Duff ’n Stuff, Feb. 18, 2013
On a recent Saturday night I was lucky enough to be the guest of a friend at an Indian family celebration in Seattle.
It was a 75th birthday party of Prabha Devi, the matriarch of a large family of Indian descent and a talented woman. Devi is my friend’s voice teacher. At least 100 friends and family had gathered at a community center. A full program of music and dance performances, toasts and speeches, a delicious Indian food buffet and some funny bad jokes delivered by an endearing emcee, Devi’s charming brother Anu, all made the evening delightful.
Just Anu telling his bad jokes reminded me of my Uncle Tommy and how he would always be ready for a toast based on Blake, or Yeats or Shakespeare. But here there was not Yeats. Here was Hindi and Sanskrit and the sitar, the tabla and harmonium. But the sentiments of family were familiar, especially since my family had recently celebrated my mother’s 80th birthday.
Devi sat at the head table surrounded by her immediate and some extended family; flowers placed before her, her beautiful red sari reflecting back her firey exuberance and her almond-skinned beauty. The room was full of beautiful women wearing saris the color of kiwis, tangerines, magnolia flowers and mustard. Reserved and handsome husbands sat doting by the women’s sides, while overdressed babies were passed between tables, from lap to lap and children were encouraged to eat a little more.
There was one group of folks sitting at a table in the back next to us. They were loud and often did not pay attention to Anu’s bad jokes, or his introductions. We dubbed them “the naughty relatives.” They were not as keen as some of us other guests were to hear Devi’s niece talk about growing up with this influential woman and being inspired by her passion and accomplishment in music, her community spirit, here entrepreneurial talent and her aromatic kitchen. Here was an international musical star who had met the Beatles! Yet, the naughty table was not impressed.
In every family there is a naughty table. It doesn’t matter whether you’re Hindi or Italian, Jewish, Dutch, Greek, Nordic, African or Japanese. I thought of my mother and the Italian roots she’s given us and saw the parallels that exist for all of us; this continuum of humanness in our families, the foibles within them; the babies we pass around and the instruments we play and the speeches we give about each other and the slideshows we can’t resist; the pride of mothers, aunts, grandmothers we all love and, yes, the irreverent relatives in the back of the room who maybe drink too much or who never shut up and listen.
I thought later that evening how my friend came to have a connection to this lady and how a family expands. She tells me that when she goes to take a voice lesson at Devi’s home, she is always made to sit down to her table and taste her wonderful Indian food about which she is legendary, in much the same way my mother is legendary and who has had blogs written about her Italian cooking.
And in the middle of that celebration, in that fleeting moment of brushing up against this family, I was reminded of the fact that we are all more alike than we realize; that the human experience is similar for all of us in its legends, slideshows and imperfect relatives.
On the ferry home, my friend sang two mantras that were taught to her by Devi. They were evocative and beautiful. One is called the “Lakshmi Mantra” and is in the Vedic tradition from the 5th century Sanskrit:
You are the goddess of hope, one that always keeps her promises and gets rid of all troubles. I will always come to you and ask you for your blessing.
It was the perfect end to the evening and I came away with some experiences I may never have again. I also have the memory of hearing that beautiful voice taught by Prabha Devi to sing the “Lakshmi Mantra,” which maybe I’ll pass on to my family at our next celebration. My late Uncle Tommy would have liked that.
From the heart,
(Pictured at top, Prabha Devi, voice teacher, musician, matriarch. /Photo courtesy of Joni Takanikos)
Whidbey Island, if you need a good laugh and something to keep your mind stimulated, go see “Crimes of the Heart” at Whidbey Island Center for the Arts in Langley at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, Feb. 22 or closing night, Saturday, Feb.23.
Beth Henley’s Pulitzer Prize winning play gets the full, deep treatment in director Rose Wood’s production. This play is everything you want from the theater experience: an evocative set, a tight script, actors who throw themselves in for truth and come up hilarious and staging that works to make certain the whole experience is entertaining and provocative. Whidbey Island go, go, go, see it!
Get tickets at www.wicaonline.com.
Patricia Duff is an award-winning journalist whose most recent kudos include several wins in the past five years of the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association competition.