THE BLOG
06/12/2014 05:27 pm ET Updated Aug 12, 2014

Dreams from a Hindu father

Father's Day, much like its counterpart for mothers, has become an annual advertising barrage on what to buy for our dads. But I think in my father's case, no amount of gifts can ever substitute genuine appreciation.

My dad came to this country in 1974 by way of Canada, where he had lived the previous five years. As one of the many who left India in the 1960s for better job opportunities, my dad - without family or any support network - began his life in the West like so many others of his generation: hoping for economic stability but always thinking about home.

As the Smithsonian's "Beyond Bollywood" exhibit details, many Indian immigrants came to the United States with very little. My dad, whose family hails from a small village in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, crossed the Atlantic with clothes, cooking utensils, and his religion. By the time he crossed over to the United States from Canada (on the day that Richard Nixon resigned as President), he had in many ways become a self-made person. He taught himself how to cook, drive, change the oil in his car, and fix household items. And he was pretty good at building things from scratch, like a shelf organizer my mom would use for years to itemize her spices.

Moreover, in the small Hindu communities in which he lived, my dad became the most reliable friend to those in need. One of his late friends once told me that my dad "was like a candle. He burned brightly for others." It's hard to believe now, but my dad once had tree trunks for forearms, and his friends would call him to lift heavy things.

To this day, I marvel at how in the late 1970s, my dad - assisted by mom, who at the time weighed a mere 90 pounds - lifted one of those steel office desks up the steps and into their small apartment in Parsippany, N.J. My uncles have also told me stories of how when they first came to the United States in the early 1980s, my dad could lift their 70-pound suitcases and jog from the baggage claim to the parking lot of JFK. Given the Indian tendency to exaggerate at times, I'm not sure how much these stories are a John Henry-type myth and how much they're real, but I always enjoy hearing them.

Beyond his physical feats and generosity towards others, my dad showed me one of the ways I could have a relationship with the Divine. When I was a child, I'd sit with him early in the morning as he did his prayers. There was something so comforting about sitting next to him in front of our prayer alter, with only the light of the flame illuminating the room. Since my family rarely went to temples and didn't identify with a specific sect of Hinduism, the prayer room became our sanctum.

Though I rebelled as a teen and was often afraid to publicly identify as a Hindu, the memories of the time spent with my father helped me forge my own Hindu American identity in college. My dad taught me by example, providing me with a template by which I could be both a progressive advocate and proud Hindu. He never forced me to continue the family traditions, and abstained from the sort of jingoism that can drive young people from their faith. As a result, my siblings and I maintain many of the same religious traditions my dad imported from his small village more than four decades ago. Even today, my dad spends at least an hour every morning in prayer, and every time I visit, I am reminded of how much he has influenced me as a person.

This past week, my dad saw up close the fruits of his labor in raising me. He took part in HAF's annual DC Days event, participating in meetings with members of Congress and their staff. Before he left for Philly, he said, "I learned something new today. Thank you."

For me, that was one of the best Father's Day gifts I could give. As we shared a hug, I realized how much I appreciated the way he raised me. All I can say to my dad is, "Thank you."

Hopefully, dads and other father figures around the country can hear that from their kids on more than just Sunday. If so, it will be the type of Father's Day gift that keeps on giving.