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Multicultural event in Houston

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    Multicultural event in Houston
    Multicultural event in Houston
    Copyright 1999 Houston Chronicle

    When Natesan "Nat" Krishnamurthy turned 60, he considered a number of options.

    Perhaps a cruise with his wife, Leela, and their three children. Or a long, extensive vacation to India and other exotic locales. Maybe a lively party packed with friends from around the globe.
    Instead, he and his family decided to celebrate in a most traditional fashion, the colorful South Indian rite of passage known as Sashtiyabda Poorthi.
    But typical of the lifestyle it has lived since coming to the United States, the family decided to approach it as a multicultural event, inviting Christians, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists and fellow Hindus.
    "We wanted it to be cross-cultural, because that is the way our parents raised us," Gita Krishnamurthy, 28, said. "Children are supposed to do this, though many have decided against it."
    Gita, her 34-year-old sister, Sujata, and their brother, Sanjay, 25, spent more than a year planning the elaborate weekend event from their homes in Southern California. The three opened a savings account, with automatic deductions, so they could pay for the celebration, which they expected to run more than $15,000.
    The siblings balanced Friday's religious celebration at the Sri Meenakshi Temple in Pearland with a Saturday night party, where a disc jockey played both Indian and Western music.
    And they were right in their choice. The night before the ceremony, the Krishnamurthy's Sugar Land home was packed with family and friends from the western United States, Belgium and India.
    Leela and Nat beamed with pride as their family and friends partied. As Nat offered mango margaritas, the women gathered around Leela, waiting to get their hands painted with henna in elaborate patterns known as a mehndi.
    "This family just pulls you in," said Susan Tucker, a friend from Los Angeles who works with Gita. "Nat and I share the same birthday. I was at his 59th party, and he invited me to his 60th. This is about honoring your parents and their heritage. It's not something you see every day. I can't think of a similar Western celebration."

    The Sashtiyabda Poorthi, in fact, is usually celebrated only in South India, where both Leela and Nat were born. It is unique, Nat said, among all the rituals, ceremonies and celebrations in a Hindu's life.
    In the past, Leela explained, because of India's high mortality rate, it was not common to reach the age of 60. When a man did, it was cause for great celebration.
    "Let's face it, you can't live to be 60 without the help and blessing of lots of people," Nat said. "Life never plays it easy, there's lots of ups and downs, and you need the support."
    In a guide to the ceremony for his non-Hindu friends, he explained that Hindus look at life in three phases. The third phase starts at 60, when it is time to sit back, enjoy life and watch your children's life progress.
    And that is exactly what Nat Krishnamurthy plans to do. In June he retired as director of planning for Texaco, and since then he and his wife of 35 years have traveled extensively. And watched as their children's careers progress: Sanjay is in law school in San Diego. Sujata is a publicist for Universal Music. Gita, a psychotherapist, works with emotionally disturbed children. The sisters share a house in Los Angeles.
    "I'm so excited," Nat said of his third phase. "I have so many years ahead of me and hopefully they will be productive ones, so I can give back to the community."
    A western 60th birthday party concentrates on the individual. But the birthday party of a South Indian man who has completed 60 years includes his wife in a prominent way. It is celebrated as a renewal of the marriage vows in a traditional wedding ceremony and, like a bride, she shares the day with him.
    Friday morning found the couple in the temple's main hall, Leela in a green-and-orange sari and Nat in a traditional dhoti. The fruit and flowers were there, as were the trays of sweets and brass vessels that later would contain water to be blessed by a Hindu priest. A fragrant Indian meal would be served that afternoon in the banquet hall.

    Before their guests arrived, the Krishnamurthys broke open a fresh coconut.
    "It represents two symbols. You bring food for the offering to God," Nat said. "And when you enter a temple you have to leave your ego behind. When you break the coconut in half, it represents leaving the ego behind."
    As guests started to trickle in, Nat and Leela nervously checked their outfits.
    "This sari is 9 yards long, and that's a lot of material for me," she said. "It has to be tucked up like pajamas on the bottom, and I worry because there is no slip underneath."
    The couple settled down with their priest, exchanged long, fragrant flower garlands and began the prayers that ask for God's blessing. Though Nat's birthday was Oct. 23, Nov. 12 was picked by the priest as a more auspicious day for the celebration.

    The 3 1/2-hour ceremony was an abridged version of an event that can take several days in India, but still included many ancient prayers and the lighting of fire, part of every Hindu ritual. None of the 300-plus guests seemed to mind the length.
    "We're all just here to be with the people we love," said Erica Leben, a high-school friend of Gita's.
    The long event soon resembled what Leela earlier explained it would be like: "a Grand Central Station celebration, with people walking in and out.
    "I remember taking a friend of my daughter's to an Indian wedding and she said (of the people leaving): `Isn't it rude?' I said: `No, because the ceremony is so long.' "
    The fun part -- at least for the guests -- came just before the renewal of vows, when holy water from the bronze vessels was poured over the couple.
    As the guests lined up outside to pour water over the increasingly waterlogged Krishnamurthys, their high-spirited children cheered each time they were doused. Many of the Americans appeared apologetic, but the Indian friends joked about revenge.

    Gita, dressed in a pink sari, compared it to throwing rice.
    "I thought I was going to make the Guinness Book of World Records for the longest pouring of water," Leela laughed later. "But my favorite part was when the children were onstage and I could hear their voices praying with us for the family."
    As the waterlogged couple disappeared to dry up for the vows, the laughing guests strolled back into the hall.
    Among the guests, Indian novelist Chitra Divakaruni stood talking to Pakistani writer Bapsi Sidhwa.
    "Nat and Leela are very well-loved in the community," said Divakaruni, who recently moved to Houston. "They are very fun-loving, but also traditional, and they reach out to other communities. They have been involved in UNICEF, helped found the temple and are very open-minded in their values and friendships."
    As Nat and Leela returned in different outfits -- Leela in a dark blue silk sari with a red trim -- the guests applauded, then watched seriously as the pair exchanged vows and the bridegroom tied the wedding knot around his bride.
    A group of women began singing, then danced in a circle, clapping their hands and laughing, their colorful saris flashing purple, green, blue and yellow as they moved back and forth.

    "Well, we've married them off," Sujata joked to her brother and sister. "I don't think they will back out now."
    In the days that followed, friends called to thank Leela and Nat for being included in the celebration. Nat hopes it will help people understand and learn more about Hinduism. Leela hopes for that and more.
    "All my life I have tried to be multicultural," she said. "I think we all have to march into whatever occasion there is, especially as we go into the new millennium."