The Queen of Names
“. . . Do not call me Kirti!” Kitty shouted over her shoulder as she slammed the door and walked out into the sunlit concrete steps that led to the street.
This was a little unusual, even for a Sunday routine in the Mehta house. Kitty’s mother would begin the day with an insistence on the entire family’s attending her morning puja, the ritualistic worship she conducted before an array of framed pictures and little statues in a corner of the living room as it met the kitchen. Mr. Mehta had installed a few specially cut shelves for the gods’ repose and Mrs. Mehta had bought special red velvet cloths from Omkar Industries, the shop that sold all things religious. The gods sat contentedly in their corner, monitoring the sunrise as it entered the house, watching the goings-on of the Mehta household with an unchanging demeanor and their typical Sphinx-like half-smile.
The ritual itself felt strange and awkward to Kitty, no matter that she had been forced into it ever since she could remember, and probably even before. The family stood behind Mrs. Mehta and did their best to keep up with her stucco voice she reserved for chanting the shlokas. Finally, there was the aarti, and Mrs. Mehta’s puja plate with its flowers and little diya lamp sketched luminous circles before the gods and the attendees clapped their hands to keep time. Once the aarti was sung, the puja was concluded and everyone got a bite of jaggary and ghee. Kitty, the oldest of the Mehta children, was expected to set an example to follow for the younger children and it was to her mother’s unending grief that her oldest daughter refused point-blank to be a devout Hindu. The older Mrs. Mehta, Mr. Mehta’s mother, on her annual visits to their house, always clucked her tongue in sympathy and censure every time Kitty rolled her eyes at the puja or pretended deep sleep (and clear disinterest) during the night time stories from Hindu mythology.
Today was Dushera, one of the high holy days and the family was to spend the rest of the day at the local temple. The festivities were to start soon, with performances of parts from the Ramayana, especially the part where Rama destroys the demon, Ravan and rescues his wife, Sita. The children had been practicing for weeks and the word was that the volunteers had outdone themselves this year with the decorations and food. Mrs. Mehta, who could not suppress her excitement of the festival, hurried everyone along, so they would get decent seats for the performances that would end in burning of an effigy of Ravan, filled with fire-crackers, something that always delighted and alarmed the children. Kitty’s brother was to play Rama this year, and he had been practicing his skill with the bow and arrow so that the arrow would not miss Ravan tonight and fall limply at his own feet. Mrs. Mehta was very proud, of course and her bustling this year was shot with extra electricity.
Kitty did not want to go and therein lay her mother’s renewed grief. She wanted to attend a Halloween party that Shania, the coolest girl in 7th grade, was throwing tonight. She and her mother had consequently been shouting and grumbling since morning, when Kitty emerged from her room dressed in black shorts and her old Patriots T-shirt.
“What are you wearing!” Mrs. Mehta exclaimed, “Today is Dushera! How can you . . . Go fast and change into something decent. What about that salwar-suit your Nanima gave you for your birthday? That’s pretty!”
“Why would I wear Nanima’s suit to a Halloween party? I am not going to the temple! It is boring!” Kitty rejoined.
“What you say? Boring? Listening, Pappaji?” Mrs. Mehta moaned, soliciting Mr. Mehta’s support, “Listening to your daughter or what? No respect only! This is our religion, No?”
“Maybe I would respect you and your religion more if you would respect my choices, Ma!” Kitty shouted back. “Why do you want to push religion down my throat? I am an American; I want to exercise my choices! And I choose Halloween today!”
Mrs. Mehta collapsed into the sofa she had been standing next to and began weeping with sincerity now.
“Ah! I have lost my child! She won’t visit temple on Dushera! All American she is become now! Hey Rama! It is all up to You now!”
“Oh stop, Ma!” Kitty said, exasperated, “And Rama cannot choose for me! All these religion-things are just stories, Ma, stories! They are not real!”
“Beta, these very stories . . .” Mrs. Mehta began.
But Kitty interrupted her, “And what stories! Why couldn’t we have the normal princess-fairy-tale stories for our bedtime? Why these strange and weird stories with names and places no one can pronounce?”
She shook her head.
“No, Ma! I am tired of all this! I want a normal life! I cannot understand the goody-goody wife that this Sita is, or why Rama is worshipped when he treats his goody-goody wife so abysmally, or why it’s ok for Radha to have an affair with her crush but I am not allowed to have boyfriends, or what is the big deal about frying an iron berry? How can ANY normal person relate to such things? They have nothing to do with real life!”
“But Kirti . . .” Mrs. Mehta began, using Kitty’s given name. But Kitty hated the extra “R” in her name and had re-named herself in first grade. Mrs. Mehta’s insistence on using that strange name was the last straw.
“Do not call me Kirti, Ma,” She shouted and huffed out of the house.
It was a bright October day, a gift, it seemed, from the dreary season. Even here, in Florida, the supposedly Sunshine State, the sun was often not seen for days as most Fall and Winter days would be cloudy. But not today!
“After all, it IS Dushera!” Kitty murmured to herself.
It was hours before Shania’s party and Kitty was not going back into the house she had just left in a huff. She walked around a bit and found herself at the Museum next to the public library. This library was one of her favorite places and she started to enter it when she saw the Dragon Lady at the Front Desk that doubled as a Reference Center. Kitty owed the library fines and this Lady was likely to bellow about it.
And so she turned to the Museum.
It was deserted at this hour in the morning. The old caretaker was dusting the front lobby when Kitty tried to open the doors. But they were locked. The Museum was scheduled to open in an hour. But Kitty must have looked dejected, because the old man unlocked the door and ushered her in.
“Just getting ready, you see?” He said, in his old-man shaky voice, “New exhibit opens today, you see?”
“Oh?” Kitty said absently.
“Oh yes, you see, to honor the Hindoo New Year.” Then he peered at her and asked, “You are a Hindoo?”
“Oh I don’t know!” She replied.
“Well. Feel free, you see. Go on. Real beautiful things and paintings. Real pretty queens,” He said.
“Queens? What queens?” Asked Kitty.
“Go on. You’ll see. They got a section in there. Corridor of Queens. Real pretty pictures. Go on,” he said.
“Thanks!” Kitty said as she stepped into the cool interior with thoughtfully placed lighting. The first room was the main exhibit. There were puja things, very similar to the ones at home, placed on pedestals with special lighting to highlight their nature and purpose. In the next room, there were paintings and photographs of people celebrating various holidays. The third room held art relating to mythological characters and events. This room was called the Corridor of Queens, as a great deal of the art had mythological women as subjects.
The muted lighting and quiet of the Museum had begun to affect Kitty and she no longer felt angry and distressed. The recognition of the puja items in the first exhibit made her heart cringe a little, as she remembered Mrs. Mehta’s distress earlier that morning. It was a festival day and she, Kitty, had to choose this day to highlight and repeat her feelings about the faith that Mrs. Mehta was trying to convey to her children.
Kitty shook her head and walked on. She saw the uncomplicated joy on people’s faces as they celebrated Holi; the indescribable calm and light on the face of a woman lighting a diya for Diwali; the intense concentration on the face of the youth aiming for the 12-foot Ravan effigy’s neck. She thought to herself that even though faith (of any domination) may mean nothing to her, it was a real thing for these people in the photographs. She trusted Physics, Chemistry, Biology, while these people, like her mother, trusted something they could not see or even understand, like she understood the principles of Sciences and Mathematics.
“The things people choose to fool themselves with!” Kitty thought to herself. She was sure that at any time in her life that she’d have to make choices, she would not think of divinities. She would think empirically, logically, and then make her choice. She’d not be the one to waste her precious morning moments in puja rituals and the hollow chanting of shlokas! She’d not be the one to force her children into a religion they didn’t like and couldn’t feel kinship with!
Kitty was still shaking her head as she entered the third exhibit. Here the lighting was even lower than in the other two rooms. The walls on both sides seemed to stand up only to support the delicate miniature paintings. The light scones around each painting were calculated to cause the least damage to the work itself, yet highlight its features and colors to their utmost. The darkness around each painting helped the viewer focus on the work and its subject, to the exclusion of the world around.
Unconsciously, Kitty slowed down her steps and thoughts. She looked around, trying to adjust to the new darkness. She turned to the first painting, the first bit of light in the mistiness of the room.
The title simply said, “Sita.”
There was something dignified about the figure of the woman who sat under the tree, seemingly deep in thought. She had the dignity of long suffering, with the air of someone is determined to keep speaking in spite of being continually misunderstood. The tree she sat beneath was in flower, but the flowers strewn around her were lotus blossoms, not from the tree. The sight of the lotus seemed to calm the woman, yet the viewer was conscious of unshed tears and a hint of crease on the forehead. A couple of fingers that rested on her bent knee were raised, as though she had just begun to reach for the lotus. She had a simple ornament on her brow, but otherwise, her arms, neck, and ankles were bare. It was difficult to identify the exact part of the epic depicted in the picture; Sita could be sitting in a forest in her father’s kingdom of Mithila, or in Panchvati during her exile with Rama, in Ravan’s garden after her abduction from Rama, or in the forests of her final exile from Ayodhya.
Kitty found herself transfixed by the peace and grief on Sita’s face. As she looked at the portrait, Sita reached for the lotus, picked one up and brought it to her face to inhale its fragrance. Then she looked up at Kitty and smiled.
“Thank you for the flowers,” Sita said.
“But I didn’t . . .” Kitty started to say.
But Sita had begun speaking and would tell her story yet one more time.