This Article is From Mar 16, 2016

Indian Town Prays For A 'Son' On Supreme Court

Indian Town Prays For A 'Son' On Supreme Court

Sri Srinivasan, an Indian-born judge on the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, is rumored to be a top contender for President Barack Obama to nominate to the Supreme Court. (File Photo)

MELA THIRUVENKATANATHAPURAM, India: A bare-chested priest sat cross-legged in the temple of this farming village on a recent morning and recited all 1,008 names of Vishnu, the Hindu god, in the hope of soon receiving good news from the White House.

A junior priest sprinkled the idol, known as Balaji, with shredded tulsi leaves and rose-water. The subject of their prayers was Sri Srinivasan, an Indian-born judge on the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia who is rumored to be a top contender for President Barack Obama to nominate to the Supreme Court.

In Washington, Srinivasan is known as a brilliant lawyer, and - what may be more important this year - so difficult to pigeonhole ideologically that his current appointment passed a bitterly divided Senate 97-0.

In Mela Thiruvenkatanathapuram, though, he is known as the grandson of a local schoolteacher and yarn merchant who drove an ox-cart and typically wore a traditional wraparound dhoti.

Neighbors say Srinivasan's grandfather, Padmanabhan Iyer, was neither rich nor powerful, but his ability to commit scriptures to memory made him an object of awe: He was capable of chanting mantras for two hours without as much as glancing at a text. The family is Brahmins, members of Hinduism's highest caste, which was long associated with priesthood.

Every morning, at 6:30 a.m., Padmanabhan lined up his six sons for a half-hour of chanting, said Shankara Lakshmi, a granddaughter. All grew up to occupy government posts, except the youngest, who was hired as a mathematics professor at the University of Kansas - and whose son, in turn, became an American judge who may soon ascend to the nation's highest court.

"The prayers chanted by the grandfather have descended on the grandson," said Kulathu Srinivasan, 62, a distant cousin who organized a special temple ceremony last month to appeal to the deities on the judge's behalf.

The cousin's friend, Ganapathy Subramanian, a retired physics teacher, said the practice of chanting enhances memory and cognition. "These mantras, they are not created," he said. "They are from the universe."

It is one of the Indian rules of existence that ancestral villages matter. Despite the fact that Sri Srinivasan was born in northern India after his parents had left the village, and he emigrated to the United States as a young boy, people here refer to him as "our son."

This week, as suspense around the nomination built, the temple priest found himself standing barefoot outside the sanctum giving a telephone interview to CNN. At another point, a man who gave his profession as "drawing master" came forward with a sheaf of temple sketches that he hoped to pass on to Sri Srinivasan in honor of the occasion.

"Here, at the southern tip of India, from the village of Mela Thiruvenkanathapuram, a very great man was born," the drawing master, Pon Vallinayagam, said with a flourish. "This man is coming to the highest position of the greatest court. We, the people of the village, the people of India, we think it is a great honor."

This village, pronounced MAY-la THEE-roo VEN-ka-ta NA-tha POO-ram, has a deserted feel, so quiet at midday that you could hear the squeak of a rusted hand-pump as a woman filled a bucket with water. The community emptied out during the second half of the 20th century, when many Brahmins left rural villages for cities in great numbers and entered modern professions. Many proved to be extraordinarily successful.

These days, many of the Brahmin's ancestral homes have collapsed in on themselves, and prayer is the village's most vibrant business. Prosperous Brahmin families return regularly to make donations to their family deities, among them the four-armed, copper-alloy figure called Lord Srinivasan.

Such visits can be brought on by a crisis: One family donated a gold tongue to the temple because their child was unable to speak; a wealthy man whose family owns a Dubai-based shipping company made an emergency visit to ask for help when one of his cargo ships was caught in a cyclone, said V. Murali Srinivasan, a third-generation temple priest.

The priest had a dreamy look as he thought through the events of the coming days. If Sri Srinivasan is named to the Supreme Court, he said, the village "will be known throughout India."

Outside the temple sat a farmer named Kanakaraj, who grows rice on a meager half-acre of land. He has been observing the unusual goings-on, and when asked what he knew about it, gave a sudden, dazzling smile.

"Our son in America, he is a judge," he said. "I don't know about the family. But a judge - a judge is like a god."
© 2016, The New York Times News Service

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