Home. A small word with such a big meaning. When I read The Merchant of Stories by Dipa Sanatani, I felt a strong sense of home. This is despite the fact that for at least half of the book, she is away from the place she calls ‘Home’. The opening chapter begins with a letter to her grandpa where she describes herself as a tortoise that carries its home on its back.
In Chinese mythology, the tortoise has a special meaning. It remains grounded and rooted through its legs and through its shell. It knows how to protect himself. Its shell–its home–is what protects it. When we are away from home, we don’t actually have this kind of protection.
So who or what protects us when we are away from home? Is there a Guardian Angel who watches over immigrants and travellers? In Chinese culture, there exist deities who function as guardians of travellers and immigrants. One popular deity that comes to mind is the Goddess Mazu. She is priestess, ancestress and protector of immigrants and travellers. She is associated with the sea and with sailors and fishermen. Before airborne travel, we humans ventured forth via the sea. It was the mode via which we undertook international travel.
Not very much is known of the historical person Lin Moniang, who is now revered and respected as Goddess Mazu. She is said to have been a shamaness from a small fishing village on Meizhou Island–a small island close to the coast of China–which was part of Fujian’s Putian County in the late 10th century.
During this era, Fujian experienced a great influx of refugees who were fleeing invasions of northern China. Scholars say that the worship of Mazu may represent a hybridisation of mainland Chinese and local island indigenous cultures. The earliest record of the worship of Goddess Mazu begins two centuries later, in a 1150 inscription that mentions she could foretell a man’s good and ill luck.
These patron ancestors are no different to the saints of Western theologies. They were people who later became patrons and guardians of a particular group of people. These are humans who are posthumously believed to have reached divine or semi-divine status. Goddess Mazu, in particular, calls on us to revere, recall and remember one’s maternal ancestors.
Ancestral reverence–commonly misnamed as ancestor worship–is the earliest form of religion. We had ancestors that we could turn to for different things–travel, food, a talent, a skill and so on. In some religions, these ancestors were later deified. They became the Gods and Goddesses to whom we either expressed our gratitude or turned to for guidance.
In Sanatani’s book, she leads us through a few different aspects of ancestors, deities, rituals and so on. There was something about her book that felt very old, even though her ideas were expressed in a very conversational manner, away from the boring academic babble.
But beyond the writing aspect of it, the aspect of the book that reached into my heart was Sanatani’s return home after 12 years abroad and all the hardships she faced as a result of it. Many times, when people leave that place called ‘home’, it is due to extenuating circumstances.
The immigrants who left behind all that they knew in search of greener pastures, especially in ages of old, were leaving behind extenuating circumstances. They never did harbour any desires to return to the places where they’d left. They usually settle someplace new and set up a new life. They have children who have children, and over time–and successive generations–a new way of life is created.
Sanatani’s Hindu and Gujarati heritage forms the backdrop and background of the book. But this connection is not one that it is with ‘The Motherland’ of India, but one that is with Singapore. In her second chapter in the poem entitled We Are Kin, she writes, “The land of my ancestors, the land where I was born…”
When we traditionally speak of ‘the land of our ancestors’, it could be a different place to where we were born. But yet, looking at the places of worship, in both Singapore and abroad, we bring our belief systems and our cultures with us as we settle in a new place. Some will undoubtedly adopt new belief systems that depart from their ancestry, while others will maintain and preserve the old ways.
A portion of Sanatani’s book takes place in Sri Mariamman Temple of Singapore. I felt a strange pull and call to this temple, this plot of land that is located within Singapore’s Chinatown. Sri Mariamman is Singapore’s oldest Hindu temple and the form of worship which takes place there has continued on since pre-Vedic times.
If I was being completely honest, I could find no logical reason to explain why I felt such a strong connection to Sanatani’s book. But for some reason, I did. Initially, I thought it was the beauty of her prose, the international flavour of her writing and even the wit and the humour of the author. But as I re-read the book now and then, I came to see that it was not my mind that she was speaking to, but my heart.
They say that when we are in our mother’s womb, we can hear the heartbeat of the mother. After reading Sanatani’s book, I finally came to the realisation that the heartbeat of the mother is the Land. It is not always the one where we were born, but the one that calls us, adopts us and where we–after what the author describes as a long and arduous journey–find and discover the place we call home.