Throughout my lifetime, I have envisioned the concept of shakti as having inexhaustible energy and boundless dimensions. Its uncontainable presence makes identifying and expressing the true essence of shakti challenging. Yet, there are rare people in our lives who embody and define the many forms of shakti. For me, that person was my grandma, Jaya Mahadevia.
Much like an aging banyan tree, my grandma was sturdy from years of weathering the harsh world around her, and she always extended branches to provide others with shade and fruit. The roots of her tree drew shakti from her passions and life experiences, invigorating her being with vitality. Sharing how she inspired me and those around her with her shakti became more critical when she passed away from COVID-19-related complications on April 23rd, 2020.
ROOTS OF SHAKTI
First and foremost, my grandma’s shakti drew its power from the fortitude of her mind. During the 92 years of her life, she lived through significant world events, including World War II and India’s independence movement. As a seventh grader, I vividly remember my grandma describing her childhood experience through these crises. The terror she felt during the curfews of the Indian independence movement was palpable in the quiver in her voice and the subtle shaking in her hands. She told me she would run as fast as she could after school to ensure she made it home before curfew fell. Sitting in the darkness and suffocating with fear as she heard gunshots outside her house became a daily ritual. Her harrowing descriptions drew stark contrasts to the situation we were in at that moment. We were sitting freely in her room, breathing in fresh air streaming from an open window, bathed in the afternoon sunlight. Surviving these periods of political unrest taught her how to keep her mind calm when the world outside seemed to be falling apart.
My grandma’s personal life also contributed to the development of her mental shakti. She was always taking care of others, whether it was her ten siblings or her five daughters, whom she raised independently after her husband passed away. Leading by example, she taught her daughters to be independent, strong women. A college graduate herself, my grandma understood the value of education. She instilled these values in her children, three of whom became physicians, while one got a law degree and another attained a bachelor's in commerce. My grandma continued to promote the value of education throughout India. Despite having to take care of her children and extended family on her own, she never failed to put aside as much money as she could manage to fund girls’ schools in small villages, such as the M. C. Amin Girls School in Bavla, Gujarat.
Another show of her mental shakti was her fierce desire to be independent. At the age of 60, my grandma shocked her family members and decided to take the next step in her life's journey: moving to the United States. My grandma sold the house in which she raised her children and used that money to move to America, joining her eldest daughter in a foreign land. Knowing very little English, my grandma steeled herself to face the plethora of challenges that come with moving to another country and leaving your home behind. Spending her entire life taking care of others made her dependable and self-sufficient.
All of these experiences forced her to become familiar with powerful emotions such as fear, love, and grief. These emotions, powerful gusts of wind, kept on blowing at her, attempting to knock her down. Yet, with each obstacle, her tree grew taller and her branches became stronger, and she persevered by drawing from her roots of mental shakti.
My Grandma Enjoying the Breeze in a Local Garden
My Grandma Enjoying the Breeze in a Local Garden
The second root of my grandma's shakti came from her playful spirit. She always had a mischievous glint in her eyes, which gleamed brightest as she recounted pranks she played on her teachers in high school, such as changing the time on school clocks to get out of class early. Her playfulness also manifested itself in other forms, whether it be through the joking comments she left on Facebook posts or the funny faces she made in photos.
Much like her love for mischief, my grandma’s love for her family could not be contained. She showed her love by feeding everyone badaam (almond), davaa (medicine), and dood (milk) in the morning, not resting until we had all three. She showed her love by asking my dad every time he came back from work, “Parag bhai, chai joiyeche?” (Parag, do you want chai?). She showed her love by staying up until my sister came home from work, making sure that she had a warm dinner waiting for her at home. She showed her love by saving thor (Indian sweets) from the mandir (temple) to give me when I came back from college. My grandma also kept notebooks filled with quotes in English, Gujarati, and Hindi that she jotted down as she perused the internet; in these quotes, we found more hints of how much she loved her family. In her latest book, she wrote, “Do you ever look at your children or grandchildren and feel your heart is melting because you love them so much?”
The energy of her unfettered spiritual shakti was infectious, as she channeled it not only towards her loved ones but also towards her devotion to God. She was a devout Shiva worshipper. As proof of her spiritual shakti, in her 80s, she made a pilgrimage to the holy sites of Mansarover and Mount Kailash in the Himalayan mountains. Despite her age, she completed the whole trip, and was one of the only members of the tour group not affected by altitude sickness. Her devotion also manifested itself in small day-to-day activities. You could always find her chanting shlokas (prayers) every morning while turning her maala, her string of holy Rudraksha beads.
My grandma’s fun-loving and energetic spirit filled her tree of shakti with vivacity. Her spirit infused the fruit hanging from the branches of her tree with a vibrant and unique flavor. Her spirit coated each leaf with healing properties that could smooth away the wrinkles in our forehead with its cooling touch. Her spiritual shakti transformed her healing presence into an inviting home that brought the people around her together.
My Grandma Posing with her Grandchildren
Despite her thin, wiry build, the third source of my grandma’s shakti came from her physical strength. When I was young, she would always put me to sleep at night by slapping my back and saying, “Shri Ram Jai Ram Jai Jai Ram” over and over again. My cousin once told me she wondered how I could ever sleep with her hitting me that hard.
My grandma’s physical shakti also manifested itself in her independence of motility. Up until the day she became sick with COVID-19, she would always prepare the meals in the house and take care of the household chores. Even as she grew older, she insisted on walking on her own, without the aid of a cane or wheelchair. She would always shoo away our hands as my family and I tried to offer her support and balance. As time passed, she gradually accepted our outstretched hands, yet held them with a firm grip that reminded us of her strength.
The clearest example of her persevering physical shakti came during the coronavirus epidemic — even as she was getting sicker and sicker, her physical shakti persisted. Once, when I was taking care of her, she called me to her room and grabbed my hand. Her grip was vice-like, and she firmly placed my hand next to her heart. She was still strong.
My grandma's physical strength manifests itself in the bark of her tree of shakti. Both sturdy and supple, she stood tall in the face of adversity with branches that could nevertheless sway with the wind, not letting any obstacles limit the strength she exuded. As she continued to grow in adversity, many would seek refuge in the shade of her expansive branches, resting until they too had the strength to weather their life's obstacles.
My Grandma Relaxing
TREE OF SHAKTI
When I went to see her for the last time in the hospital, I held her hand, hoping to feel that same vice-like grip as a final show of her physical shakti. I could not feel it. Yet, the lack of her physical strength did not mean that my grandma no longer had shakti. If I have learned anything from her, it is the power and the multi-dimensional nature of our strength. She taught me that shakti is not drawn from individual sources — shakti is a messy, breathing, and continually growing force. The overlapping and knotted roots of our shakti are founded in the fortitude of our mind, the playfulness of our spirit, and the strength of our grip on life.
Did my grandma know how strong she was? Honestly, I do not know. But what I do know is that I want to learn from her tree of shakti and understand that even if we see ourselves as weak, we have multiple roots of strength to draw upon to persevere through the storms of life. We all are nurturing our own trees of shakti so that one day, we too may outstretch our branches to provide others with the protection they need to weather their own storms.
My Grandma Posing in the Himalayas
Setu Mehta is a member of the Class of 2021 at Harvard College.
Graphic: David Vig / Unsplash
Pictures: Setu Mehta