Culture curry

Looking within

Culture curry

Our heritage and identity are far more powerful and persistent than we realise. They follow us across time and continents, writes Bharati Motwani

Today, more than ever before, urban India is a fascinating, constantly shifting space where thousands of human strands collide and connect, as migrations and a market economy render distances of geography, culture and class less and less relevant. As cultural identities go into a free-fall, people scramble to re-imagine and redefine themselves. Into this re-imagining they throw in bits of nostalgia, pieces of individual aspiration, pepperings of prejudice, and scraps of pre-fab heritage. What is most fascinating and disturbing about this re-inventing of the self is that it can be done as easily as creating an online avatar in a virtual game. Just a couple of generations ago, most people’s understanding of identity was water-tight, defined by birth.

I and my siblings are children of immigrants from Sindh, now in Pakistan. When India was partitioned, our parents left behind not just their homes, but also their language and traditions. All we inherited were our rather large noses bequeathed by a Persian ancestor. We were born in post-Nehruvian India, fed on scientific temper and enlightened modernism. We rejected traditions and religion as obscurantist. We were educated in elite colonial era schools and colleges, thinking, feeling and making love in English literature. We protested when we had to fill in official forms that required us to state our religion, and broke out in a rash if asked our caste. When we married, naturally, we had inter-caste ‘love marriages’; naturally, we lived in nuclear families — it would have been unnatural and retrograde to do otherwise; and then, in the interests of egality and secularism in our parenting, we and our spouses jettisoned  narrow community walls, raising our children only on bland, generic pan-Indian customs to wit: Holi, Diwali, Rakhee, and a bit of Christmas.

Three of my four siblings settled outside India, raising their offspring with just about a nod to even those watered-down customs. As for language, only trace elements of Hindi remained, the regional tongues (four of them, including those of our spouses) being interred a generation earlier. For them, and for us in India, English was that wonderful bridge that connected east with west, and past with present.

For many years, all was quiet, as we immersed ourselves in the serious business of earning money, too busy to worry about culture and identity. One of us dug himself into a bunker on the green-backed slopes of Silicon Valley, working a 100-hour-week to save the world from e-viruses; a couple of us earned tax-free petrodollars in the dusty wake of the 1990 Gulf War; and others interfaced for Indian IT companies down-under in Australia. We that remained in India likewise reaped the rewards of the boom-time that liberalisation brought. We earned in three years what our parents earned in a lifetime. We had three cars per family, drank only foreign liquor, invested in real estate, and went on foreign vacations. We didn’t wonder who we were — we were cosmopolitan citizens of the world. Certainly we considered ourselves more sophisticated than our overseas relatives with their mass-produced clothes and CNN-informed political opinions.

And then suddenly there was a wedding in the family. The next generation had grown up without warning us, and the first of them in faraway Australia presented the girl of his choice to his parents. A beautiful, blue-eyed, golden-haired Catholic girl. The family was thrown into a paroxysm of excitement. Of course, there must be an Indian wedding! A traditional Hindu ceremony, in India of course, no question! If there was any irony in that, we missed it altogether. Just as it never occurred to us that the foreign-born groom had never thought of himself as Indian.

And so it fell to us in India to help organise the wedding. And more importantly, to figure out the rituals — those we had not just forgotten, but those we had actually never known — thanks to parents, ours, and those of our spouses — who were more interested in tea parties than thread ceremonies. So, willy-nilly, we found
ourselves appointed keepers of the Hindu sanskars.

It would have been simple enough to have put together a version of the mass-produced modern Indian wedding that hurtles through some four days of dizzying partying — with themed décor, Bollywood music, choreographed Bollywood dancing, Bollywood make-up, fake jewellery and costumes, and Bollywood-style ceremonies — all well-oiled by litres of alcohol and criminal quantities of food. But not only were we snobs — to our surprise, we discovered we were purists. We wanted authenticity and meaning. We wanted wedding songs from our ancestral villages in dialects we did not understand; we wanted rites that even our parents knew nothing of; we wanted to understand every shloka and invocation.

The father of the groom started taking Sanskrit tutorials. It had suddenly dawned on us that we were now officially family elders and that we needed to bequeath our children something more than the rather expensive education we had given them. We needed to give them a sense of their roots and perchance give ourselves some as well. As we fondly buttoned our sons in  achkans and bandh-galas, and wound them about with dhotis — attire their fathers, and even their grandfathers, had never worn — the mirror reflected back an image we fervently wanted to reclaim for them. Their rightful identity and traditions that the last two generations were guilty of having carelessly mislaid.

As it turned out, we were not the only ones getting enthusiastically proprietary about culture. The family priest — hitherto an easy-going, Sanskrit-to-English-translating, ceremony-abbreviating, yagna-improvising, Nano-driving gent — suddenly announced that there must be a pre-marriage janeu-ceremony. A man could not be a house-holder until he was ceremonially initiated into the Hindu fold.  Further, overthrowing years of liberal, moderate Arya Samaj thinking, he decreed that the Catholic bride must be converted, and even be given a Hindu name! While such an announcement ought to have had us all fall about in a feminist, secularist froth, we were, in fact, sheepishly acquiescent. The father-of-the-groom was delighted! Like many overseas Indians, he was a long-distance Hindu nationalist and a card-carrying, Veda-thumping neo-Hindutvavadi.

And so the young bride-to-be was ‘converted’ to Hinduism quite without her knowledge, blithely unaware of the subterranean currents behind the exotic and colourful ceremony. The fact that we did not tell her meant that we did not consider the ceremony of much significance. The fact that we had the ceremony at all, meant we did. We struggled awkwardly to not fall flat on our faces on this sticky ground of ambivalence and skin-deep symbolism.

For the wedding venue, we commandeered a restored 14th century fort-hotel in Rajasthan. This was to stand-in for the ancestral haveli of our imagined feudal past. It was a beautiful fortress — artfully crumbling and faded in places, to retain its patina of age, but with that necessity above all necessities: modern plumbing. At the foot of the fort was a village — the one honestly authentic element in our carefully recreated world. It had camel carts, veiled women and old turbaned farmers puffing at hookahs on string charpoys. All around the fort were mustard fields flowering luminously in the soft February sun. Parrots fluttered among the thorny keekar trees, and the sun rose and set spectacularly over the Aravallis, just as it had, every day, since the time the earth was young.

It was a beautiful wedding — the baraat came up the hill accompanied by dhol and nagaras, through the fort’s arched gates, to be received by the bride’s family,
resplendent in vivid silks and turbans. The wedding ceremony in the sun-dappled courtyard was like an exquisite living painting — with flower canopies and rich colours and sacred incantations wreathed in the fragrant smoke of the havan.

And it is possible that in those perfectly delineated moments, we were all restored to ourselves. Perhaps we stepped beyond outward symbols and into truth. Perhaps our children, born on foreign soil to Indian parents, felt the tug of an ancient memory. And our own city-bred children, raised in an incoherent, clamorous urban culture, felt soothed and strengthened. Perhaps the bride felt, for the first time, that she was in some unknowable way, now a part of this foreign land. Perhaps for her friends, this was for a while something more than just an exotic Indian experience.

Perhaps our heritage and identity is a far more powerful and persistent thing than we realise. Perhaps this culture, accreted over thousands of years, is not something we need to defend, comprehend or profess. We could forget it for years, but it finds us. It takes up our awkward imitations and makes them real. It follows us and our children, and theirs in turn, across time and continents. Even as it changes, it remains the same.

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