Rituals of death and dead cultures

Being pissed off at something makes me write. I am pissed off at many things right now. Mostly, I can direct all my anger, frustration and irritation at one word: RITUALS.

Rituals are like flies in India. They are everywhere, they survive, they hop around your food, your mouth, your eyes, sitting, peeing, pooping on your face. They are mostly irritating and sometimes make you feel like you might want to swat your own face to get rid of them. But you can’t really. You might swat, stand up, shrug, dance, frit, fly, run, walk all you want, the flies will come back and sit on you everywhere to poop and pee.

If you have lived in India long enough (and I have since I was born) chances are you have met Mr Ritual. Indians love him (and I am using gender-specific pronoun here). That is why, everytime there is a festival, someone is born (is it a boy! oh, no it’s a girl), someone reaches a certain age (puberty, let’s celebrate blood), someone gets married, someone gets kids, someone celebrates, someone conducts a pooja (5gm cloves, 3 pieces of beetle nuts and two tilaks please), on vrats, on days you eat, on days you fast, on special days, or on when you die. There’s a ritual for everything. There are rules you have to follow to appease gods, ancestors, deities, families, husband’s families, and innumerable other people (and some gods) who you don’t really want to even know.

Since these rituals have been made by prissy, patriarchally-oriented granddaddies of our culture (Manu, some of the rishis and oodles of other brahmins, dads and granddads after them) and are delicately conserved by the female part of the family, they are usually regressive in nature, especially for the women of the family. They want to keep women of the family in purdah, busy in either making food or cleaning, or making food, or bathing themselves, or did I mention making food? These rituals also demand that the daughters-in-law and wives in a household of traditional loving Indian family, demand money/gifts/stuff from their own families of before marriage. And these rituals demand from the men of the family to do vague things like mantra, poojas—actions which are robotic and laid down in the holy books – through which they can appease gods, ancestors and family members and make their stand in society.

In other words, all these little rituals keep everyone busy and safely away from questioning. Safely away to ask why is everyone so busy in rituals? Why are these fly-like rituals everywhere, surrounding us in a flurry of things-to-do lists? Why don’t people in India look behind these rituals and see what they are trying to tell their gods through them? Why does no one see the suffering, the stuffiness, the prissiness of it all?

So I reached a conclusion. And I learnt it from flies. Flies who are wiser than us, and everywhere. They don’t change their lifestyle. You can swat them all you want, hunt them down with spears, guns, bombs or even hatchets. There will be simply more in number than you can attack. India’s too hot (and too stuck up) a country to not have flies and rituals.

The question is, have flies become so much a part of you that you would not even notice their existence? Have you become immune to the fact that they are nothing but flies?

I always thought that emotions cannot be told in mere prose. Here’s a poem I wrote for the occasion.



Rituals of death and dead cultures

Oh rituals, rituals

Of a shawl

On a dead, cold body.

Of a feast

Sponsored by a daughter-in-law’s house


The death toll of voices

Rises in my head

Guilt, gone

Respect, gone

Belief, gone

All dead, lying wastrel in the ashes

Of the red-eyed phoenix


The hawk-eyed bird rises

A fury with a thousand eyes

and a million mouths

Burning with the desire

To destroy, to burn, to convert

To ashes.

© Shweta Taneja, 2011

2 Replies to “Rituals of death and dead cultures”

  1. Yeah and as a foreigner living in India if I dare ask what is the reason or meaning of a ritual people generally blank saying” why it is an ancestral practice and is part of tradition…hmmm if someone ask me about the Christmas tree or Baptism I can give a far more detailed explanation, traditions do not mean that the meaning should be lost if it is a meaningful thing. So yeah when I get the “it’s tradition we have to do it” I find myself wondering how important it is if everybody forgot why it is done in the first place.

Comments are closed.