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What's the Most Important Thing in Life?

This 17-year-old anonymous student did not enter our contests, but we have treasured this essay for many years and continue to share it. It is an inspiration to parents, grandparents and students, offering role models for old and young alike. This essay is the result of a responsible, loving upbringing.

Sitting at the white marble table, I wait for dinner and watch my grandmother. The smooth, thick smell of boiling lentils with by leaves, the sizzling splashes of vegetables tossed into hot oil spill out from the kitchen and fill my home like liquid. The gold bracelets on my grandmother's arms sing to the rhythm of her quick strokes, back and forth, back and forth, until a soft ball of dough is thin and round, ready to be cooked. She stirs cloves and cardamom into a pot of boiling rice until their flavors leak out with the steam.

Then my grandmother shuts off the stove and walks to me slowly. I begin to stand, saying to her that I will come around the counter to get my food, that she doesn't need to carry the heavy plate and hot bowl. Saying that I know walking is hard for her, that it is all right. But she puts her hand on my shoulder, and takes the bowl and plate from my hands; her smile tells me to sit down. I say thank you quietly to myself, knowing that we do not say that in my home. She turns around, and still smiling, she shakes her head and waves her small index finger at me, back and forth, back and forth, telling me not to say thank you, telling me to leave formalities like that for strangers. I remember her shaking the same finger at everyone who enters our home.

I watch my grandmother cut thin slices of almonds into a pot of boiling milk sweet with sugar, rich with saffron leaves. I remember drinking bowls of this warm milk, my favorite, when I was four feet and chubby, when my feet dangled at dinner, when my grandmother could rock me to sleep in her arms. She stirs patiently, until the milk is the right consistency, leaving a thin film on the side of the pot. My grandmother scoops four ladles into a bowl and decorates the surface with crushed cardamom. When she places the bowl in front of me, she tells me that growing older means staying young. She has not lost her patience for creativity, her attention to details, her respect for her art. And I tell her that I understand when I accept another bowl and lick my upper lip as if I am five again, as if my feet are still dangling. I will not lose the sweet taste of my childhood, I tell her. She can be sure.

I shake my head no to another piece of fresh, warm bread, with its pool of melted butter. My grandmother squints her eyes and tilts her head, just a little, asking if I am sure. I do not protest; she tosses it gently onto my plate. She knows I can eat one more. Then when my plate sits naked on the smooth white table, her eyes smile at me. A smile of peace, of satisfaction because I am full and can eat no more. She tells me then to serve others selflessly and tirelessly, to enjoy and respect the privilege of giving, of feeding, of eating. She tells me to make the happiness of others my own. Whom or what or when I am serving does not matter.

This is my culture; this is my heritage. So I eat to tell her I understand. I will carry on the tradition.

The first memories I have of my father are of the two of us sitting together on the green wooden chairs at that white marble table for dinner; or my father driving me to the bus stop in the mornings, the two of us sitting in the car waiting; and those family vacations by car, when I would listen to my father but watch the road through the glass of the windshield and feel the rhythm of the dotted yellow line shooting at me. I remember realizing on one of those drives that they were the same activity--that listening and watching and feeling. "What's the most important thing in life?" my father would always ask me while I sat next to him, my hands tucked into the warmth under my legs, my feet hanging helplessly. I would swing my feet a few times and answer reflexively, "To be a good human being." It was the right answer, I knew, because my father had told me it was since the very first day I could understand him. He would look straight ahead and place his hand on my knee, "Yes, that's right. Yes..." I felt his hand, looked up to his face and tried to meet his eyes, deep and sure. But I never said anything; I sat there next to him taking in the air around me and feeling immensely strong, as though my father had given me an answer.

I came home one evening from the fourth grade in a fury. Somewhere between the swing set and sandbox and jungle gym during recess, I had somehow realized that I didn't want to be Hindu, that none of my friends were Hindu, and that I couldn't believe I had been forced to be something I didn't want to be for the past ten years of my life. When my father came home that evening, before he could close the garage door behind him, I asked why I had to be Hindu just because he was, why I had to go to the temple just because he did, just because I was born into this family. He picked me up and placed me in the seat of the riding lawn mower that still smelled like freshly cut grass. I put my hands on the steering wheel and he knelt down beside me, still in his white coat and surgical greens, his shoes still covered with those blue surgical booties. He asked me, "What's the most important thing in life, Anand?"

"To be a good human being," I answered, as I turned the steering wheel back and forth, back and forth. "Then be a good human being, always," he said, "and you'll be more Hindu than anyone else in the world."

My bags were packed into the back of our red and black suburban, when the morning was young and the long, long day lay ahead. Maybe that day has never ended, because maybe no days ever end

We set out for Exeter, New Hampshire, my mother, father, sister, grandmother, grandfather, and I. That day, today, my father, speaking slowly, said to me that the only thing he cared about was that I be a good human being, that I find some way to give and give and give, and then have faith in that power. "I don't care how much math and science and history you know, Anand, or the grades you get," he said, now speaking in Gujarti, while I felt the rhythm of the dotted yellow line shooting at me. "Elitism and mere intellectuality have no place in our family. They will never, ever measure the quality of your character."

And on that drive, I thought of the stories my mother used to tell me of her mother and father, when her hand would stroke back the hair from my forehead, when I would half-listen and half-dream myself to sleep. And I remembered living out those stories during trips to India.

I woke up a five o'clock one hot and humid Bombay morning, when the honking of cars nine stories below was somehow softer because I could see the purple and orange sun rising from deep beneath the surface of the sea.

My grandfather is a busy executive who sleeps at eleven and rises at four to make his business calls, to write to his family, and to read three papers in three languages cover to cover. When I was ready, we took the elevator down to the car and left the building, my grandfather sitting in the front seat next to the driver with me on his lap.

We stopped at bus stations on the way to his office, piled strangers into the air-conditioned car and dropped them where they needed to go.

But they were not strangers, he would tell me later because we have souls and they do too. We picked up as many people as we could fit uncomfortably in to the car, men and women and children waling with the weight of the sun on their shoulders, and when I made a face because it smelled and I was hot, my grandfather rubbed his hand on my back, a grand gesture that told me it was all right, that it was only for a little while, that he knew I was young and that one day I would understand.

On another morning, I rose in the darkness with my mother's mother to cook sweets: small circular creations decorated with bright colors. She spent hours cooking while I sat at her feet on the kitchen floor clanging silver cups and dishes together and yawning. Then with three heavy round plates in her arms, my grandmother and I left on foot to distribute these gifts to all those who passed us by or those we passed who sat hungry and unclad on their only material possession, a dirty white sheet. We walked and fed until the plates were empty, because it was my grandmother's birthday and she wanted the blessings of those men and women and children who I knew by now, of course, were not strangers. Not strangers at all.

Standing in a circle, we forty musicians are a flock of birds, knowing that together we can do what none of us can do alone. Within the four walls of a rehearsal room, we travel to distant lands and live, if for just a moment, in times that have faded into the past. Forty voices and forty imaginations, each distinct, each separate, and each necessary in the creation of one sound, one voice, one flood of passion, forever interwoven in circles and circles floating. Each of us takes the others, each of us is taken. I know if I fall, someone will catch me; I am prepared to catch.

I give myself to each musician and to the music; together we give to you. We have faith in the power of music to communicate, to change, to connect. We have faith in the power of giving, that somewhere there is someone, with eyes closed, who will hear our hearts, because, as they say, we know these songs by heart, or perhaps see us standing together, with our eyes closed, and our souls open; and that someone will whisper softly, thank your, or smile or cry or laugh, and for that moment we will have given, and we both will have lived, because a man once said that you will find, as you look back upon your life, that the moments in which you have really lived are those moments in which you have done things in the spirit of love.

There is a passion for creation and a passion for offering when making music which is my grandmothers' faith in the power of feeding, which is my grandfathers' faith in helping, and my mother's and father's faith in their power to heal. Having passion in this faith and having faith in this passion are not a part of things or a part of life, I have discovered. They are the whole of things and the whole of life.

On the first day my father left our home to practice medicine, my grandmother served him a warm breakfast. She stood, short and round and soft, looking down at him. When he was finished, he rose to stand taller than she. They stood together for a moment in the young sunlight, I imagine, my father's feet cold on the tiles, his mother's feet warm. And when he knelt down to touch them before he would step out into that great confusion, she put a hand on his head and said to him in Gujarati, "You have an amazing power to heal. Use it, but never stand taller than the next man."

Go then, bending forward with your head bowed, she was saying, and feed. Feed and heal and sing. My father now stood shorter than his mother. And in that gesture, their backs arched forward like the waves, they were all the power and the glory of the ceaseless song of the sea.

When a friend of mine couldn't afford to buy a ticket for a group vacation, I remember my father calling me and saying we could buy the ticket if my friend felt comfortable. My father told me he had not been able to sleep the night before. And when I hesitated, he told me never to count things in terms of money because they will come back to you some day, somewhere, or maybe they won't and that's fine, but to have faith, just have faith, because my grandmother serves food on a circular dish and makes a circle with both of her hands holding the sides of a hot plate that holds steaming circles of bread; because the choir rehearses in a circle, and because we are never born and we never die; because there is no beginning and there is no end.

I have stood in that circle, and so I can now understand my mother and father, my grandmothers and grandfathers. And I have had one of those moments of peace amidst chaos, settling into me like snow drifting slowly, settling onto the vast expanse of a field that rolls and stretches out of sight, quiet but overwhelming, calm but powerful, falling until the night is dark and the field is white, is pure, is grand and daunting and austere in a wonderful silence too loud to hear.

I see my grandmother never removed from her element, never displaced if she can cook and feed. In our kitchen, three bright lights are suspended from the high ceiling and bulbs lie hidden in the woodwork. Often, my grandmother cooks only by the dim light above the stove. that light defines her space and she gives it power. Her words float in circles and circles, too bright for shadows.

My grandmother has an unbounded faith in the power of giving. She has braided that faith through my father to me, showing me that to feed and to heal and to give music are one and the same.

Those who take, who receive, will realize, will enjoy, will bless. And in this way, she says to me, in this way one can live.


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