The souls that depart from the Earth aren’t ever lost. They live on through us. Our ancestors never really leave us. They watch over us from the next world. They bear the torch and show us the path forward. They thrust us ahead on our paths even after they depart. We exist because of them. Their past plays a great deal in shaping our present. And even when they aren’t with us physically; spiritually they are always there—protecting, guiding and blessing us from above. We sure have a lot to feel grateful for.

We also have responsibilities towards them. We–the descendants–are responsible for carrying forward the torch that they left behind. Cultures all over the world–from Mexico to Kyrgyzstan to India–have their own different ways to pay homage to their ancestors.

Author Dipa Sanatani too finds several occasions in her book The Merchant of Stories to honour her ancestors. Be it by writing open letters to them, singing their saga in her articles or by dedicating her books to them. Sanatani discovered her wings, but never left her roots behind. She embedded the lessons taught by her great-grandfather deep within her. And even though she never met her grandfather, she feels a deep underlying connection with him.

Sadly enough, not every one of us is privileged to spend our childhood under the shade of our grandparents. Thanks to the establishment of nuclear families, the present generation has very little opportunity to know their ancestors. I am also among those unfortunate kids who grew up in a nuclear family away from my ancestral home. We visited it sometimes during vacations but that’s never the same as growing up in the house.

My maternal grandparents died when my mother was a kid. I never got to know them personally; although I heard their stories from my mother. And I had to do with creating a loveable image of them in my heart. My paternal grandfather died when I was just two years old. So, I don’t remember much about him. But my parents say we were very close.

I got to spend some time with my grandmother, though. She was an amazing lady. And, I feel, for her age and time, she was very modern in her thinking. She didn’t receive proper schooling, but her knowledge was vast, gathered from the variety of books she read. She was very excited when I told her that I was writing my first novel. She blessed me with all her heart. And when I published the novel, I felt honoured dedicating it to her.

Me and My Grandmother, Smt. Putul Rani Das

When I look back, I feel; what if we got to spend more time together in the 20 years that I had known her? What if we lived in the same house as my grandparents and heard more of their stories? My grandmother was such an inspiration; perhaps staying with her might have shaped me into a better person. Or perhaps it is the blessings of my ancestors that made me into who I am today. Perhaps my grandmother’s knack for extensive reading and narrating those stories to us planted the first brick into my career as a writer.

Who knows? Perhaps we were closer spiritually, if not physically…

Such thoughts stirred in me as I read The Merchant of Stories. The words that Dipa Sanatani weaved around her ancestors touched something deep within me. I wanted to gain a deeper perspective and know more about her experience with her grandparents. So, I had a little conversation with her on the topic. And it turned out to be an amazing one!

Sanchari: In your book you wrote, “These days, we rarely talk about our ancestors.” What made you feel this way and why do you think this is happening nowadays?

Dipa: I think there is no one particular reason but rather a variety of factors that are at play. For starters, in our modern world, most of us who live in cities grow up in nuclear families. Our focal point for understanding our roots comes from our parents, from school or from the internet. In the case where both parents work, they may not have as much time as they would like to impart teachings to their children. Parents may also disagree with the teachings of their own parents and hence it limits our view of our heritage.

When we learn about our ‘heritage’ in the school curriculum or in museums, it may come across as a school subject or historical record as opposed to something that is applicable to our own lives. Textbooks are written by academics and may or may not encapsulate the stories of our own ancestors per se.

Having said that, history books are full of stories of wars, destruction, revolutions etc., through which certain practises may have been lost. Once there is a break in the chain of continuity, it is rather difficult to gain back what has been lost.

Sanchari: Do you find yourself one with the belief that we are all connected to one another in some way and that our ancestors never really leave us, but actually live through us?

Dipa: I think it is more than that they live on through us. From a scientific perspective, they have left their genes in us—therefore much of their physical body and personality attributes do get ‘passed down’.

From a spiritual perspective, there is a belief in a variety of faiths all over the world that ancestors can take the role of ‘spirit guides’ or guardians. In Hinduism, there is also a belief that ancestors return—as in are reincarnated—as descendants.

The notion that we continue to share a bond with them even after they pass away is not that far-fetched. They live on in our genetic makeup and perhaps even watch over us from the next world.

Sanchari: In your book, you wrote about ancestral veneration from different cultures. There is the Hindu Shradh, the Chinese Hungry Ghost Festival and also Halloween. I have always known Halloween as a sort of Costume Party. Can you enlighten us on how the festival of Halloween is connected to remembering our ancestors?

Dipa: It is hard for me, as well as for humans that have existed across millennia, to believe that we simply ‘disappear’ when we die. Cultures across the world speak of the soul’s journey in the next world. The details of the practises and customs may vary, but there are common threads across cultures.

Halloween is believed to have its origins in the Celtic Samhain. It marked the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter; when the boundary between this world and the Otherworld could more easily be crossed.

Similarly, numerous cultures all over the world have this belief that there is a period of time when the barriers that separate our world from the next are less ‘concrete’ so to speak. During this time, departed souls are able to cross the boundary and it is easier for humans to make a connection with them.

Sanchari: Your book has a considerable portion dedicated to Shradh—the Hindu ritual to honour the bond between the ancestors and descendants. I’ve never had the opportunity to perform it myself or even observe someone else perform it, but I wish to know more. Can you share your best experience with this ritual? How do you commemorate it every year? What special did you do this year?

Dipa: As one gets older, one senses that the clock is ticking and that this life business isn’t forever. I think the adolescent and young adult years is when the tyranny of the ‘Self’ takes centre stage. As one gains more life experience, we perhaps mature and start to see the bigger picture as well as comprehend the transient nature of life.

In 2019, I began performing the Shradh rituals for my family lineage. It is a fortnight during which one pays homage to one’s ancestors. We offer water and other forms of sustenance to our ancestors for their journey in the next world. Shradh literally means faith. It is not enough to simply perform the rituals. One has to pray sincerely for the well-being of one’s ancestors. During this time, Hindus are encouraged to perform acts of charity; such as feeding the needy and less fortunate.

As someone who’s continuing the family business tradition, this ritual is deeply significant for me.

Sanchari: You spent a great deal of your childhood days under the guidance of your great-grandfather. Did you ever feel the pangs of any “generation gap” between you two or were you like always connected and understood each other?

Dipa: The older I get, the more I realise how uncannily alike we both are. Even during my younger years, I was a bit of an old soul and would rather spend time with my elders than with kids my own age.

I think that when two people are alike, that bond transcends age. Sure, he was much older than I was and I did still act like a kid; but there was always a deep connection between us that went beyond any generation gap.

When I was young, I looked up to him a great deal. These days, the respect and admiration I once I had for him has morphed into a quiet empathy. With each day that passes, I am slowly growing to understand him more and more as a person.

Dipa’s great-grandfather Manchharam Nagindas at the annual chopda pujan at Diwali

Sanchari: You always say that growing up with your great-grandfather contributed a great deal in shaping you into who you are today. Do you think that grandparents always have a way of imparting their grandchildren with certain knowledge and experiences in a way in which only the grandparents can?

Dipa: I think ultimately it comes down to the connection that one shares with another individual—regardless of whether they are your grandparent or your friend.

I do think that in the case of our elders, they are far more experienced than our friends; which is why they can perhaps foresee certain events and why it might take some time for us to truly understand what they’re trying to teach us. The brashness of youth needs time to temper and mature through experience.

In the case of my great-grandfather, we are very alike. Any shortcomings of mine must have been something he understood all too well. I think when it comes to the mentor-protégé relationship; both mentors and their protégés tend to naturally gravitate to people who are similar to themselves.

Sanchari: You have dedicated your book “The Merchant of Stories” to your great-grandmother—the “Queen of Hearts”. How do you feel that she has influenced you even though she passed away before your birth?

Dipa: I have always had the sense that Kamala Ba was a fiery, yet kind-hearted person. Unfortunately, she grew up in an age where women had limited opportunities. Sometimes we honour people for their achievements; and sometimes we honour people simply for who they are. She was the Matriarch of our family. Without her, future generations would never have existed.

Sanchari: You never met your grandfather but you feel strangely connected to him. Do you think it is that “spiritual legacy” which he left behind that binds you two into an unfathomable bond that’s hard to articulate?

Dipa: Based on my own personal experiences as well as everything I’ve studied about departed ancestors… They are actually closer to us in spirit than they were when they were alive. Many cultures speak of ancestors as guardian spirit guides; with some even believing that deceased ancestors have the power to ‘call’ unborn souls as descendants into the family lineage.

Eastern beliefs, in particular, view ancestors as a ‘bridge’ between human existence and God. They have the power to aid us and help us in times of trouble as well as bless us as we go forth on our journey. In The Merchant of Stories, I touched on how the bonds we have with those who have passed on does not end with their death.

As for Ratilal Dada, I feel I know him. There are certain times in certain places where I can sense his spirit. Discovering him and who he was has breathed new meaning into the words, “I was always there in spirit.”

Dipa’s grandfather Ratilal Mancharram receiving an award from Lions Club

Sanchari: You said in your book that, “We have a responsibility towards our ancestors”. What do you think our responsibilities are and how can we perform them?

Dipa: I believe it is important to respect one’s ancestors and elders. No matter how intelligent and learned we think we are in youth; the truth is, we are inexperienced and brash. There is a certain form of wisdom that can only come with age and experience. Having said that, not every elder is a wise man or woman by default. One earns their place there.

It is one thing to disagree with one’s ancestors and elders; another thing to disrespect them. A trend I’m increasingly noticing amongst the youth these days is a grandiose sense of self-entitlement.

It is not entirely their fault. They live in a world where everything is ‘on demand’ on the internet; where else for most of human history, we lived in a world of material scarcity. I think someone who has had to ‘earn’ everything in their life, would naturally find this entitlement repulsive; perhaps even offensive.

I do not think most people intentionally mean to harm or hurt their elders and ancestors; however, when one grows up in a nuclear family attached to purely material pursuits, human connection is invariably lost and one grows up with a myopic view of the world.

Sanchari: The teachings that our ancestors bestow upon us are timeless and they seem to come back to us in our difficult times. What would you say is that one lesson you learnt from them which keeps coming back to you even now and motivates you to keep going?

Dipa: I think more than any hard lesson I have learnt—and believe me there were many— the one perennial truth that keeps me going is knowing, without any semblance of doubt, that I am loved and cherished.

I am accepted for who I am, even when I do foolish things and make mistakes. I know that I am not alone in the issues and flaws that I struggle with. Those that came before me went through those very same issues and have an understanding and perspective that goes beyond my own.

My ancestors may have left this earthly existence, but the love we share is eternal and will continue to live on.

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19 thoughts on “The Torch of Our Ancestors | Interview with Author Dipa Sanatani

  1. This one melted my heart. There is depth, a connection between multiple cultures and a sense of indescribable eternity that ties us to those who have departed. For those who have lost loved ones, it is a much-needed reminder that they are never truly gone. They are interwoven into the very fabric of our being.

    1. I think returning to Singapore allowed Dipa to reconnect to ‘the land of her ancestors’. I believe the land itself has memories. But the practices and rituals are universal.

  2. This topic has fallen out of vogue in the recent years. It’s great to see young people bring this topic back to the frontline. If we do not know who/where we come from; how are we going to figure out where we’re headed?

    1. Aiyah… young people only care for their own happiness. It takes them a long time before they grow up and see the big picture.

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