursor to most modern South Asian languages. It is also known as “the language of the gods” since it is the chosen vernacular of the Hindu religious texts. My parents immigrated to the United States in 1999, where they both took on careers that ate up most of their time, but my mother always found time to read her Sanskrit books. She would continuously tell me she was attached to nothing in this world; all she needed were her Sanskrit texts and she would be happy. These were words taken very personally by a 10-year-old me. Tucked away in her books, which fill a whole floor-to-ceiling wall in our home, she isolated herself, increasing the disconnect between herself and me. 

But other than that, I truly knew nothing about my mother. She didn’t like speaking about herself and left all the talking to my father, a jovial man who seemed to have experienced everything there was to see in the world. Even if we asked for a morsel of a memory, my mother would not oblige. It simply was not in her nature. 

Although my mother could read Sanskrit, she was unable to translate it. Bits and pieces of the language are scattered across the modern languages of India, but in itself, Sanskrit is incredibly complex. As an example, there are three types of nouns, each with more than 21 derivations, equalling almost 63 different ways to parse just one word. Needless to say, it’s difficult to learn. 

I wanted to have something common with my mother, and I thought, “What better way than to learn the language she loves so dearly?” So of course, when I got to UC Berkeley, I immediately signed up for the introductory Sanskrit course. After a semester, I could not only read the script fluently, but I could also understand its meaning. When I got home for winter break, I read to my mother, pausing at the end of each couplet verse to roughly translate it. My eyes were fixated on the passage, the verses taking up my total concentration. 

But when I finally paused at the end of the chapter, I looked up to see my mother teary-eyed. She told me that no one in our family had ever bothered learning Sanskrit, and she finally felt like she could share her passion with someone for the first time in her life. It was at that moment I realized that the resentment I had toward my mom was baseless. I could not penalize her for being absorbed in her passion, one of the only things that brought her true happiness. After all, we all have passions that the world deems fruitless, yet we continue to harbor the little bits of happiness that keep us afloat. 

Since then, whenever she discovers a new piece of literature, she calls me immediately to ask whether I can help her make sense of the verses. Together, we pore over the text, swapping analysis and conjugations like it’s a regular old book club. And for the first time in my life, I feel seen by her. The sense of hopelessness I always used to feel regarding our relationship is finally disintegrating. Just like my mom’s ever-popular saying, although I am the tumbler’s boy, I can stand on her shoulders, instead of my own.

“Off the Beat” columns are written by Daily Cal staff members separate from the semester’s regular opinion columnists. Contact the opinion desk at [email protected] or follow us on Twitter @dailycalopinion.