LIFE AS A RITUAL By Nidadavolu Malathi

Sitapati took his wife Sita to the restaurant on their sixteenth anniversary per local custom.
Sita is watching the people around. There are about 2 or 3 at each table- a young couple, an
old man and his wife, a father and two children, another mother with six children, probably a
birthday party. They all have paper hats on their heads and balloons in their hands. They
are talking loudly- about movies, new videos, games, songs, music, about classes they liked
or did not like, mortgages, credit card debts, the weather, winter, summer, South Africa,
Nicaragua.

Sita looked at her husband. He is lost in his own thoughts. What could that be, she
wondered. It is sixteen years since they are married. First two or three years it was fun. After
that he is living his life and she is living hers…

“How are you today?” the waitress inquired with a pleasant smile. She told them her name
and the house specials and asked if they were ready to order.

Sitapati told her that they were doing great and turned to Sita. “It is your anniversary. You
should tell what do you want?”

That is one of his habits. He always talks as he is doing everything for her sake. “Why? Am I
the only one married? You are not?”

Sitapati laughed and asked the waitress for her suggestion. He recited the list again like the
sacred mantra- specialty of the day, specialty of the house, her personal choice, and people’
s choice… Sitapati ordered specialty of the house for himself and Pina Colada for Sita.

“Would like grilled vegetable?”

“I have been ordering the same every time. I think I will have a salad today.”

He slipped in to his own world again.

She kept looking around.

He remembered about their wedding anniversary about four days back. “What do you want
for your anniversary?” he asked her with great enthusiasm.

She understood that he would get her something whether she wants it or not. Since they
come to this country this has become a custom. She cannot remember Indian festivals like
Diwali and Pongal. But these local customs are taking over. Every year he asks her and buys
something or other. So she will keep up with him and buy something for him. They start with
asking each other, protesting that he or she does not want anything, and then go out buy
something or other, wrap them up in colorful wrapping paper, then hide until the day comes,
send the children to neighbor’s house and they go out to eat…
Sita is not into the local these ways.

Sitapati could never understand her likes and dislikes. Not in the past 16 years he could
figure out what she really wanted out of life. He never forced her to do anything. He never
forced anybody to do anything. It is not just in his nature.

He respects his wife very much. In fact he has great respect for all women. He has lot of
friends. He is always there for them in their miseries. He is happy when they are happy. He
thinks highly of their brains. He has as much admiration for their wealth too Sita believes.

That is a moot point. Whenever somebody belittles women, he would take it up on himself to
rescue the reputation of those women. No. He does not physically attack them but certainly
will make sure that the men learn to respect women! Then some people teased him that his
name is justified. Sitapati literally means the husband of Sita. So you see. They have a point.

But then Sitapati did not take offense. He said he is proud to be Sita’s husband. He could not
figure out Sita. He would be able to get what she wants only if he knows what she wants.
Then he would go to the end of the world if necessary, and bring it, give it to her, make her
happy and feels great about himself. Unfortunately that is not happening.

Waitress brought plates and drinks. She arranged them neatly on the table and asked if they
would like to have anything else.

“We are fine,” Sitapati told her, and started nibbling chips. Sita looked at him for a second
and she too took a piece.

He lifted the glass and said, “To many happy years.”

“Many happy years,” Sita said.

“How is it?”

“Good.”

Looked at the table next to them. A middle-aged couple was sitting in the place of the young
couple that was there before. Sita smiled.

“Why are you smiling?”

“I am looking at the couple next to us. Earlier there was a young couple. Now they are middle-
aged. Feels like we are here for a generation long”.

Sitapati kept quiet.

The couple at the next table is planning their vacation. She suggested that they should go to
Florida. He says Colorado. Her argument is if they go to Florida they could visit with their
children. His argument is they could spend time with their friends. Either of them thinks his or
her argument is the most reasonable one.

“We haven’t seen our Telugu folks for a while,” Sita said.

“Yeah?”

“How about inviting them next week.”

“I might not be in town.”

“….”

“That’s okay. They all are your friends, anyways. Go ahead and invite them.”
Sita continued to eat. She looked at her husband. It seems he has a lot of faith in the words
of the waitress. Eating like he had not eaten in weeks. She could not swallow a bite. Is he
really enjoying it? Is he really aware what he is eating? She heard voices from behind.

“Have any plans for Friday?”

“Why?”

Sita turned her head a little and tried to see them without making it that obvious. She noticed
a couple of kids, a boy and a girl, probably 15 or 16.

“There is a small restaurant outside town.”

Sita imagined the expression on their faces. Probably he is looking at her mischievously and
may be she is raising her eyebrows with curiosity.

“Really. Good food too.”

“We’ll see,” said the girl.

“We can go to a movie later.”

“I’ll call you.”
“How about sevenish?”

Sita took a deep breath.

“What is that for?” Sitapati asked.

“Nothing. I was listening to the conversation of the kids behind me.”

“What is that about?”

“It is funny. In our families the adults go to so much trouble to arrange a marriage. Here the
kids go to as much trouble to impress each other.”

Waitress showed up again.

“Any dessert today?”

“You order,” Sitapati asked his wife again.

“I don’t want anything.”

“Have ice cream. You like ice cream.”

“Okay.”

He ordered two ice creams and lost in his own thoughts.

The group at the other table started singing “happy birthday to you”. All the guests at all the
tables looked up. After the song the birthday baby blew away the 16 candles. Everybody
clapped. Sita also clapped. Sitapati is miles away. Sita did not feel like eating ice cream.
“Why?” Sitapati asked and without waiting for her reply finished her share also.
Suddenly Sita remembered Parvati. She met Parvati about four years back in the airport, on
her way to India.
*                *                *

Due to dense fog flights were cancelled. She was standing in the corridor and looking around
and noticed another Telugu woman. Parvati’s face lit up like firecrackers. They got in to
chatting.

Parvati came to the airport to receive her mother. Since the planes were cancelled Parvati
was about to return home alone. She invited Sita to her place for the night. Sita felt a little
embarrassed but Parvati would not let go. She said her home was not far from the airport
and there was nobody else in the house.

“This is what we miss most in this country. I mean the meaningless chatting. I was born in a
small village. You know how it is. We stand at the front door or gather near the village well
and get in to chatting like “what curry” “what is new in town?” “Is that a new saree?” Here we
have neither time nor people to get in to such chatting,” commented Parvati with a nostalgic
look on her face. Sita realized something about Parvati just then. Parvati is 5 months
pregnant. With her arm around her shoulder she said, “Okay, let’s go.

“Are you done?”

“What?”

“Listening to others’ conversations,” Sitapati said sarcastically.

“Well. I’d listen to you if you talk,” she snapped.

“Alright. Let’s go,” he got up, leaving some cash for tip.

*                 *                *

As soon as they opened the door, the phone started ringing. Sitapati rushed to pick up the
phone. Sita sighed, “Anniversary is over.” She threw herself in to the couch and turned on
the T.V.

Somebody must have said “happy anniversary” on the other end. Sitapati thanked them. By
the time he finished talking, one sitcom is over and a second one started.

“What are you watching?”

“Some sitcom.”

“Stupid show. Turn it off.”

Before Sita could say something, the phone rang again. Saved by the bell. He won’t be back
for another half hour. Sita could never understand that part. He could spend hours talking to
somebody on the phone. But if she tries to strike a conversation, he would put an end to the
conversation with “yup” and “nope”. He has no problem chatting with the young and old, men
and women, pundits and the ignorant, white or colored… anybody except her. How come?
Is it possible that in his opinion she does not belong in any of these categories? While he is
at home he acts like he is on pins and needles, waiting for that phone call. No matter from
whom, as long as there is call. Probably he took a full-page ad and told them that anybody
could call him anytime of the day. And it also appears that they all took him for his word.
They do call him at all times as if to please him, without thinking twice about the family he is
supposed to have…

Sita got tired of watching T.V. She turned it off and went in to the bedroom and picked up a
book to read. After almost an hour Sitapati came in. In her mind the mantra of a daily ritual
flashed through—“pushpam samarpayami (I am offering flowers), achamaneeyam
samarpayami
(offering water)”.

“Are you done talking?” she said, somewhat annoyed.

“You know TANA conferences are approaching. They want my advice. What can I say?” he
replied, slipping in to his pajamas.

“It is always something or other. I am not sure of the Almighty Lord but I am sure the world will
come to an end without your help.”

“Well, we all have to do our share.”
*                *                *

In the middle of the night the phone rang again. Sita woke up for the noise.
“Wait, I will take it in the other room,” Sitapati said and got up.

Sita turned over wondering how the other party could be so insensitive. He may have told
them they can call at all odd times but shouldn’t they have some sense? Sitapati was not on
the phone for long. But it was quarter to 4 by the time he returned to bed. Sita was just about
to doze off.

“Where did you go?”

“Hush. Lower your voice.”

“Why?”

“Komala is in the next room.”

“What?” Sita asked, startled.

“For sometime they are having marital problems, I mean Komala and Bhaskaram.”

“They are having marital problems. And so you brought her to our house in the middle of the
night?” Sita could not believe it.

“Go to bed. We will see what we can do tomorrow.”

Sita was furious.

“Of course, I’d go to bed. What else can I do? First explain to me why you have to go in the
middle of the night and bring her here,” she asked gnashing her teeth. She knows that it is a
hobby for her husband to run to rescue damsels in distress. Where is he going to draw the
line?

Sitapati explained calmly. “Don’t talk like a blockhead. Bhaskaram has been fooling around
with a woman in his office. Now he brought her home. He says he would marry her.”

Sita wasn’t sure whether she should laugh or cry. “I must be really a blockhead. This is
beyond my comprehension. Bhaskaram brought some woman to his house and so you went
and brought his wife to our house?”

“Don’t be silly. This is totally different. Can’t you see?”

“Obviously. You have to tell me what I can and can’t see. Now you tell me whom should I call?
Who should I tell that my husband brought another woman to our house?”

“How can you talk like that? Are you kidding? You know I am not that kind of a person. If you
really suspect my intensions, I will drop her off at her home right now,” he said.

Sita could not speak for irritation. She does not suspect her husband. But she could not
understand this wild gusto of his either. His rescue missions are getting to her.

“So what do you think you would do now?”

“Let’s see. Think of something in the morning. Her brother is Canada. I’ll call him and tell him
and put her on the plane. Then our job is done.”

Sita suddenly felt like she is watching a movie. “What happened?” she asked him.

“He is a stupid fellow. Look at Komala. She is smart, beautiful, and everything anybody could
ask for.”

“Then what is his problem?”

“He says he is helping the other woman to get her immigration status.”
Sita is lost for words. She pushed away her husband and turned to the other side. She
knows her husband is kind to women in general. She also believed like Lata  that men in our
country supported women. She did not agree with Ranganayakamma  that men are
categorically hell-bent on ill-treating women.

In fact Sita appreciated her husband’s kind heart to start with. In her natal home nobody ever
put her down for being a female. Nobody ever told her “Go to the kitchen. Act like a woman.”
After her marriage she did not hear such language from her husband either. So it is hard to
digest what is going on now. She is confused as to when “help” crosses the line. When can
one say, “enough is enough”, “this is inappropriate”? Where are the meters that can
measure kindness?

She decided to see it the next morning. “Make or break,” she told herself.
***
She could not “make or break” next morning.
It was still a little dark. She woke up, finished her daily worship and was about to sit down with
her cup of coffee.

Komala walked in slowly as if she was walking on burning coal. Her eyes sunk in. Face was
pale. Seemed like might break down any second.

Sita was taken aback. After a few seconds she collected herself, “Come. Here, have some
coffee,” she said pushing her cup towards Komala.

“No. You have it.” Komala said. Her voice was hardly audible.

Sita thought of  Parvati again. We all have the same problem. Living ten thousand miles
away from mom and home, the one thing we can never get over is the family support we
have there.

Sitapati put Komala on plane that afternoon and returned home. “Calmed down?” he asked
Sita in a lighter vein.

“You never get it, do you? You saw only my anger but not my frustration,” Sita replied.

“Look. She is in trouble. I helped her. What is wrong with that? Do you really expect me to do
nothing?”

“I am not talking about this specific instance. I agree that in this case it is justified. But you
are always on a mission with the same passion. You would jump and run if she broke a nail in
much the same way. It is the amount of time you spend rescuing others and ignoring that
there is a person at home who might want your attention…”

“Alright. Next time I will consult you. I will ask for your approval first,” in the same mocking
tone.

Sita knows his words mean nothing but she has no answer for that kind of language. It is like
fighting with somebody who threw in the towel.

***
So what happens next?

Well, Sitapati suggests they would go out to eat.

Then the phone rings…

It is just like the same ritual performed everyday inanely!

[End]
Author’s note: (Hindus traditionally perform a daily ritual, which involves several physical motions. Sometimes people go through these motions almost involuntarily, unmindful of the underlying philosophy. For foreigners the local customs can become such meaningless motions, just a peripheral activity. Dining out is just that if not understood as time for communication, a way of “being together.” That sets tone for the rest of the story

.(The Telugu original devi puja was published in Swati monthly, 1988.

English translation by the author published on thulika.net, December 2002.)