rituals

Rhythm of Rituals

First Published in Corporate Dossier, Economic Times, 18 July 2008

As Ravi entered his cabin, he suddenly felt lost. What was he supposed to do next? He set up his laptop and went straight for the email inbox. Maybe there were emails there to respond. And in the midst of responding to the emails, maybe he would find a purpose, a task that would make the rest of the day meaningful.

Ravi needs a structure in his life. A plan. But he does not know how to go about it. A business year has just got over and until last week, the sales target was the destination, and the desire to reach it kept him going. Now, the target has been reached, the year is over, and suddenly there is a vacuum. What seemed like a full stop now reveals itself to be merely a comma, a pause, as he waits for a new goal. Is that what life is all about – moving from one target to another target, one year-end to another year-end, one project to another project?

Ravi was raised on fairy tales like Cinderella, Snow White and Rapunzel which always ended with ‘happily ever after’. But as the exhilaration of reaching last year’s target wanes, Ravi has realized that ‘happily ever after’ is a dream, a fantasy far from reality.

In frustration, his mind wandered to earlier that day, as he was having breakfast. His wife drew his attention to traditional Indian narratives. Unlike European fairy tales which had clear beginnings (once upon a time), and clear endings, (happily ever after), classical Indian fairy stories such as Suka-saptati, Betal-pachisi, Simhasan-battisi, had endings that invariably curved back to the beginning. For example, Suka-saptati always began with a traveling merchant’s wife preparing to step out and meet her lover, and always ended with her not leaving the house, distracted as she was by the story narrated by her husband’s pet parrot. Betal-pachisi always began with Vikram pulling down a ghost from a tree, and ended with the ghost always returning to the tree after telling a story. Simhasan-battisi, always began with a king approaching a throne thinking he was worthy of sitting on it, and always ended with him doubting his capability after hearing a tale of royal achievement narrated by the throne itself. Thus, the stories would go in cycles – again, and again, and again, with the same beginnings, with the same endings, change happening only in between. In the middle was the exciting part – mystery, action, romance. Ravi realized these tales were so much like life. Every business year would begin the same way – with a target. And would end the same way – with a struggle to reach the target. The exciting part was in the middle. In the middle was life!

While driving to office, Ravi had noticed a few workshops on the roadside where artisans were molding clay images of Ganesha, and Durga. They did this every year, in the rainy season, preparing for festivals that were celebrated as the rains drew to a close. By then the images of Ganesha and Durga would be ready for worship. After being worshipped for nine-ten days, the images would be dissolved in a water body. And the following year, at the same time, the artisans would mould fresh images once again. Repetition was the key. The festivals recurred cyclically, just like the stories. Was this the way of the forefathers to show that while change is inevitable (stories end, images are dissolved in water), all change is cyclical (stories restart and images are recreated)?  Through the rhythm of rituals, one’s mind was drawn to the cyclical nature of things so that life seemed less uncertain and more predictable.

Are we rats on a ferret-wheel, running but reaching nowhere? From the window of his office, Ravi noticed the sticker of Tirupati Balaji pasted on a car parked below. The deity had a wheel on the right side. It rotated around the deity’s index finger, a reminder of life’s circular rhythm. The dreaded merry-go-round of life, no doubt. But there was a conch-shell on the left side of the deity. Here the rhythm was different  – spiral not circular. The end did not actually meet the beginning – it was separated by a distance created by time!

It dawned on Ravi that when an event recurs, one is not the same person – one has matured, gained more experience and information, hence one’s approach to the event should ideally be different. When the Ganesha or Durga festivals return after the rains this year, as ritually planned, Ravi should be able to perceive the celebrations with a more matured eye compared to last year. And when Ravi hears the next story narrated either by the parrot or the ghost or the throne, he should be smarter than when the previous story was told. Ideally, when events recur, he should be more prepared, hence more efficient and more effective. Ravi concluded that circular rituals offered not just a predictable certainty, it also offered a chance to relook at the same event differently, allowing for new insights, making every recurring event something to look forward to.

Suddenly Ravi did not feel as lost as before. It dawned on him that for the past four years, ever since he took over as head of sales and marketing, this feeling of dread and despair always overwhelmed him in the period between the ending of the previous business year and the start of the current business year. Rather than surrender to monotony and despair, it was up to him to turn the cyclical truth of his job to his advantage.

Inspired, Ravi instituted a circular rhythm of rituals of his own in his office. Every Monday morning, he asked his team to meet in his cabin for coffee.  The meeting had no agenda. What was important was the gathering. Sometimes the meeting generated heated discussion about work, sometimes people just gossiped on various topics, and sometimes nobody spoke; everybody just sipped coffee silently. Those who attended the meeting did not realize what was the point of it all. But Ravi did. The ritual anchored his team – gave the week a very certain start, a clear indicator that the weekend was over and the week had begun. It allowed the team to cope better with the Monday morning blues, and return to the corporate fold faster. Now, Ravi plans to institute more office rhythms – monthly reviews, quarterly team dinners, bi-annual picnics with family. He has realized that people respond to rhythms very well – like cyclical festivals and stories they give everyone the opportunity to find excitement and new insights in the otherwise monotony of life.