The Transition Home

For Thatha

I am writing today with a heavy heart. About four days ago, I was notified that my grandfather, my Thatha, had passed away in India. While the entire family was able to free their schedules to uproot to Chennai, India to pay their respects, I am tied to my duties here in Afghanistan…ironically, I would of had the shortest distance to travel. In lieu of being with family, I now use this writing space, as I do after each of my missions, as a therapeutic tool to organize and articulate my thoughts to better understand myself.

From his wooden prayer stool wearing nothing but his doti and a punal, I would almost laugh as a child when I saw Thatha shouting orders at his wife and four children (to include my father) around his house. They each obeyed quietly, not out of subordination, but out of a unique form of love not found or known in the United States; at least, not to my generation. Thatha was a stern man who rarely smiled…but when he did, it almost always had something to do with his grandchildren. He didn’t say much, but the tight embrace from his thin and bony fingers and watching a few tears roll down his eyes each time I visited his apartment in Chennai told me everything I needed to know.

When I was young, from time to time, I would send Thatha a letter to let him know about life in America. I remember thinking that I wanted to impress him with my writing; not only its content, but its style. I wanted him to think I was smart, that I was going to be important one day. More importantly, I had my eye on some unique birthday gifts and would do anything to gain favor with my most generous caretakers. No matter the motive, I know those letters meant a lot to Thatha. He kept every single letter I sent in a small cupboard along with hundreds of documents, playbills, and other small trinkets marking the myriad accomplishments of his seven grandchildren.  I was Thatha’s eldest grandchild. For that, I feel a degree of obligation to be there for the family during his passing. Since I can’t, I will offer the next best thing.

Below is an essay I recently submitted to the Hindu American Foundation’s Annual Essay Contest. The prompt was “The importance of the Hindu-American Identity.” I was humbled to learn last week, around the time of Thatha’s passing, that I had won 1st place in the contest. I never got the chance to send this essay to Thatha, but I think he would have liked it. In hopes that they have high speed internet access in Heaven, he might have a chance to read it on my website. I offer the following essay as a tribute to him.

My Battle Within: The Identity Crisis of a Hindu Soldier in the U.S. Army

By Rajiv Srinivasan

The barrel of my M4 assault rifle is slender, black, and cold. The rippled plastic grips fit ergonomically to a mission driven hand; one that aggresses to protect a nation and way of life. With each trigger squeeze, a 5.56 caliber bullet breaches the muzzle at 2,900 feet per second with the sole purpose of taking another’s life. Despite its lethality, this weapon is only a piece of metal. It is nothing without the mind and heart of the soldier perched behind it. As I dawn my body armor, grab my weapon, and prepare to lead my platoon of 22 soldiers into Afghanistan, I hesitate. I turn to the portrait of Krishna in my office and demand of him, “What is the worth of this fight? Is it worth our limbs, our lives, or the heartbreak of our parents? What cause is so important as to merit the coming violence?” And so begins my war within: the quest for an identity.

Like most Indian youth in the U.S., I faced the inner conflict between my Indian and American identities. At home, I watched Bollywood movies and prayed to Hindu deities; but at school, I spoke English, played football, and did whatever I could to emulate a typical American childhood. I felt pulled in two directions: one identity abandoning my Indian heritage, the other neglecting my American way of life. Thus, I went through my most formative years without knowing who I was, nor what I stood for.

As high school came to an end, I hastily made the decision to attend the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, but did so in vain. At the time, I was not sure about being an Army officer. I was just looking for a shining star for my résumé. I was looking for a way to pay for college. Perhaps on a deeper level, I was looking for a sense of belonging. I wanted an identity to which everyone in my immediate surroundings could relate and respect.

The U.S. Army is a rare home for an Indian immigrant, but no other endeavor has ever given me more professional and spiritual fulfillment than the experience of military service. The Army challenged my most extreme patriotic influences against my peaceful Hindu beliefs. How could I serve patriotically as a U.S. Army Officer, owning the responsibility of waging war against our national enemies, but remain a man of the Hindu faith believing in the peaceful coexistence of all beings? This was a deep philosophical confrontation, but I accepted it with resolve.

Through days of wet, cold, hot, humid, tired, and hungry, I maintained a vegetarian diet. After a long day of military training, I returned to my barracks to indulge myself in the poetry of the Bhagavad Gita. I found solace in Arjuna’s struggle as a shamed warrior fighting against his blood. I found strength in Krishna’s assertion of conviction and discipline. I found that, though typical Hindus and Soldiers lead vastly different lives, both share a common purpose: to serve a higher calling for good. Thus, there was no need for a struggle between my American and Hindu identities; rather, finding strength in one made me stronger in the other.

My Hindu-American Identity is now a defining part of my life. As Arjuna beckons of his charioteer, “How can I wage war against my family? I would rather surrender, than commit such atrocities”, Krishna affirms that it is our duty as Hindus to do what we believe is right, regardless of the opposition. When peaceful attempts to reconcile fail, we must be prepared to defend the values in which we so whole-heartedly believe. It is this reasoning that convinces Arjuna to fight to protect his kingdom. It is this reasoning that Gandhi used when supporting the British Army’s aggression against the Nazis in World War II. This reasoning is why I feel so compelled to defend this nation, that has given my family countless gifts, against those who wish to do it unnecessary harm. I do not fight in spite of my religion. I fight inspired by it.

The importance of the Hindu-American identity extends beyond a vague resolve to fight for what you believe in. Each of us is faced daily with moral challenges in this country, and our reactions to them define our spiritual identities. This nation is in an ethical crisis; from the poorest of American ghettos through the wealthiest of corporate banks. Hindu-Americans are a dominant source of influence, wealth, and intellect in this nation, so what does it say of our personal constitutions if we tolerate the ethical degradation around us? We have the means to drastically improve the ethical standards in this country. We owe it to ourselves as Hindu-Americans to defend, as Arjuna does his Kingdom, the moral foundations which have made this country a haven for religious and ethnic tolerance. We could collectively sit on the sidelines and criticize our leadership as many Americans do. But if we aspire to follow Krishna’s guidance, it is our duty to proactively defend the integrity that upholds our great society. This is the new importance, the calling, of the Hindu-American identity: inspired by our faith, we must actively rebuild our nation’s character and preserve it for our posterity. So I ask of each Hindu-American, what have you done to make America stronger for our children?

Krishna’s picture sits in my office as a constant reminder of my Hindu-American Identity; a reminder that strength in principle outweighs the comfort of indifference. No matter what challenges lie ahead of me, I will bear my uniform each day with pride knowing I am defending a nation I truly love, and caring for a platoon of soldiers who do the same. It is through the discharge of my duties to God and Country that I have finally found the identity I was looking for all along; that of a fulfilled Hindu-American.

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12 responses

  1. Sabina

    Rajiv,
    I haven’t read the whole post yet– will do so after classes today that I have to get ready for and leave for in 20 minutes.
    Just wanted to express my condolences to you for the passing of your grandfather. As you may remember, mine passed away as well in early May… It’s definitely a challenge and it tugs at the heart. You’re in my thoughts, buddy! Missing you and wishing you the best.

    26 August 09 at 12:01

  2. Meredith

    I am so very sorry about your grandfather’s passing Rajiv. I will continue to keep you and your family in my thoughts and prayers. Your post, including your wonderful essay, brought tears to my eyes. You are a credit to your family, faith, and country.

    26 August 09 at 13:42

  3. Cam Srpan

    Rajiv,
    My heart goes out to you at the loss of your grandfather.
    How VERY proud he must have been of his eldest grandchild. How thankful I am that I met your mom so many years ago. She taught me so much about India and your religion.
    I pray during Ramadan that peace will prevail.
    HUGS,
    Cam

    26 August 09 at 13:47

  4. Rajiv, Sorry to hear about your grandfather. Such is life… very complicated!

    26 August 09 at 14:17

  5. Ray Gacasan

    Hello Rajiv,

    Excellent article. Thank you very much for sharing. I am very sorry for the loss of your grandfather and my prayers go out to your family, your platoon in deployment, and you.

    It was eleven years ago when my Lolo (grandfather) passed away while I was stationed in Korea. However, we were not at war back then and I had the opportunity to visit the Philippines to attend the funeral. Different times indeed. My visit to the Old World brought similar emotions that you so eloquently evoke in your essay, but also brought out familiar notions on assimilation as a young child and the unique challenges immigration to the States creates for all of us.

    As a fellow immigrant, we enter service–and the Academy–for varying reasons yet the experience is tranformative and shapes us for many years to come. (If not already, you too will become a DOG). The experience gives us new meaning and a “hyphenated” perspective unique amongst Americans. But, we ultimately find that irrespective of our home backgounds, we are very American indeed. (If it’s not the indoor plumbing, it’s everything else that makes our country pretty good).

    Keep up the great work, stay safe, and we’ll see you on the high ground.

    Ray

    26 August 09 at 17:38

  6. Dear Mr. Rajiv,

    Superb article. And very convincing too.

    I also liked the preface to your article. Emotions are conveyed so realistically.

    Wish you all the best.

    R. Chandrasekhar

    28 August 09 at 03:35

  7. J

    Rajiv, my condolences on your loss. Even though we have never met, I felt I had to write.

    Congratulations on winning the essay contest though I suspect that joy is overshadowed by the reality on the ground added to the news of your grandfather’s passing.

    It is clear that the lessons of the Bhagavadgita have not been lost on you and I hope they will give you the strength to maintain your balance at this time. I hope you will be able to fulfill your mission, take care of your unit and return safely. I hope also that the memory of your grandfather will strengthen you in your mission.

    With best wishes,

    J Singh

    PS: Your father had shared your blog with me a while ago and I visit from time to time.

    31 August 09 at 23:45

  8. Rick

    Rajiv,

    Sorry to hear about the loss of your Thatha. My prayers will be with your family as well as with all the men and women serving.

    -Rick

    1 September 09 at 12:34

  9. Rajiv,

    I’m sorry for your loss and our commitments that keep you from your family during this time. Your grandfather would, however, be very proud of you and your dedication. Your writing is truly a pleasure to read; thank you for keeping me up to date!

    Best,
    Christina

    7 September 09 at 13:45

  10. Rajiv, I discovered your blog while searching for people of Indian background serving in the US Army. You are a hero!
    You say, “The U.S. Army is a rare home for an Indian immigrant..” Can you point me to a resource which tells me how many Hindus or people of Indian origin serve the US army? Thanks for your service.

    19 November 09 at 18:05

  11. mike

    Dear rajiv great brahmin gunho

    5 June 11 at 16:46

  12. Sita V G

    Hey rajiv.. Congratulations fr winning the competition. I came across your blog during a random search on google but really felt the need to leave a comment. The initial paragraph really brought tears in my eyes.. just because I can completely relate to it.. I lost my thatha couple of days back and the above wiriting reminded me about all the goodtimes I spent with him.. brought back all the good memories.. Just like how u used to impress him in ur letters, I used to put kolams with such precision just so that he appreciated me..
    All d best!.. Pleasure reading ur post..

    24 February 12 at 20:27

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