Gathering In The New Normal

Diwali Lights

October is my favorite month of the year for various reasons. It signals the onset of major festivals that I celebrate – Navratri and Diwali. Plus, it’s also my birthday month. This year I was looking forward to a special kind of celebration in October because the launch of my book, Rewriting My Happily Ever After – A Memoir of Divorce and Discovery, was planned for the middle of October. Sadly though, I was unable to celebrate any of these in the way I would have liked, thanks to a combination of events outside my control. 

 

Old and new ways of celebration

As a child I looked forward to the nine nights of Navratri. At home, my mother and grandmother would set up a towering display of magnificent dolls and collectibles. Spread out (over seven or even nine steps), elaborately painted softwood dolls from Kondapalli displaying weddings and village scenes sat side by side besides delicate glass bird figurines that a granduncle had brought back from a trip to Europe decades ago. Every year an item or two would be added to this collection from travels to various cities. 

In the evening, women and children visited our home, dressed in their finest sarees and stayed long enough to sing a song and enjoy the traditional sweet and savory prasad. Nights were even more fun. In the space between the three buildings that formed our apartment complex women would gather to sing and dance the garba followed by a spirited twirling of the dandiya sticks in tune with peppy music. Amidst the swirling of their long skirts and billowing sarees, the women seemed to discard their regular ‘haggard mother’ and ‘disgruntled daughter-in-law’ look and glowed in the glare of cheap light bulbs that hung from a string. 

When I moved to the US as a young woman, I missed this annual ritual that celebrated divine feminine energy and also gave the women of my mother’s generation a break from the monotony of their quotidian lives. Upon the birth of my daughter in California, my mother encouraged me to revive the tradition of ‘golu’, the doll display that she had adopted. Since my weekdays were busy with work, I was happy to start small and restricted my invitation to my women friends to the weekend. I tried to replicate the traditional prasad in my kitchen and looked forward to hanging out with my girlfriends.

 

Pandemic blues

In Singapore, I resumed the Navratri tradition that I had originally started in California and later continued in Hyderabad. Although I didn’t have many friends the first year we arrived, I gradually increased my circle to a fairly large number, necessitating daily get-togethers over the nine days to ensure I could invite everyone and spend enough time catching up. Given our busy lives, I was able to meet some friends only once a year during Navratri. 

My collection of dolls grew from what I had inherited from my mother to include a set of Matryoshka dolls, a porcelain whirling dervish from Turkey, knick knacks from Bali and other souvenirs picked up from travels to various countries in the ensuing years.

When the pandemic forced us to stop all travel, shelter in place and then switch completely to working from home in early 2020, I did not foresee that the restrictions would continue until Oct and beyond. A new normal meant changing the very nature of our gathering.

“Gathering – the conscious bringing together of people for a reason – shapes the way we think, feel and make sense of our world. The way we gather matters,” says Priya Parker, Author of The Art of Gathering – How we meet and why it matters.

The restrictions in 2021 were stricter than the previous year. Just as I wondered how to organise this year’s celebration, I was struck by severe back pain. While I struggled to find the right doctor, figure out the diagnosis and treatment options, I wrestled with the decision to go ahead with the annual Navratri gathering. Unable to walk or move freely without pain, I gave up on the plan altogether.

 

All the losses we cannot see

From my uncomfortable resting spot on my bed, I wondered about the long term effects of Covid-19. Even as the world slowly limps back to some version of normal, accommodating the virus and treating the disease as endemic, there is so much devastation and distress that we are just becoming aware of. The irreversible damage caused to children in India who may never go back to school again, the increase in domestic violence cases, the skyrocketing of mental health issues and the physical effects of working from home without any boundaries between personal and professional life are difficult to quantitate but easy to observe.

My mother and grandmother were housewives. Their everyday world was restricted to the routines of their homes and the needs of their families. But even in their circumscribed existence, there were festivals, and weddings, baby showers and celebrations where they met and talked and sang, cooked and ate and laughed with their peers and for a while shed the demands of daily lives, temporarily turning into younger, carefree versions of themselves.

Even though I have always had a busy career, every October I made time and space to take stock of my collection of dolls, made plans to invite my new friends over to my home and in a small way, took stock of how far I had come.

As my book launch day approached, I knew there would be no physical gathering due to extrinsic factors but I would also be unable to even host a live online event due to my health issues. So I did the next best thing that was possible. I rounded up friends I had made over the course of my writing journey and held short audio interviews with them. We talked about reading, writing, reaching out and what results as a result of all this. A community.

When we open ourselves to old and new ways of doing things, tweaking and striking a balance between what is possible and what is practical, we find new ways to come together. Sometimes it is in person. And at other times, virtual.

As the cliche goes, change is the only constant. And so we do what humans have always done – adapt and improvise.


 Ranjani Rao is a scientist by training, writer by avocation, originally from Mumbai, and a former resident of USA, who now lives in Singapore with her family. She is the author of three books and is the co-founder of Story Artisan Press. Her latest book, Rewriting My Happily Ever After – A Memoir of Divroce and Discovery is now available. She loves connecting with readers at her website and at Medium | Twitter | Facebook | Instagram

Photo by Jyoti Singh on Unsplash


 

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