“This is Us”
The dog days of August are upon us. They usher in the Hindu festival season, which builds to a crescendo when fall arrives, and, like many other observant Hindu American families, we balance the happy chaos of each festival with the frenzy of back to school, the resumption of sports, and talk of Halloween costumes.
The week began with Janmashtami, the birth of our beloved deity, Krishna. In our house, we have a teeny little Bal Gopal (baby Krishna) perched on a cradle, and we attach a string of flowers to it, and take turns to rock him.
A, being the naughty little Krishna of our house, just cannot control himself when Bal Gopal makes an appearance. So obsessed is he with the swinging cradle that we have to hide it in a steel container the rest of the year, and we never open it in his presence, so he won’t see where it is concealed.
It’s always when my husband is attaching the flowers to the cradle that A suddenly becomes alerted. He twitches visibly and vibrates with excitement, then lunges for Bal Gopal, who probably sighs and surrenders to the inevitable. We can hardly even keep Bal Gopal on the altar long enough to do the prayers because A keeps running away with his buddy. When it’s time to rock the cradle, A’s turn is more like violent loop-the-loops, and one of us has to place a hand on the back of the figurine to moderate matters.
Our prayers usually culminate in me singing, but I cannot get through this festival without tearing up because it’s so beautiful and uplifting to me. So the song ends up getting interrupted, G ringing the bell and grinning from the back, and everyone waiting for mom to get the frog out of her throat. What can you do. This is us!
It is a tightrope walk, balancing A’s love of the pomp of each festival with the reality of how much he dreads change, things being moved, and people being immersed in non routine tasks. And of course he cannot help latching onto ritualistic actions, so I feel really mean to say this, but it makes us wary of starting anything, knowing it will soon be commandeered and rendered unrecognizable. AAAAA! I won’t apologize for these feelings, though; I’ve always been fond of our festivals, and not being able to attend to them with the usual flair has turned my religious practice inside out. My Varalakshmi Vratham, for example, was performed in semi darkness because A couldn’t bear even a table lamp that day.
But as always, I realize that these practices do not exist in some vacuum of imagined purity. Au contraire, they are pretty much meaningless if they don’t include the whole family. All over the world, people with autistic family members change things up to accommodate their sensitive loved ones, and we are no exception. It is virtually impossible for me to play the role of family priestess AND mom while also adhering to every process. We want the spirit of autism and our respect of its manifestations to be held in high regard, and if that means we shape our ritual practices, so be it. This is us too.
It feels more important than ever to claim space as an autism family, not just because being a minority with the badge of disability thrusts A and other people like him into such an unsought position of visibility here in the US at this moment in history, but also because worldwide, institutions, both sacred and secular, have a checkered history of treating people like A as accursed unfortunates needing charity, thus allowing the charitable to burnish their own karmic halo; as saintly innocents; or even worse, as undeserving or entitled blights who feed off society’s largesse.
I am not saying these things to do any sort of finger pointing. It is possible to logic ourselves into a corner, and while I see clearly the inherent privilege that allows us to continue to practice our faith on our own terms, we are still an immigrant nuclear autism family, largely left to our own devices, and our traditions are still meaningful to us in a way that cannot be explained in any way that would satisfy the terms of a rational debate.
The personal has always been political. And when A grabs something from the altar to hug, or sways to the hypnotic cadence of mantras, or superimposes his own rituals atop Vedic ones, he is saying something important about who he is and what space he deserves to occupy. This is us, he says. We like us.