A Miscellany of Quotations: A Few Thought-Provoking Passages from Fiction

I finished reading Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s Before We Visit the Goddess today, and I’d like to share a few passages from 125-128, the pages that had the most impact on me. The book is an excellent read, and in the selections below, I’ve tried to avoid spoilers.

Far as I know, I’ve never been inside a temple. My father, who was a Communist in his youth, was dead against it. My mother had to fight him just to set up an altar in the kitchen, where a tiny ten-armed goddess statue shared shelf space with her spices. Because he was the fulcrum of my existence, I grew up convinced that religion was the opium of the people. When my mother gave me a holy picture to take to college, I tossed it in the bottom of my suitcase and didn’t bother to take it out when I unpacked.

Stepping into the temple, I’m assailed by a scent. A mix of crushed flowers, incense, and a woodsy odor which I’ll discover is holy ash […]

Before We Visit the Goddess, p. 125

One of the main characters (the granddaughter) has never been to a temple or had religion in her life. This passage reminded me of the section in Larissa Lai’s When Fox Is a Thousand during which the young women in the book try to figure out how to properly do a traditional death observance —

The ceremony was Claude’s idea. None of them knew what they were supposed to do, what their ancestors might have done on a similar occasion.

She bought a lot of white candles, joss sticks, some oranges, and a steamed chicken. She called everyone, even Diane, and talked them into coming.

When Fox Is a Thousand, p. 262

Both passages remind me of an emotion I’ve experienced while working through some logistical things related to a religious practice, specifically that sense of disconnection from the past that many of us experience, the same kind of thing that led my mom to investigate why my great-grandparents had been tight-lipped about a lot of Scandi holiday traditions while transmitting their food recipes forward in time, something that my mom had to revive. A bit different, but definitely many similarities.

Back to Before We Visit the Goddess, though —

For a moment, thinking of Meena, [Venkatachalapathi] had forgotten the girl. But now she came up to him, glowing in his white shawl, whispering questions with an avidity that surprised him. What was the priest going to do? What was an archana? Did the prayer have a special significance? Her eyes, full of wonder, made her seem suddenly younger.

“It’s for good luck,” he said. “For blessing, in this life and the next. Wait, I will offer one for you, too. But I will need your name.”

“Oh, no! You don’t have to do that.” But her face was bright with pleasure as she gave him the information.

“Why,” he said in surprise, “you’re named after the goddess, too.”

When Venkatachalapathi asked the priest to add Tara’s name to the archana, the old man scowled.

“What is her clan? Her birth sign? Her star?” he demanded. They both knew the system. Without this crucial information, a prayer offered in the temple would not be fully effective.

Venkatachalapathi glanced at Tara. She was looking at him inquiringly; she had caught the disapproval in the old man’s tone. He feared that she would not know the answers to any of the priest’s queries, that she came from a family that did not keep track of such things. She probably did not even possess a birth chart. He hoped he was wrong. Without a birth chart, how would you know who you really were? Adrift in the universe, how would you navigate your life?

Before We Visit the Goddess, p. 128

Astrological information sometimes comes up in the Platonists and in some types of polytheist discourse surrounding ritual (for me, what Simplicius says in his commentary on Epictetus seems reasonable), so the last two lines jumped out at me. I’m not sure how much of the above account is accurate versus how much is embellished for the fictional context, but the parallel in another cultural context was noteworthy given all of that.

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