A Lesson In Letting Go From My Mother

As a teen, there were many days where I hovered across the kitchen counter, watching my mom make fresh roti (Indian bread), ready to grab one as soon as it fluffed on the open flame. Of course, she would snatch it right back to spread a little butter on top before giving it back. Like a half-starved child, I would plunge right into the soft bread like no one had fed me for days. There's nothing like your mom’s cooking. And my favorite was the round hot rotis with sabji (curried veggies), and thick Punjabi dal (lentils).

Traditional chakla to roll rotis on
Within minutes of me stepping in the door, there would be the inevitable question of “roti banawa?” Should I make roti? The sabji and the dal were ever-ready in our house but the rotis were usually made fresh each meal. Like all Indian moms of that generation, she had her process. She would carefully break a small part of the kneaded dough, roll it into a small round ball between her palms, spread it into a disk-shape with her hands; Then using a wooden rolling pin, methodically roll it into a perfect circle on a chakla (usually wooden but in her case, a round carved white marble). She would then carefully place it onto the round griddle on the stove, followed by the open flame to fluff it. With the next one already rolled out, this was the time for catching up about the day. The one thing that was unique about her process was that she never rushed -- she made them slowly, gently caring for each one as if everything in life rested on that one roti. Mom would sometimes even rest her left hand on her hip like she had all the time in the world, and hold a rolled roti in the other -- and chat with me while at the same time keeping an eye on the roti on the stove.
My Brother, Hubster, Mom, and Sister (circa 2004)

About seven-eight years ago, we were hosting a get-together at my parents home, and like most Punjabis (actually I think all :), she has a second stove set-up in the garage. I wish I'd kept to myself that day but I was trying to be of some help to her. We were running a bit behind schedule and she was just about finished with everything else, so now we just needed to make the rotis before the guests started arriving. I tried to work quickly, knowing that I was probably rushing her. As I was hurriedly moving everything closer to the table next to the stove, something happened that I wish I had the power to undo. The marble chakla that I've always seen her use -- slipped out of my hand and fell hard on the concrete garage floor. It made a loud sound as soon as it hit the surface, and broke into several pieces.

It was obvious right away that there was no way of salvaging it. I was shocked at my absent-mindedness and felt horrible as my mom looked over her shoulder to see what had happened. All I could muster was, “Oh mom I’m so sorry, I don’t know what happened.” She was quiet for a second and then just said “koi ghal nahi,” her version of “it’s okay.” She then walked over quietly, picked up the broken pieces and put them in the trash can in the garage. Quickly grabbing a smooth cutting board, she started rolling the rotis.
We continued with the rest of the evening and she didn’t say anything else about the matter.

Mom always looks innocent and
michievious at the same time
A few days later, as we sat down for tea, I still felt bad and wondered if I could find a replacement. I brought it up again but she said don’t worry about it, what’s done is done. When asked how long she had it, she casually mentioned that she had it for a while. Her grandmother had taught her how to make rotis on it. I felt so bad and I’ll never forget the look in her eyes when she gently confided: “It belonged to my mother.” Her mother! Who she rarely talks about because she doesn’t have any memories of her. Her mother who had passed away when mom was an infant, and she was raised by her grandmother and stepmom.

My older sister later told me that the marble chakla was given to her mother by her parents when she got married, and it was the last thing that my mom had left that belonged to her mom (and her entire lineage). She brought it with her from India to the US when our family migrated here. 

As my mom and I sipped tea that day, she shared none of this. Focused on making me feel better, with the wave of her hand, she just said, jaan de” (let it go), as she poured me more tea and asked about my day. Even now when I think about this, tears well up. If I was in her place, there’s no way I would’ve not said anything. There would have at least been a lecture or two about being more mindful, there would've been anger, or guilt for a little while about something so precious now gone forever.

As I recall this now, I feel like her reaction to this so aptly sums up who she is. Someone who goes through the ups and downs in life with resilience, selflessness, always focusing on what’s good, and what’s happening right instead of what went wrong. Someone who clearly knows that what is done cannot be undone, but instead of looking at the broken pieces of the past, you put them in their place, and just keep on moving forward with all the grace that you can muster.


To Receive the Truth, Be Empty

In the “Apprenticed to a Himalayan Master,” the author, Sri M, shares an encounter he witnessed between his spiritual teacher and an old man. There lived a very holy man in the holy city of Rishikesh, at the foothills of the Himalayan mountains. Rumors had it that the holy man had left his position as the head Abbot of a very famous monastery to seek a higher “Truth”. As a genuine seeker, he spent his entire life studying sacred texts, and yet he had not found what he was searching for. Wary of all the fake gurus in the Himalayas, he did not want to seek anyone’s help. Instead, he spent his days by the river Ganges in meditation and nights sleeping in the courtyard of a temple nearby. He ate only when someone brought him food, and had no possessions except for one blanket that he used to meditate on, and as a cover from the cold at night. 

When Sri M came across him, he insisted that the Holy man should meet his teacher, Babaji -- who would certainly be able to help him. When they finally met, Babaji recognized the sincerity of the Holy man. He told him that it is great that he left his “crown” at the monastery but he is far away from the Truth that he seeks because he still carries the burden of knowledge. That burden acts as a barrier to understanding the reality. You have to be empty to receive the Truth.

He went on to share, “Now, Truth cannot be something in the past. It is the eternal present, and therefore, cannot be stored in the memory, which is a thing of the past, the dead past. Truth, on the other hand, is in the present the now, eternally flowing, pulsating with life, and therefore, cannot be touched by knowledge.” The Holy man mentioned that he always wondered about a phrase in the Upanishads (central book of philosophy for Hinduism) -- “He who worships knowledge enters into greater darkness.” The conventional explanation given to him was that it meant “non-essential” knowledge, which never fully made sense to him. He also confessed that he only felt great stillness once or twice in his life, “while doing nothing in particular, just watching the river or looking up at the clear sky.” 

This story made me wonder about the role that knowledge and intellect play on our spiritual path. In our modern world, we have unlimited amount of access to information and we can easily fill our minds with knowledge. How can we truly think about creating room for that “emptiness” that Babaji talks about while living in the most information overloaded era the world has yet seen? 

Perhaps even more dangerous than knowledge is partial knowledge, a fragmentary understanding of something. Confidently assuming that by understanding a small part, we now have an understanding of the whole. Knowledge can't be substituted for the lived wisdom that comes from our own experience. It can only inform us, and then we have to allow it to simmer in our own being, so it becomes actual wisdom that guides us. Confucious tells us that, “Real knowledge is to know the extent of one's ignorance." That's a very humbling thought and I think he makes a very important point here. When we realize that we don't know what we don't know, it puts us in the student chair. And that is where we are continually open to learning and being a disciple of our experiences. 

What happened to our Holy man that started this conversation? After Babaji and Sri M. spoke with him, they left to visit another town. As they were traveling, they learned that four days after they talked, the seventy-year-old holy man happen to pass away.

The Holy man was sitting on his favorite rock, simply watching the river, and smiling in ecstasy when his soul left his body. He had finally found what he was searching for his entire life.