Modern Lives, Sacred Hills

A scattered family reunites for the walk to a Hindu shrine

MY BROTHER, RAJ, my filmmaking partner, Tom, and I traverse a staircase that winds its way up seven hills, nine miles, and thousands of steps to the Tirupati Hill Shrine in the state of Andhra Pradesh, in southern India. The air thins and cools as we get higher and higher into the mountains. The stairs are lined with small tea stalls and soda vendors, spiced nuts at mile three. A sadhu is standing in the shade, steely-eyed, staring at us as we pass. His markings tell us his day began with prayer, and the stillness of his eyes tells me I have a lot to learn.

We keep climbing.

The midmorning heat is beating down, sweat pours, and the stairs continue to unfold around every corner. With every step, I reflect on the past six weeks, the past year, and indeed the past 30 years of my life. My mother was diagnosed with cancer last year, and since then my family’s world has changed. For the first time in 25 years we find ourselves in India together. As a family. And I find myself somewhere I’ve never dreamed of, doing something I’ve never imagined.

In the northern reaches of Saskatchewan in the boreal forest, the land of lakes, there exists a species indigenous to the deep south of India. Traditionally a nonsmoking, nondrinking herbivore, the species upon migration has adopted North American feeding patterns and a potentially lethal obsession with filmmaking. This species is my father.

My name is Anand Ramayya, I am 100 percent South Indian-blooded, but I know absolutely nothing about what it means to be Indian. I was born and raised in Canada and grew up in the rugged but beautiful little town of La Ronge, Saskatchewan. Penumaka Dasarutha Ramayya and Jayalakshmi Presuna are my parents, descendants of a long line of orthodox Hindus with roots in southern India. My dad was a schoolteacher and my mom was a small-town girl when they married in 1965. Soon after, my brother, Raj, was born. The ’60s were a time of opportunity for the educated immigrant, so my father and mother moved to Canada and reinvented themselves as Ray and Jaya Ramayya.

Ray has a Ph.D. in educational psychology, and Jaya works at a day care center and sells Avon on the weekends. My father is obsessed with making films, and my mother is equally determined to maintain some sense of normalcy in the household. She’s stuck it out with him through three remortgages of the house and many other high-risk film-financing stunts. While my dad has a knack for making things epic and complex, her strength is making things simple.

Like a lot of families these days, we’ve grown apart. My brother lives in Japan, I am constantly working, and it seems none of us has had the time to get to know each other as adults. Life has a way of taking us so far from ourselves that everything gets blurry. This brush with mortality has focused us back in on the things that should matter. Things change when people get sick. I had originally planned to make a documentary about my father going to India to make his next film, but in the midst of it all my mother asked us to make a pilgrimage, as a family, to a place called Tirupati. She’s never asked us for anything. Ever.

With this one request, she has become a new person to me. A person with her own needs, with a past and a faith. None of which, I’m realizing, I know anything about.

INDIA. MYSTICAL, MAGICAL, and overwhelming. The land of swamis, gurus, and my family. At the airport, the customs officer shoots me a puzzled look and asks, “Are you Indian?” I don’t quite know what to say. Two minutes later we are beeping and weaving our way through the freeway into the heart of the city. Markets spill into the streets, traffic spills into the market, and everything flows together. All of humanity seems to bubble over in the cauldron of Hyderabad. Beautiful minarets tower over us as we find our way into the heart of the Charminar Market. This was where my parents first lived after they married. I feel myself transplanted in this new world where everything is chaotic and strange for me, yet for them it’s home.

I am gaining a new kind of respect for my parents. I’ve taken them off the pedestal of parenthood and try to imagine myself in their position. I am 6 years older than my father was and 12 years older than my mother was when they had their first child. When they began with nothing and started to build their life, our life. It’s a sobering and humbling thought. I wonder who I would be in this India had we stayed.

India is the seminal experience that is challenging the very foundation of my self-concept. Each moment is filled with meaning; each sight triggers a feeling or sensation that I didn’t know existed in me. The indiscernible sound of locals slowly yields to my curious ears and becomes a language. A language I’ve used only unconsciously to listen in on household conversations is now connecting me to the 76 million people of this province.

I’ve romanticized this country in my dreams, but being here is a completely different story.

Each of us experiences our own India. For my father, India is a playground — a hustler’s paradise. My sincere but self-indulgent moments of reflection are squished by his comic audacity. As I ponder my ultimate truths, he vanishes for hours only to reappear in the hotel lounge with a cell phone and some film cronies cooking up a deal. Andhra Pradesh does have the second-largest film industry in India.

But we remember that we are supposed to be here for my mother, to make a pilgrimage to pray for good health.

She steers us back toward family matters, and as we make our way I find new surprises around every corner, connections to a past I’d forgotten was mine.

WHEN MY BROTHER finally arrives from Japan, we hit the road.

On my mother’s list of stops is a visit to the home of my wise little uncle in Hyderabad, who wakes up at 4:00 a.m. to listen to classical Indian music and perform his prayers to Jesus, Allah, Buddha, Sai Baba, and Venkateswara. “They are all the same — there is only one God,” he declares matter-of factly as he inches his way past me to his morning pot of ginger tea. He is quite a contrast to my father, who wakes every morning to a cigarette, a cup of coffee, and a copy of American Cinematographer. Uncle’s home is peaceful and in his bedroom there is a picture of Venkateswara Swami, the presiding deity of Tirupati. I ask him why people go to Tirupati.

“People have desires, so by doing a pilgrimage they can have their wishes answered,” he replies.

“And why do people shave their heads and give their hair in Tirupati?”

“It is only a belief and we offer it to the Lord,” says Uncle.

This extremely slight and charming 85-year-old creaks from room to room conserving energy for more entertaining endeavors, such as his daily prayers, complaining about the news, and, today, giving his youngest brother, my father, a hard time. My father wants a better answer.

“Why? Why do they offer?” my father demands.

“What do you mean? What is the belief? What am I supposed to tell you? If you believe, then there is the belief, that’s it. Are you following me?”

I am following him, slowly but surely.

The next morning we are on our way to my mother’s childhood home of Eluru. Pavement drops to dirt; cows and goats decide to share the road with us. We go deeper and deeper into Andhra Pradesh. The farther we go, the more I realize how little I know about my mother.

We enter her hometown, and it is like a snapshot from the past. I can see her as a little girl living in this neighborhood and playing on these streets. Streets that haven’t changed much since her days.

We walk along a narrow dusty street lined with clay and brick pastel-colored homes. It has been 12 years since she last visited and 25 years since her family has seen her two sons. Without hesitation, we are welcomed into her old home and another piece of her past. “My mother passed away when I was 4, around 13 my father passed away,” she tells me. “I lived here first 18 years of my life. My aunt brought me up and gave me a good education and good advice and put me through schools and dancing schools. But still I felt, I wish I have my mom and dad.

“When I go through my tough times, bad times, good times, I always think about God and my mom and dad. That is the soothing thing for my stress points. When I think about my health problems or financial problems, everything goes when you look at God, pictures, and your grandparents and everything. I feel soothing things for me all around.”

It is hard for her to talk about these things. I can see my mother was really happy here, but the walls are filled with memories and emotion.

Seeing her here, I feel she is definitely from this place and in some ways maybe she’s never left. The ease of laughter, her comfort with friends, the unspoken understandings between them — she glides through India. She’s one of these women, enforcers of the moral code that binds the Indian family system. Their patience, strength, and beliefs seem to hold their families together.

I decide to consult a swami before heading out on the last leg to Tirupati. I have lot of unanswered questions. I wait in his receiving hall, the walls lined with photos, deities, and garlands. The clock ticks, time stands still, and my mind races. Why am I here? What is it that I’m looking for? Who could possibly answer any of these questions? At this moment I can’t imagine myself being any further away from anywhere I ever thought I would be.

I am told to begin with my questions.

I take a deep breath, try to suspend my cynicism, and begin.

“Swami-ji. Who am I?”

“Who am I, who am I? This is good question. Suppose anybody comes and asks you, who are you? You should not say I am an Indian, I am an American, I am Canadian, I am a Hindu, I am a Christian. First of all bravely you must say, I am a human being. If all the people on the earth can bravely say that they are human beings, having perfect humanity, then the whole earth becomes peaceful.”

“What is God and how do you define God?” I ask.

“According to me, there is only one God, who is omnipresent and omnipotent,” says the swami. “There is only one religion and that is the religion of love. Who is God, where is God, and what is the form of God? God is the cosmic current which is pervading through every atom of the universe. It is everywhere, in everybody, in every atom, it is just like current flowing.”

It takes me a while to appreciate his words, but ultimately I realize that I have to let go of my expectations and just allow myself to be. My family in India seems to share similar values of tolerance, peace, and a connection to an omnipresent God whose name, shape, and size are irrelevant. Jesus, Allah, Buddha, Venkateswara. They are all the same.

I am starting to realize that understanding the spirituality of India is the key to understanding my mother, and maybe even a bit of myself.

THE MUSLIMS HAVE Mecca, the Christians have Jerusalem, and for Hindus, Tirupati is the holiest of holy places, the transcendental plane on Earth where my ancestors have gone for generations to have their prayers granted. The ancient sages of India believed the rigorous walk up these seven hills would fulfill the vows of the pilgrim. They believed that the essence of God is held inside this temple. God, the Soul, and the Universe together form one reality. An all-pervading cosmic current.

We have traveled across the world to make this pilgrimage and walk these steps up to the ancient and sacred temple of Sri Venkateswara on the seventh peak of Tirupati Hill. The town and the hills are bursting with the energy of the 50,000 pilgrims who come here daily.

It was my mother’s will that brought us here, but, ironically, her body isn’t strong enough to walk the steps. My father stays behind with her and only the young in our group start on the trek.

We are an unlikely crew from the other side of the planet. Me, my brother freshly unplugged from the Tokyo club scene, and Tom, who is sporting a mini-DV camera and sunscreen. We aren’t exactly blending in with the other pilgrims, but each of us has his own appointment in these sacred hills. For some reason, fate has brought us here, thousands of miles from home.

We keep walking, mile after mile, step after step. The equipment seems to get heavier as the air thins. Our machismo fades as my three young cousins glide by us and giggle. We stop for spiced pineapple and catch our breath. After mile four everything becomes about breathing. All I can hear is my breath, and I can see clearly that the place I am in is magic.

For a moment on these hills, I allow myself to believe in something bigger than myself. To believe that somehow by performing this ritual I can defy all logic and compel this inexplicable universal power to transform my world, answer my prayers. That somehow at the end of this path there is a chance for liberation and a merger, perhaps, with God and the universe.

The ancient sages believed that shaving one’s head is an act of complete surrender of ego at the feet of the Lord. It is also my final step in a pilgrimage that has taken me from my hometown of La Ronge to this transcendental plane. The blade scrapes my scalp, stroking away the weight of my thoughts. We are all tired, it has been a long road, but this moment is so simple, so absolute.

And regardless of whether I believe in my mother’s God or not, I respect her faith. She has been coming here since she was a child. And I do believe that this act of pilgrimage is real for her, that God exists in this temple and that the act of the pilgrimage itself has fulfilled all of her wishes.

For now, that’s all I need.

Anand Ramayya has been working in the film business since the age of 15. His producing credits include feature films, animation, and documentaries. His directorial debut, Cosmic Current (on which this article is based), recently premiered on Canadian television. To view a video clip, visit Reprinted from Ascent magazine (#22). Subscriptions: $15.95/yr. (4 issues) from 837 Rue Gilford, Montreal, Quebec H2J 1P1, Canada.

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