While doing a self-awareness essay for a psychology course I completed recently, I had to analyse how I structured my time. I realised just how sacrosanct certain rituals are for me, be it my morning coffee with the birds at the window and a lot more.
It got me thinking. How we are all creatures of habit and that although we say we want something new and exciting like a holiday, we often cling to our rituals even while travelling. I’ve often seen this with my guests from other countries while I’m showing them around Mumbai. They may be half-way around the world from their home, but they make their daily video call to their grandkids at the same time they always do, or one of them will do a quick check of the vehicle every time they get down from it because the spouse tends to forget things here and there. They may not even be carrying anything but continuing to do what they always do even back home makes the spouse doing the checking feel essential and responsible. Everyone has these little fixed routines. There’s comfort in the familiar and it gives you a feeling of having ticked all the boxes for the day, some sense of accomplishment even when other things in life may not be going your way particularly.
The pandemic has wrought its own set of rituals when you leave and re-enter the house. Mask? Check. Sanitiser? Check. And then all that cleaning and washing and sanitising once you’re back. At first, it seemed such a chore. Now, it’s become second nature. I often don’t even realise I’m putting on my mask, even in situations where I don’t need to! You gain some and you lose some. Rituals, that is. Like those who had rituals on their daily commute to college or work — listening to music, news or podcasts in the car, stopping for a coffee at Starbucks or vada pav at your favourite vendor, playing cards with your train buddies or catching up on videos and movies on your smartphone that you didn’t have any other time and privacy for in your busy life. The loss of such rituals has been felt by many of us.
The irony is that sometimes the comfort factor that they bring to our lives is the reason why we may go to such lengths of discomfort just to follow them. Think of the woman who likes reading the newspaper every morning. On a day when she doesn’t receive it, she gets a bit frantic. She’ll call the vendor to check. If he doesn’t answer the phone, she’ll get dressed and head to the booth herself or send the maid to pick up a copy quickly. Until she has the paper in her hands, her day probably hasn’t even started. And in her case, going digital just won’t do, because turning the pages, feeling the crinkle of the paper in her hands, smelling the newsprint, they’re all just as much part of her ritual as actually consuming the news.
Examining rituals in this way also made me understand why people devote so much time to worship and why there are often such rigid rules for how the religious rites must be done. It makes it easy to remember the steps when they’re always the same, and comforting to fall back on the familiar, especially in times of stress. Personally, I had always looked upon any ritualistic worship as empty, but I now have a new-found respect for it. The actions per se may be meaningless in reality, but it is the sense of routine, of belonging to something greater than just yourself that gives the religious a certain reassurance that the free-thinking agnostic, untethered and dangling dangerously, doesn’t.
It’s like when someone gets married or passes away. Those who are properly schooled in the rituals of their particular religion know EXACTLY what to do and how it must be done. They are the ones who direct the proceedings and, in the case of the death, can put aside their grief at the loss for a time, while they perform all the rites that are expected of them. Those who aren’t cognisant of the procedures have to struggle through on their own, minus the support of structure.
Rituals aren’t only about organised religion, of course. They can be about hedonistic pursuits as well. Like ‘beauty rituals’ that spas advertise, where you can be doused in everything from milk to chocolate to rose water to Multani mud, depending on whether you’re feeling like hot chocolate or rose-scented goop! And drinking rituals, where you need to look into each other’s eyes while clinking cheers, or how you chase a tequila shot by sucking on lime and salt.
No matter who you are or where you’re from, there’s bound to be an activity that you indulge in, in the same way daily, just to feel good and derive comfort and joy from. Take the Swedes, for example. Fika, which is all about sharing conversation over coffee and cake, has been elevated into a national ritual. They believe that making time for this is essential and nobody disturbs people who say they are having fika, while some companies even make fika breaks in office mandatory. Now that’s putting the right in rite, alright!