Sunday, September 14, 2008

What Posh Means


Friday at lunch we talk about the diversity of India. Amar mentions there is a state in the northeast, Meghalaya, that is matriarchal. Land is passed from daughter to daughter. All the shopkeepers are women. The population is heavily Christian. “You go here and everything is completely different,” Amar says.

I wonder how many Christians there are in India. Amar says maybe two percent, but he says in a country of so many people, two percent is a lot: millions and millions of people. This helps explain why it seems like there are so many Sikhs too, when their proportion is only about two percent as well. Sikhs, also, are unmistakable in their turbans, wearing their copper kara (bracelets). They are easy to see, so that, too, probably makes their numbers seem larger.

In the afternoon I take a walk with Shabnum. We talk about the diversity of languages in India. I wonder if all the different languages keep people from travelling, if the languages increase the sense of insularity that people feel. Does language have anything to do with the violence and hatred between communities?

Shabnum says it’s not as bad as it used to be. Television has actually made a big difference. Lots of people learn Hindi from watching, so can better communicate with others. Her own grandmother picked it up from watching Indian soap operas. These are funny affairs with lots of extreme close ups and dramatic music and women who go to sleep in full make-up, wearing saris.

After work I go to Julianne’s house. She’s invited me over for another Bollywood night, and she’s made amazing homemade soup and bread. Her mother just made the soup and she was missing it, so she made some for herself.

We watch Namaste London, a film about a woman who has grown up in London, but whose father wants her to marry a traditional Indian man. She is engaged to a white guy who turns out to be totally insensitive and stands by when an old man at a party calls India a backwards land of snake charmers. In the meantime, her father takes her on a trip to India where he marries her off to a Punjabi man from a small village. She comes back to London and says the marriage isn’t legal, then resumes making plans to marry the insensitive white guy. Her Punjabi groom says he loves her truly and will wait for her for as long as it takes. At the very end of the movie, she leaves her insensitive white guy at the altar in favor of the Punjabi groom. Tradition triumphs. I’m a little disappointed. The Punjabi groom seemed kind of creepy. He drank milk straight from a cow and there was this disturbing scene where he put his hand over the heroine’s mouth, held a lighter up near her face and asked her what her name was. I hadn’t fallen in love with the Punjabi groom by the end of the movie the way the heroine had.

When the movie’s over, we talk about how strange it’s going to be when I go back. Julianne said the first time she came to India, she stayed for a month and when she got back, the houses just seemed so unnecessarily big. “What do you need all this for?” she wondered.

We also talk about Indian culture and the propensity for long, serpentine storytelling when a few sentences would accomplish the same end. Julianne says when she was watching her friend Maurine’s house, one day she went over there and there was water on the floor of the bathroom and a picture had been knocked off the wall. She asked the house helper what happened. The story started, then, on last week Tuesday when all she really needed to know was that the air conditioner had leaked. It’s the same way in church when the Indian man leads the sermons. It’s a long, circular, repetitive story when there is really only one quick point: we should walk with God. I wonder how much of this comes from being immersed in an oral rather than a written culture.

It’s the same with Hinduism where there is no one central text that the religion revolves around. Beliefs and practices are passed down orally, by the mothers in the families, Julianne says. So for each storyteller, the story may change. So as many storytellers as there are, that’s how many Hinduisms there are. Julianne says that Islam has the Five Pillars and Christianity has the Ten Commandments, but understanding Hinduism is like trying to nail Jello to the wall. Traditions are personal and familial in nature, rather than guided by an unchanging text. It can’t be understood in western terms. You need a whole other paradigm for thinking about it.

It strikes me that trying to find your way around Delhi is also affected by the oral nature of the culture here. There are few street signs and where there are addresses, they don’t necessarily progress in a linear fashion. Even the locals find their way around by stopping and asking passersby if they know where such-and-such is. The catch to this oral tradition of navigation is that no one wants to tell you “no,” so if a person doesn’t know where something is, they’ll just make up something. So you often get wrong directions. No matter. You just ask another person until eventually, someone points you in the right direction.

We talk until late into the night. I’m impressed with how observant and insightful Julianne is for her age. She’s done a lot and seen a lot and it shows.

Julianne makes the bed in her apartment’s spare bedroom. This bedroom has its own bathroom with shower. As I marvel at how nice this is, I catch myself. In the United States, I would have thought this place was junky, with a cracked concrete wall and a moldy shower curtain. But in Indian terms, it’s downright uptown. I’m finally beginning to feel that my standards have shifted. I finally understand what posh means.


GrandTrunk Road said...

The bomb blasts in Delhi on the 13th was unnerving for many outside India and outside Delhi. I expected to read something in your blogs since you know some of the areas ---Barakhamba Road, Connaught Place. Glad to see that you're safe.

Vicki said...

The blasts were quite unnerving, to say the least. So unnerving that I fell behind in blogging. Please read on for my commentary on the subject. I and everyone I know here are safe and avoided any consequences. It makes me sad, though, to see India a victim once again to this kind of terror. It happens all too often all over here. Thanks for your concern.