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My String Theory MAG
“Jesus Christ, that quiz was hard!” My neck tenses and a bit of my patience slips away. “Shut the f--k up, man. You just didn't study for it.” The caustic words burst from me, and I immediately regret my lack of restraint.
“You hear that, dude? That's why people call you a nerd.” I force a laugh and resume my study of the frayed ends of the string around my chest.
Our clique is quick to point out each other's flaws. For a moment, it seems like the overcast day is pressing the life out of me, as if the weight of the sky has come crashing down. In my back pack is the day's work, neatly organized into pretentious $6.99 folders.
“See those folders, dude? Those are the folders of a nerd. N-E-R-D.” Whatever, I tell myself. At least I'm not the one frantically searching my back pack at the beginning of every period.
My heart sinks as I realize the implications of those folders, now full with a never-ending torrent of paper: tonight will be another sleepless night. Again I study the string. Tomorrow will be the same: the same quizzes, the same tired jokes, the same carpool, the same damned four-letter words, and the same tattered string. However, nobody notices my string.
I think back 10 months to that day on the beach when I received the string. I was surrounded by smiling faces, adults and children alike, all gathered to witness an age-old tradition.
The string was a source of pride, a physical testament to my manhood, a cultural seal of approval that branded me as a genuine Bengali. I had grudgingly accepted this after weeks of deliberation, ever since a priest came to talk to me about my Upanayana (or as my mother explained, “bar mitzvah for Indians”).
He said that Brahmin Bengali boys participate in the ceremony when they reach adolescence, and afterwards I would be considered a true Brahmin. The traditional ceremony involved boys leaving home for a time to live as beggars in order to learn humility and work ethic through suffering.
The most suffering I would endure in my modified ceremony would be waking up at 5 a.m. I would still enjoy essential amenities like plumbing and a wide-screen TV. After a period of vegetarianism (my stomach turned at the thought), I would recite prayers in ancient Sanskrit – which to me sounded like random babbling – and walk around a flame to “purify” myself. Finally, I would receive a string made by the priest, composed of nine smaller strings held together by nine knots. After the ceremony I would collect my gifts and vow to recite a small prayer twice a day and keep my string as a reminder of my “second birth.”
At first glance the ceremony seemed harmless enough. But to me, it epitomized everything wrong. Why have a ceremony exclusively for Brahmin boys? What about the other castes? My inner egalitarian self shuddered and I wondered why the caste system was still practiced covertly. While my fattened, comfortable Brahmin extended family reveled in my “growing up,” some Untouchable boy was scrubbing a sewer in a village in some godforsaken corner of India. And why couldn't girls participate in the ceremony, or even recite the prayers? Why was I, an apathetic teenager, chosen for a ceremony I did not even want to take part in?
“Just do it for your heritage,” my mother said. I compromised and accepted the string.
I think I'm going to be sick. There goes another nauseatingly cute couple, their hands locked together in a vice grip. Every tooth in their smiling mouths and every furtive glance exchanged chips away at my carefully constructed wall of indifference. Part of me wants to throw down my back pack and scream at them. The words themselves would be less important than the act of expressing my frustration. That could be me, throwing schoolwork and obligations to the wind, strutting down the hall with a significant other.
Perhaps it was luck that put all those folders in my back pack instead of phone numbers. I'm not sure what it is that left me alone on weekends staring at endless piles of paper. I look down at the string around my chest, the only thing here willing to make contact with me.
I don't like explaining the significance of the string. Few people notice it or want to know (“it's just a Hindu thing”). To me, it's a secret bank where I stow away the heritage I was bequeathed that day on the beach.
There are times when I wonder if I deserve to wear the string. All the smiles I gave at the ceremony certainly didn't reflect what I felt inside. I cringed and moaned while learning the hymns, and I barely concealed an immature grin when the priest informed me of my obligation to remain abstinent until marriage. What's more, I was skeptical when he stated that I would connect with my string. Had I really achieved manhood? Was I betraying my culture?
Never in my life have I felt so guilty. My uncle wears a disappointed look that makes me squirm. I have just told him that I don't believe in God. His tired face struggles to understand. Why, he is thinking, live in world without God, where the waves roll in and the sun rises for no reason? Why live in a world where murderers, rapists, and dictators won't see justice at the hand of their creator?
But I am not yet ready to believe, just as I was not ready to wear the string when it was given to me. How ironic, I think, that it is I who has just been indoctrinated into a religion when I reject religion. I look down and feel the string with the tips of my fingers, tucking it away so that it will never be seen.
I realize now that the act of receiving the string, contrary to what the priest said, was not the moment when I grew up. For the past year I have used my string as a metaphoric container for all my insecurities, embarrassments, failures, and regrets. It holds all the times I wish I could erase: when my peers branded me with four-letter words, when they didn't understand my shortcomings, when I sought love but walled myself away from it, when I shoved aside socialization despite the drawbacks, and when I hurt my uncle by not believing in God.
More importantly, I realize now I didn't have to conform to the string around my chest. Rather, I had to come to terms with my issues and define my purpose for the string. I breathe a sigh of relief knowing that I did not betray my heritage, nor did I receive my string prematurely. Perhaps that is what the priest meant when he said I would grow connected to my string.
I plan to excise this string from my body exactly one year after I received it. I will stow it and all its memories in my dresser as tradition dictates. Maybe on that day, I will finally be ready. Maybe once I have thrown away all my shortcomings and regrets, I can begin the true process of growing up.