“You want to know about Indian culture?” he asks with a raised brow.
I pick up my pen, square my shoulders, and give an affirmative bring-it-on nod.
The lobby lounge is relaxed after a full day of visitors and tourists trafficking through the hotel. I’m having an evening coffee at the bar and my guest, Murali, is unwinding with a glass of whiskey. His flight from India touched down only a few hours ago. He’s in the t-shirt business and his work carries him all over the globe: Sri Lanka, Australia, Europe, Japan, Singapore. He’s in Milwaukee for the first time.
“I left home for work as a young man. I have traveled with my work ever since,” he says.
An exporting entrepreneur in his early 40s, Murali tells me that he lives in the southern region of India now,400 kilometers from his native city. With his extensive travel schedule, I ask how often he gets to his home village.
“Every year,” he says. His dark eyes are piercing and certain. “I travel home every year to worship at my temple. It is wonderful.”
Murali tells me about the full day at his home temple, with 150 families together from sunrise to sunset. He even clears napkins from the bar and a tray of mixed nuts to illustrate the generations and linkages of men who worship with him. He continues worship traditions in his new city, of course, but explains how each region of India will have varied approaches and styles.
“There are 24 states in India and more than 24 languages,” he says. “Even 60 miles away, there is a different language. The celebrations are similar, but will look different from region to region.”
“After living away for so long,” I ask, “does your native city always feel familiar when you visit or oddly foreign?” Murali has been cordial with me so far, but understandably guarded. He lets his first smile peek through when I ask about “home.”
“My native city is always home.” Murali says. He pauses for a moment, his face becoming serious again, and adds, “Things do change where green fields are now homes or shops. Everywhere in the world, things are becoming commercialized. Still, we appreciate tradition.”
I ask about these traditions and Murali lists just a few of the festival celebrations from his culture. There’s a River Festival, a Sun Festival, a festival for studies and a festival for the harvest. Each month, he says, there is a different celebration with a different focus, and even a different food.
“Each celebration is regenerating,” he says. “If you think about it, the total of these celebrations are essential for human beings,” he says.
“Which is your favorite?” I ask.
“Diwali,” he says, taking my journal and pen to write the title correctly. Diwali, Festival of Lights, is held in November or October and is India’s biggest and most important holiday of the year. It is named for the rows of clay lamps that Indians light outside their homes to symbolize the inner light that protects us from spiritual darkness.
“Every family will have new dress, there are firecrackers and sweets, servants get bonuses, brothers will visit sisters. It is a time for families to come together,” he says. “The first Diwali after a couple is married is a big celebration for the entire family. The first Diwali with my own wife was in 2000. It will always be my favorite.”
“As a kid, did you value these traditions,” I ask, “or did you learn to really appreciate them once you were an adult?” Murali didn’t hesitate: he’s always cherished his culture and traditions.
“In my childhood, we woke up at 4:30 in the morning to be at the temple by 5am. We all were there, praying to God,” he says. “We all prayed with the same movements. We had the same ritual of exercise. We all eat our evening meals on a new banana leaf. There is even a way to lay in the bed. Yes, these things create a culture, but they are also essential to the body.”
I think about his world, and the certainty it suggests. I can admit that I have wrinkled my modern and Western nose at the notion of tradition, focused too intently on familiar expectations won’t exist or might be forbidden elsewhere in the world. In talking with Murali and witnessing the joy he holds in simply describing his traditions to me, I’m better able to appreciate the sense of foundation and purpose that occurs he gains from a culture steeped in prescription and rich tradition.
The more Murali tells me about his village, holidays, rituals and memories, the more relaxed and talkative he becomes. He speaks from a grounded place, a clear understanding of his journey through the world.
“Ancient priests wrote many things about timing. Every second, for example, three people are born in the world,” Murali says, settling back against his chair, his eyes fixed on mine. “The destiny and the ancestry of those three people can be charted by the sun and the stars. The people born just one second later will have a different destiny. Our ways are ancient. This is what we believe.”
As much as our cultures may differ, I learn that Murali and I share quirky similarities. First of all, we were born only eight days apart. Secondly, we are both raising preteen girls. Third, we both have surrendered our memory to digital gadgets.
“When I started my business, I kept 200 phone numbers in my head,” he says. “Now with the mobile phone, there’s no need.” I laugh because the only number I have committed to memory is my mother’s. (If I ever lose my digital address book and find myself in an epic crisis with only one permitted phone call, I’ll have to cross my fingers that she’s not in the audience of a stage play with her ringer silenced.)
“The young people now are a digital generation,” Murali continues. “Anything they need to know, they pick up their phone and have an answer in seconds. We used to memorize everything.”
I ask if he uses technology readily or reluctantly. “Oh, I use it,” he says. “I have to. For business, conversations that used to take a week or two weeks happen instantly now.”
I ask if he uses programs like Skype to talk with his daughter while he’s on the road. Murali loosens his second broad smile. “Whatever it takes,” he says. “Every Sunday when I am home, she asks questions about my travels. So many questions. I miss that.”
I smile. Love and family are certainly universal concepts … and food. Murali turns to greet a delivery person with a fragrant bag of takeout.
“Food from my country,” he says to me with a smile.
I begin to pack my things, and thank him profusely for his time and generous cultural lesson. Murali finishes paying for his dinner and settles his bag atop the bar. He turns his attention back to me and gives a slow nod.
“You are most welcome,” he says. “Next time, I will tell you about Indian food. That will take an entire day.”