Wednesday, May 18, 2005

That thing called Culture

There's an auto stand at the end of my road and it's the end everyone loves to avoid. People are constantly urinating there, mostly the auto drivers. This week the Association came up with a solution. Two big pictures of Lord Ganesha were stuck up there. Just as expected, now that end is a mini temple. The Great Indian Culture!

The topic of Indian culture came up very often when I was rallying for my brother's inter-race wedding. Everyone in the family was so worried about how the 'culture' would be burnt away. So I paused to think - how much of the culture are we following anyway?

I'm not particularly proud of the culture that frowns at the birth of a girl child. Or even worse, kills it by smothering it. Our's is the culture which doesnt educate the girl child and marries her off before she reaches the waist of her mother. When she has to get married, along with her goes tons of gold, almirahs, cars, documents of ownership for land and a house. Maybe the earlier events happen only in rural areas and in uneducated families but dont you even dare and deny me the existence of dowry even in the richest families. Worry not, if you are male, from either a Malayalee Christian/ Telugu family and reading this from Bush's kingdom, you are easily worth atleast fifty lakhs. That's Five Million, darlings.

We are also the great culture which has divided us into a few zillion castes and subcastes. We practised untouchabitlity and sometimes still do. Our ancestors did not even allow the lower caste women to cover their chests. Even today, I hear noon meal scheme has been stopped in Bihar because it is being cooked by Dalits. Dont even get me started about the Babri masjid or the Godhra or the Coimbatore Bomb Blasts (something I saw from up close). Maybe that's something that happens only with the fanatics. But would your parents gladly let you marry a Muslim if you a Hindu or vice-versa?

In our culture men and women marry the people their parents choose or in some cases force down their throats.
Your parents wouldve told you that arranged marriages work and that's why India has a lower rate of divorces. Totally Mistaken.
In our country many men and women grit their teeth and tolerate the torture called marriage. All for the sake of their parents, their children and of course, their society. And also because they arent independant- which is again because they werent educated. Divorce is totally taboo, even if you'd be better off without your alcoholic, wife- abusing excuse for a husband. So take a second and count all your aunts, uncles, cousins, mausis, attimbers, periappas and chittis who are stuck in bad marriages and there - we have the real divorce rate of India.

We are the country who came up with Kama Sutra and the most sexy garment ever- the Saree. But while men can urinate in public, you cant even kiss.
We are the people with the horoscopes, the thousand gods and godesses and the Vaasthu shastra. But while the rich get richer, the poor get children.

I do like a lot of things in our culture but i think we just practise as much as anybody else in any other country does with their own. I like the way we respect people, books, animals and even our dvd players. I like the way we keep our parents with us when they grow older. I like the way we wait till marriage before living together.

Of course there are exceptions to everything here. But I'm only making a small point. What is it that impressive in our culture that we easily put down other cultures?

Saturday, May 07, 2005

The final journey

I met her for the first time about a year ago. She is my cousin's wife- 41 years of age. I vaguely remember telling her that she is the only member of the family who has been in the family ever since I can remember, but somehow never got to meet.

I hate funerals. And this is precisely why I avoid them like crazy.

It's been 44 days since she died. Noone is clear how, it's either an asthma attack or a heart attack that killed her. She was working as a nurse in Saudi Arabia. She apparently lives right across the hospital , yet, died at its doorstep before anything could be done. My cousin was about 500 miles away at the time.
The Saudi government wouldnt allow to cremate her there. They took 44 painful days to clear her papers and send her in a aluminium coffin filled with cotton and saw dust. She is a Catholic but her church in Kerala wouldnt bury her since she had married a Hindu. So she was to take her final journey from my grandfather's house.

When a person dies, there is immense grief, there are thoughts rushing into your head and you just want to cry looking at the lifeless body. But what would happen if the body comes after 44 days? Is the grief still there? Is it a little lesser since the person's time on earth is extended a little? or is it more?

The van had not arrived yet from the airport. People had started streaming in. Passers-by looked at the bright red shamiana and peeked in, expecting to see gaiety and finding none. I stood in the hall looking at the different faces seeing how many I could identify. Noone seemed like they were here for a funeral. Impending weddings were being discussed as were childbirths and new houses.
Someone announced that the van would be arriving in a few minutes - a call had been recieved. Before the message reached the ears of everyone in the house I could see a white van stalling at the gate. It backed into the gate with a shrilling tone of Jingle Bells. My cousin and his daughter got off, followed by three other people. Someone then lowered the coffin to the wide bench kept for it.

How soon we start calling a person 'it'. It doesnt take much at all. What should I be doing now? Do I go near the doorstep? Or do I just stay here with the rest of the ladies?
All thoughts went to A~ . She seems calm. Is it because she has already mourned enough over the past month and a half? Or is it because she has never lived with her mom? Would she break down today? Is that what everyone is thinking about?

They opened the coffin slowly and a strong smell overwhelmed me- women hurriedly brought saree ends to their noses and men took a step back. It was formalin , I think. This was what was keeping the rot away.
Someone shouted for scissors and I could see it being returned in a few minutes. I couldnt see much of what was happenning- old ladies pushed their way to the front and all I could see were oiled hair loosely tied in buns of different shapes and sizes. I could see wisps of smoke from a bunch of incense sticks. I couldnt see the plaintain which I imagined they were stuck into. 'Om namo narayana' was playing in the background. The ladies in front of me moved forward and I could suddenly see her lying there. Our second meeting.

I'm having a few million thoughts rush to my mind now. The first of which is to close my eyes and just dissappear from this scene. The incense smell is too much - too unnatural. Like some smells remind you of some events, this one is also rushing in memories. Like ten years back, the last time I'd confronted the death of someone so closely. The image of the day still so clear. Come back, girl. You are much older now. You havent shed a tear for people you have known even more. Why would you get affected for this? I'm bang in the midst of so much of grief, so much of tears and so much of pain. If I dont feel anything now I wouldnt be human at all.

Two nuns walked in carrying books and their rosaries. Soon we heard them raise their voice in a prayer. Half in English, half in Malayalam. The 'Om namo nama' is turned down in reverence to the religion of the departed soul. There are hushed voices- most noticing the smooth intermingling of the two religions. One she was born with and the other she married into. Someone was telling how she would devoutly fast on all the Hindu auspicious days and with that more appreciation flows in. The short service is over. The womenfolk move into the house leaving a few of us at the door and the daughter fanning her mother, for the last time. The men were talking in whispers, already wondering when the day will be over.
People walk around the body praying and I join in. We lay some flowers at her feet and pray for her soul. Her sisters place some silks at her feet, their silence at that instant is deafening. The coffin is slowly loaded back into the van . More Jingle Bells.

That was not very difficult. You survived it,beautiful. I hope this is the last funeral I ever have to go to. I hope I die before everyone I care for does. Why should people die? I hope I dont have many sleepless nights.

In an hour there were no others, just family. It was like nothing had happenned. Only the rose petals on the bench had a tale to tell.
My throat was parched and I walked towards the kitchen for some water. Everyone had moved to the bedrooms and bathrooms to have the mandatory bath. I took out a glassful from the pot in the empty kitchen and looked outside the window. Father and daughter were in a tight embrace, far away from the rest of the world. Softly they reassured each other, with wet and swollen faces, how they would be there for one another, for the rest of their lives. I leaned back on the wall, out of their sight, a lone tear escaping my eyes.

Maybe I am human, after all.