At the age of ninety-seven my maternal grandmother turned to me and said with sadness, “My mala is burned.” She was making a cup of tea, when the mala in her hand got too close to the burner. She held it up to show me. “I made this when I was ten years old.”
It was a soft, thin, white rope worn smooth by years of handling, years of prayer, and mantra. She had tied the rope into an evenly placed row of knots and then tied the ends together. This was a ten-year-old’s homemade mala circa 1906. The mala had been in her hands most of the time since, running over each knot in prayer.
Sometimes prayer was all she had. Through all the deaths in the family, the partition of India, the move to Canada and a terrible house fire, she kept the mala close to her. It was now singed black, making it look limp and bedraggled.
When she was ten, her mother died and she was left to care for her five younger brothers, becoming like a mother to them. Those were the plague years when entire families were wiped out by cholera and typhoid.
“My mala is burned,” she repeated a few minutes later with such tenderness in her voice. She was reading something more into the burning of the mala.
Family lore describes her as a real beauty in her day—close to six feet tall—and high-spirited. She once protected her home and children from roaming marauders by grabbing a gun and threatening to shoot if the thugs came any closer. She would have done it too.
The children. So many of them died. During the partition of India, three of her four surviving children came down with typhoid: one died. The other two were in hospital for a year.
She was dignified and known to be diplomatic, keeping a poker face during difficult times. But she also had a wicked sense of humour and would often describe someone she didn’t like as having a “face like a pud.”
Her mala was like the cycle of her life, with every knot of the mala representing a different event. Dukh and Sukh. Sadness alternating with happiness. It was all there in the continuous motion of her mala. The mala was at once map and compass. Each familiar knot helped her find her way and propel her forward through this life, a connection between the inner and outer worlds.
“My mala is burned,” she said a third time with a meekness I had never before heard in her voice. She was saying goodbye.
My paternal grandmother has a different story.
She is ninety and has been making preparations for her departure for many years. “I want to be cremated in my white suit.” I tell her she’s like a spring lamb and won’t be going anywhere for years. She responds angrily, “You think I can wait around forever to see your wedding!” But she does oversee my weeding, small recompense.
She sets up her lawnchair close by as I work in the garden. She turns her mala all the while, moving each sandalwood bead through her hands, going in circles until she reaches her daily goal of recitations.
She has increased the time she spends on her prayer and mala practice, making it the main focus of each day. What does she pray for?
The mala is new. I bought it for her in India. Her hands are large and still muscled from years of hard work. The skin on her hands is worn thin and smoother than silk. Those hands have taken good care of me over the years, showing me more loving-kindness than anyone else I know.
Now they move with her trademark strength and efficiency over her mala as she consolidates her spiritual bank account in preparation for her next incarnation.
She still finds time to direct my groundskeeping. “You missed a weed,” she says.
When I meander elsewhere in my duties around the yard she turns her attention to a neighbour who is weeding a flower garden. “Go further. Clean out that area there.” She is not shy about directing a total stranger and knows the value of a job well done.
She doesn’t know the meaning of the word procrastination. Her motto in life could easily be, “Do it now, do it now, do it now.”
Her main work in life has been feeding people. Feeding them well with her zesty and hearty country cooking. At age ninety she still cooks every day. She has the patience to peel and chop vegetables by hand instead of using a food processor. She absolutely hates the microwave and is very suspicious of the dishwasher.
She hasn’t bought groceries since 1957 when my mother took over that duty. She can’t understand why her daughter-in-law spends hundreds of dollars on food every week when she was able to get by on ten dollars a week.
Her mala is going all the while. It has become an extension of her hands. Bead after bead after bead. Prayer after prayer after prayer. My grandmothers and their malas are a symbol of the work I have yet to do in my life. The strength, spirit and generosity of these two women have shaped my character. I have a responsibility to continue their legacy of faith.
I breathe in the sandalwood scent of the beads on my mala.
Hardeep Dhaliwal (1958-2007) was a journalist and broadcaster renowned for her sense of humor and excellence in storytelling. She lived the last years of her life at Yasodhara Ashram.
Editor: Andrea B.
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