I ONCE SPENT several months in Pondicherry, on the southeastern coast of India. Pondy, as it's called, was an overgrown small town, a place that had retained its traditional village rhythms even though its population had swelled to hundreds of thousands.
I lived in an area teeming with the poorest of the poor, whose dwellings were small, flimsy shacks. The residential streets were unpaved. Since no one had a radio or record player, the government installed, on telephone poles, cheap tinny-sounding speakers that played - all day long - the hypnotic caterwaul of All-India Radio.
Every morning before dawn, I would walk on a dirt road to the ashram where I studied yoga. And every morning, in front of every house, there was a woman, or maybe a girl - always a female - carrying out a particular ritual.
First, using a whisk broom on the dirt road in front of her house, each woman would clear a space of about 5 feet square. Then, using finely ground white rice powder held at the tips of her fingers, each would bend down and put dots on the road. Then, with the same white powder, she would connect the dots and form a delicate, symmetrical pattern. The entire ceremony would take about an hour, and it was performed every day without fail.
Each house had its own unique design, different from that of its neighbors. This ritual had existed since time immemorial, having been passed down from mother to daughter, to each succeeding generation. And it still goes on.
In that part of South India, this mandala-like drawing is called a Kolam, which comes from the Dravidian word for "beauty."
Perhaps it would have been more accurate to have used a word that means "fleeting beauty," because within seconds after a Kolam is drawn, its destruction begins: by bullocks, people walking to work, old women selling dung patties that are used for fuel, carts delivering vegetables, cows ambling down the road. From the moment each drawing is ceremoniously laid down, the whole noisy, chaotic scene of South India tramples on top of it and grinds it back to dust. Within minutes, there isn't a trace left.
Then, the following morning, the process begins again.
Kolams are very important to the people of South India. My neighbors believed to their core that by creating a Kolam every day, they connected with powers that would protect the house and its inhabitants.
I've thought a lot about that since the tsunamis hit that part of the world. To be sure, South India has not suffered as much as Indonesia, Sri Lanka or Thailand, but it has suffered nonetheless: several thousand dead and many thousands of homes destroyed. I'm sure that some of my former neighbors, the women who drew Kolams each morning, had their shacks destroyed and their possessions washed away. No doubt some of these women, or members of their families, perished.
I'm also certain that as the dirt roads dried, the women who survived went outside and placed dots one by one on the ground, then filled them in with the same drawing that they had always made. Even in those cases where there was no longer a house left standing, I'm sure that the ritual continued day after day.
Why would someone do that? My former neighbors would say that if it hadn't been for the Kolams, the destruction would have been much worse.
But there must be other reasons for the daily ritual. Indians know as well as anybody that the world can turn ugly and senseless in an instant. So maybe they feel it's important to create a little bit of order and symmetry and beauty every day, even if it lasts for only a few seconds.
There's something else. My neighbors instinctively understood that the daily Kolam is a confirmation of the ephemeral nature of things. Nothing lasts. Everything passes. By spending an hour every day making a drawing that's destroyed as soon as it's finished, my neighbors were recognizing that the human being, and all human endeavor, could be destroyed in the blink of an eye. Just like that.
In the face of unimaginable poverty, disaster and tragedy, of forces that seem totally indifferent to our fate, a daily reminder that anything and everything can disappear in a heartbeat can be strangely comforting.
Roberto Loiederman, who grew up in Baltimore, is co-author of The Eagle Mutiny.