Palo Alto Weekly

Spectrum - September 13, 2013

Guest Opinion

What's in a symbol?

by Archana Khetan

Ding-dong. The doorbell chime had me look up at the wall clock, which was showing 11 a.m. "Who could be coming unannounced at this time of day?" I wondered. We had just moved into our new home a few days ago, and the days since were busy with unpacking and putting things in place. Perplexed, I opened the door.

Dark, concerned eyes with an unsure smile greeted me. Not recognizing the face, my eyes drifted downwards and to the clothing. The person facing me was wearing some sort of uniform, a shirt that read Comcast on the sleeve. Puzzled, as I had not put in any request for cable service, I returned the concerning eyes with an equally concerned look. "Yes?" I inquired.

"Do you know that there is something at your entrance? Who has done it?" the man at the door questioned. There was a demanding tone in the voice. Curious, my eyes followed in the direction of his outstretched index finger. It was pointing towards brightly painted symbols on the wall next to the doorstep. The colorful symbols were painted using bright red vermillion, the same red substance used to paint the Bindi on Indian women's foreheads. The symbol offered a stark contrast on the dull light cream wall clamoring for attention. I understood. The symbols, though nicely painted, were also a little smudged as they were sprinkled with red vermillion dust and rice, part of the welcoming rituals that were performed a few days ago.

"Oh, this? It is something we do in the Indian custom. It is part of blessing the new home with good luck and fortune."

The dark face relaxed instantly. "I see. I am here to disconnect cable per submitted request. I will be working on your sidewalk. Just wanted you to be aware." "Sure," I replied. This must be per the request from the old tenant. I closed the door and continued my work.

The rest of the day, the conversation stayed in my mind. An unsettling feeling of the apprehension I saw in the eyes, the question that sounded more alarming than just simple curiosity, I couldn't comprehend.

Later in the day as I took a break and relaxed with my cup of late afternoon tea, my eyes rested on two beautiful gilded silver-color sitting stools. I had purchased them from an art exhibition in Hyderabad a few years ago. They were proudly displayed in my previous home's living room and had now found a visible spot in the new home. I remembered the time when before selling our prior home in Pleasanton, the real-estate agent had brought in an interior-design consultant. She had made numerous rearrangements to the furniture to make the home "flow well," create more space and make it more appealing to prospective buyers. My two gilded stools were thoroughly admired and rearranged carefully — an indoor plant on top of one and the other placed halfway under the guest bed with only the sides visible. Both the stools had the same symbol on the top as the one on my doorstep now.

Snap. The realization came.

Didn't the auspicious symbols I had painted called "Saathiya" in Hindi closely resemble the swastika used by Hitler during the war? The symbol obviously had deeply negative connotations in the West. For a person who might have had his roots in the southern U.S., the association might have raised even more troubling memories. I also realized that while we call the symbol Saathiya in my native tongue, it is also called "swastika" in Sanskrit. It all began to make sense now. The two symbols not only look similar, they also have the same name. My mind was so deeply rooted into the meaning I grew up with, I had utterly failed to see other negative associations.

How can one symbol inspire such divine power (swastika in Sanskrit means "let the good being prevail") in one part of the world and deep hate in another at the same time? I started to do some investigation. I discovered that the origin of swastika dates back more than 3,000 years, and it was in use in many other parts of the world. It was called by different names in different regions and while there have been some regional variations, the basic structure of the cross with branches in four directions is a consistent theme. The interpretation and meaning across cultures have varied some but have always been about everything that is positive in connotation — be it prosperity, god, love, wealth, fertility.

Should one misuse of the symbol over a 10-year period wipe out the 3,000-year-old significance? What if the symbols do have divine power as was believed, and how come it came to a negative effect in the 20th century? Or as Webster's online dictionary defines symbol: an arbitrary sign (written or printed) that has acquired a conventional significance.

Not wanting to create any more inquiries I run into the kitchen to get some soap and attempt to wash off my beloved motifs symbolizing prosperity, good will and peace. As for the seating stools in the living room I decide that they will be a keeper — I can do some explaining for the occasional uninformed visitor in my living room.

Archana Khetan is a technology executive, mother of two daughters and has been a Palo Alto resident for more than 11 years.

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