I'm not the praying type, unless you count praying to someone called Please God, before exams or other impending doom. I grew up in a family where some people never prayed, and some prayed every day. No one asked me to pray, nor did I feel remotely curious about the process. I have never had a religious phase and don't expect to.
Of course, when one goes to a shrine, even as a tourist, it is expected that you will pray. After all, so many famous shrines owe their fame to a wish-granting facility manifested by knotted threads around pillars, locks on bridges, pennies in fountains, candles, wooden tablets and milagros in different desire-shapes — health, love, success or safe travels.
At such shrines, I've often tried to come up with a comprehensive prayer, covering all bases but never bought one of the wish-making objects. Perhaps I was being that terrible thing — realistic — which is another way of thinking wishes don't come true so one should not entertain them.
Then, last year, I spent some days in Myanmar and ended up going to a lot of shrines. Cave upon cave, Buddha upon Buddha, beauty beyond beauty. At the first one, a man gave me a yellow wish-making thread to tie around my wrist. I was nonplussed. It is one thing to go with a wish, and find a thread for it. It is another to be given a thread and have to find the wish.
I felt pressured to make it count too. One thread, one wish. I closed my eyes and struggled, but found I could not alight on one. I left a little troubled by this. It became my emotional task thereon, to find my wish. You could say I'm task oriented that way.
At every temple, I closed my eyes and tried to stop thinking, and instructed my deepest wish, 'make yourself known goddamit!' A few temples in, I stopped scolding myself. A few temples later, it obliged me with its presence, but also surprised me. I had not known that of all the things in the world I could want, this was the thing I wanted the most. By the last two temples, I prayed for it with a calm intensity.
People are always telling you that prayer and meditation are about transcending desire. And we often understand that as a state of getting to a place where we want nothing. But, maybe, prayers are not about liberating ourselves into desire as much as liberating ourselves from desire; of committing, in a world full of desires, to one desire that's our own — not what we are instructed to desire, by rituals, by algorithms, by marketing campaigns — and taking responsibility for our relationship with it.
I'm still not a praying type. Last week, in another country, I went to my first ever Durga pooja. Clueless about the ritual protocols I just
followed others, eventually ending up hands clasped, eyes closed, praying for something. This time it was easier to let the wish jump out at me. It surprised me again. I smiled to myself at the revelation.
The realistic question is of course: was my prayer granted? To be honest, that matter is under review. I do know this, I granted myself a prayer, and that's no small thing.
Paromita Vohra is an award-winning Mumbai-based filmmaker, writer and curator working with fiction and non-fiction. Reach her at www.parodevipictures.com
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