Q: Can you say your name?
A: Visala Tamara Alagappan
Q: Where does that come from?
A: It’s an Indian name from Chennai, which is in the south of India. More specifically it’s from this community which is south of Chennai called Chettinad. My dad was born in Thailand and he came to New York when he was two years old, but his parents were both very much still a part of the Chettinad community.
Visala is my dad’s mother’s name. It means “kind eyes and “of the world.” The second they thought was appropriate. Laughs.
Q: I’m going take note here that Pi Patel (Life of Pi, great book and movie, go watch or read it), an apparently fictional boy from Southern India, was named as a tribute to Piscine Molitor in France. Southern Indian roots? A name that looks globally? Sound familiar?
A: I think that Life of Pi was a really well-written book, but my favorite part of the whole book is the first 80 pages. I find Pi’s exploration of religion to be completely fascinating and something that I really relate to as well. He explores Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism. And no one thinks he can be a part of all three religions. But he totally believes he can and he does a really amazing job of delving into each one and understanding each one’s values and finding the connections between them.
It’s something that I relate to because, having been raised with one parent who’s Hindu and one who’s Jewish, I consider myself half-Jewish, half-Hindu. And when I say that, people say that’s not possible. But that’s definitely what I consider myself.
Q: In what way is your approach to religion similar to Pi’s?
A: I think it’s similar in the sense that Pi practices the rituals of all three religions as he’s trying to learn about and connect to all of them. And I was raised celebrating holidays in Judaism and Hinduism. We even have a Christmas tree, because who doesn’t want to have a Christmas tree. Laughs.
So I guess the fact that Pi recites prayer in each religion, celebrates the holidays of all religions, sees religious leaders from all religions—those things I relate to because I celebrate Diwali, Passover, Navrati, Chanukah.
I think that Pi did a better job connecting with the religious leaders than I ever did. I never had a bat mitzvah. I never really sat down and talked to a Hindu priest or a rabbi and had a deep conversation about religion, which is something that Pi does.
Q: Pi’s best friend is a tiger. Visala is tiger. Forced Princeton joke or the fourth bizarre connection between Visala and Pi?
A: Religion to me is more about spirituality than about getting caught up in rituals that would exclude other rituals from a different religion. To understand the culture of a religion, celebrating holidays is really important and something that I love to do. But when it comes to understanding the values of the religions, it’s definitely more about finding some sense of spirituality than exclusively practicing the rituals of one.
Q: I can’t imagine someone really young having this strong of a grasp on their spirituality. How did you understand religion when you were little?
A: I think I went through some phases, kind of like mini identity crises as I was getting older.
So my mother’s white Jewish. She has black hair like me but she has blue eyes. And there’s a lot more resemblance now that I’m older, but when I was a little kid, people just saw the skin color immediately (snaps) and were like “Okay, she’s adopted.” We got that a lot—is she adopted? Is she yours?
With my dad, even though he’s darker than me, people would just assume I was his daughter. And people always assumed I was Indian. So there was a period when people would ask what I was, I would just say “I’m Indian.” I wouldn’t really think to say I’m half-Indian, half-Jewish, or that my mother was this, my father was this.
This lasted maybe till middle school. All of lower school, it wasn’t like I was trying to hide a part of me, but I just didn’t think to include it because it wasn’t what people thought when they saw me.
Q: So you always had that distinct association with both religions?
A: Yea. I think there were certain times in my life when I tried to connect to one more. For the beginning part of my life I was definitely more connected to Hinduism because we would go to more Indian functions, my grandfather founded a temple in Queens, and he was very, very involved in that community. So we would just go to those events more. We would always have Seder, we would always celebrate Chanukah. But we hadn’t found the Shoel of New York yet so we weren’t going to regular synagogue services.
Q: How did your parents raise you?
A: My parents raised me to believe that different religions are different paths to finding one God, to finding the same thing, ultimate thing.
If my parents were conventionally religious, they wouldn’t have gotten married. Because it wouldn’t have been okay for my dad not to have married a Hindu and for my mom not to have married a Jew.
My dad was raised in a pretty traditional Hindu, Indian household in Queens. My mother was raised in a very religious Jewish household, she went to an orthodox school, kept Kosher in the house, things like that. Setting aside the fact that my father’s festival of lights was Dewali and my mother’s was Chanukah- I mean, when you don’t look at the specific details, but you just think of what those holidays represent and what they mean, they bring very similar things into your life.
Q: Spirituality has come up a lot. What does spirituality mean to you?
A: I think there’s spirituality in science. The fact that amazing timing happens.
My grandfather founded a temple in south India and during a tsunami about ten years ago that hit the area. This temple was on the water and when the tsunami came, the water stopped fifty feet in front of the temple and went hundreds of feet on either side of the temple.
Of course it’s scientifically explainable. But the fact that it happens that way—that that scientific thing occurred—is what’s a miracle. If you were in that temple in that time, you were safe. And that’s just amazing. And how can you not believe that there’s something more out there when something like that happens?