Some of my earliest memories of my grandfather are of sitting next to him during his morning prayers in the little prayer room he and my grandmother had fashioned in their Queens, NY home. Every morning, he would sit in this room and pray, before starting his day. I would sit next to him, cross-legged, with my hands together, and gaze up at the photos of the Hindu deities on the wall, and below them, photos of his parents and other deceased relatives, a garland draped over each photo as a sign of reverence. This is the tradition for many Tamil Hindu families – to honor those who have left us physically, but whose spirits guide their loved ones indefinitely.
Now, when I visit my grandparents’ home, a garlanded photo of my grandfather sits on the mantel in the room where he used to sit. I miss his warm embrace and watching his face light up as his children and grandchildren gathered around the kitchen table. After his passing last year, I have been searching for ways to honor him–to live my life with gratitude for the sacrifices he made to ensure his children and grandchildren have opportunities he had only dreamed of.
My grandfather grew up in a small village in Tamil Nadu, India. I have always been in awe of the decades-long journey he made from his birthplace in India, all the way to New York City. In 2011, I caught a glimpse of this journey when I traveled back with him to his birthplace. I did not know it then, but it would end up being his last trip back to his first home. It is an experience that will always be one of the greatest joys of my life – seeing my grandfather with his sister and extended family, walking alongside the beautiful green fields he had walked as a child, and visiting the middle school he had attended. Perhaps the most memorable moment was when we first pulled up next to his childhood home and were greeted by my little cousins running around to alert everyone that “America Thatha”– which, translated literally, means “American grandpa” – had arrived.
To me, “America Thatha” captures my grandfather’s life and legacy perfectly. Immigrants come to the United States for many reasons. My Thatha loved his birthplace, but he had a different vision for his life, and undoubtedly, a sense of adventure, that led him to make the long journey. But he never forgot where he was from. One of the most important lessons I learned from him is that it is both possible, and in many ways, imperative, to both love this country deeply and retain important parts of my Indian heritage. He encouraged me to learn Tamil and study Indian classical dance. He embodied Indian values, like duty to one’s family, and maintained his Hindu faith and spiritual traditions. At the same time, he cared deeply about this country and its future, passionately debating American politics and supporting my work in politics and advocacy. He gave me the courage to inhabit all of my identities and be my most authentic self.
My Thatha will always inspire me to fight to make this country equitable and inclusive for all people, no matter who they are or where they come from. Every day, I honor my “America Thatha” – his courage, his dedication to his heritage, and his deep love for this country and all that it can be.