Category Archives: India

Learning to Like a Small Town : Adventures in Trichy

 

This year, i moved to a city in Tamil Nadu, Tiruchirapalli. Its not really a small town. Its one of the major cities in the state. Its a huge trading centre. But in my head, it was very much a small town. It was also a bit of a come down because as a Tamilian, I was going back to the heart of Tamil Nadu. I started thinking where I lived would no longer be exotic. I would no longer try to understand other people’s cultures, their world views. Because everyone would be just like me.  Never mind that I have never lived in Tamil Nadu and actually have a very poor understanding of Tamil culture. That my understanding of Tamil culture was limited to an elitist brahmin culture and Tamil Nadu had much much more to offer. But for me, Trichy just didnt seem exciting enough.

And the food. I had lived in Ahmedabad, which I thought was foodie paradise. What could trichy offer other than Idli or dosas. ANd I dont even like eating them. Definitely not at hotels. How could my food devotee image survive in Trichy.

I tried my best to think positive, but I came here with deep misgivings. Maybe it was good I had those misgivings. It made me overcompensate in trying to find joys in Trichy. So I am now going to start a little series – of little things I love in this city. Its my gratitude journal for this place. For people who know me, you will not be surprised to see that most of these little joys are to do with food. But beyond that also, Trichy continues to surprise me.

My First post on this series will soon come up : Trichy Special Paruthi Paal (cottonseed milk)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A to Z Blogging Challenge : M is for mentrual tabboos in India and living with discrimination

A to Z Blogging Challenge Apr 15 M

I dont know why, but suddenly menstrual taboos in India is getting a lot of virtual column space. Practically every time I log into facebook, I see someone posting something about how menstrual taboos are demeaning to women and how it is time it stopped and what not. Or alternatively how menstrual taboos are deeply scientific and how ancient hindus knew a lot of science and we are better off following whatever they say.

 

Being an Indian woman from a conservative family, I am fully familiar with menstrual tabboos. I have faced my share of them, and right from puberty during my monthly ‘time’ I was not supposed to do stuff which I otherwise do. Now if I describe what the taboos were, it may sound awful and inhuman, but actually it was not that bad. After I read up a lot on feminism and started seeing these taboos as something demeaning to the essence of women, I resented them, yes. But the people who were imposing these taboos were my own family, people I loved. No matter how strong my resentment, I somehow complied because in the larger scheme of things, this didnt seem worth fighting over.

 

And of course no matter how much I claim that I dont share these taboos, I would still hesitate to walk into a temple or even a public pooja during that time. It is not just me, friends of mine, who were bought up in more open settings (without so many taboos) still hesitate to walk into temples. Maybe it is an example of how we are complicit in our own discrimination. But no matter how comfortable we were in our private prayer settings, going to a temple was somehow not OK.

 

But my most major insight about the experiences were that I railed against them for what they meant, but that was at an intellectual level. In actuality I was quite compliant of what was expected of me. Sometimes I even enjoyed the fact that I didnt need to do household chores at that time. Taboos which were inconvenient for me I railed against or did not follow, but things which didnt affect me negatively, I simply followed them or even benefited from them.

 

This is perhaps one of the truly discriminatory experiences I have actually faced (I may have faced discrimination as a woman, but nothing so obvious). And when I think about it, I am stuck by the fact that despite understanding the discrimination, I have not blown hot about it. I have subverted some aspects, accepted some aspects and moved on.

 

I am not trying to say people who are discriminated enjoy it, just that their experience of it is much more complex than simple acceptance or denial. I have observed similar things in my workspace where I have interacted with leaders of sex worker collectives. One of the primary steps in empowerment of sex workers is helping them value and respect themselves and not internalize the notion that they are doing something ‘bad’. But I have seen this is rarely an either or situation. Sex workers can accept that they are not fallen ‘women’ that theirs is a job like any other. They can even take pride in it. But their acceptance is not always complete, it is always a journey towards greater acceptance of themselves.

 

Maybe this is what a lived experience of discrimination is like. You rail against it but accept and subvert it in your own ways. And perhaps emacipation itself is also a personal lived experience, as you gradually throw away or subvert more of the discrimination

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A to Z Blogging Challenge F is for fanfiction and the pluralistic version of our epics

A to Z Blogging Challenge April 7 F

I guess fan fiction is here to stay and although the quality of writing is quite bad in some cases, I like fan fiction for making the inherent assumption that the author is not perfect and we always have a choice in changing the stories we want to. I think what I have enjoyed the most is some of the recent fan fiction which is based on the Hindu epic Mahabharata. I have been reading. I think the recent TV series has inspired a lot of this writing. The quality of the writing is not great, indeed as a story it is all quite amateurish, but I am surprised at the freedom people are taking in rewriting myths using modern jargon, modern ideas and quite contrary to the ‘holiness’ of the myth.

Rewriting Mahabharata is nothing new. In Indian literature, there are many point of view retellings of the epic. In recent years, there are many reimaginings, of Mahabharata as science fiction or political thrillers. While many are well accepted, they do tread the lines carefully and are respectful to the overall tone of the epic. But these fan fictions sometimes border on risque. Setting aside the bad writing, some are practically sexual fantasies, some are slap stick comedies.

And maybe that is why I find these stories so heartening. It is not their content or their writing style, but in the fact that they exist. In recent times, I have often wondered if my country and my religion is suddenly getting more intolerant. An esteemed university banned an essay talking about different versions of Ramayana, a play ‘Bed Time Story’ critiquing key incidents in Mahabharata was banned for almost three decades.

Therefore I marvel at how these fictions continue to be written. Maybe it is the annonymity of internet which allows them. Maybe, it is the fact that the readership remains fairly restricted. It is not that these stories receive uniform good reviews. But they remain. There is no call to censor them, or take them out. And so, despite the fact that as fiction, these stories are a sorry excuse, I am glad to have them, because they have restored the tolerance and irreverance, which for me is a critical part of the religion itself.

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Food, culture and bonding : The joys of Indian food

It is a long cherished dream for me and my husband, to undertake a sort of ‘food tour’ across the country, visiting different places to savor the local foods there. While we may have covered barely one tenth of the country, we make it a point that wherever we go, we seek out the local food there.

This actually is becoming quite difficult in recent years, because there is a kind of pan Indian taste which is taking over. All North Indian food gets subsumed into the Punjabi category (even though it is not even true Punjabi) and if you go by restaurants which sell South Indian food in North, we only seem to be living on only Idli and Dosa. Local people themselves do not advocate the local food, but guide visitor to the places, where there is more common Indian food, which according to them, the visitor will like.

For instance, on a trip to Shirdi, around the shrine, we mostly saw Andhra messes and pale imitations of Gujarati food. When we asked the cab driver to take us to a place selling Maharashtrian food, he looked a bit blank, then replied that we would not like it. When we pushed him, he took us to a small restaurant, slightly far from the shrine. The waiter was again a bit skeptical about us, offering to serve us the conventional Punjabi food, but after a lot of pushing, he finally served us some yummy baakri, thaalipith (maharashtrian breads) pitla (a gram flour based side dish) and techa (ground nut based super spicy chutney).

Similarly, when we were visiting Hampi, in North Karnataka, our cab driver point blank refused to take us to the local Khanavali. Since I have traveled a bit in the region and know about their culture, I insisted on going to one, and his reply was that Khanavali was not a place for people like us, and we should stick to the Tourism department hotels. I had to dip into my limited knowledge of North Karnataka style Kannada, in order to convince him that I knew jolly well what I was asking for.

It is perhaps because of this love to explore regional varieties of food, that around the time of Pongal/Makar Sankranti/Lohri/Uttarayan, I organized a pot luck at home with all the invitees bringing in some kind of food unique to their region. So we had undhiyu from Gujarat, Kothmir Vada from Maharashtra, different kinds of Pongal from the south, Moong Dhal Pakoda from UP, different varieties of puri and thepla, Parippu curry from Kerala and Aloo Poshto from Bengal.

It is the last two items, which revealed some cultural vignettes. When my husband encouraged my Bengali neighbor to sample the Parippu Curry from Kerala, he remarked that the dish was very similar to something made in Bengal. It underlined the fact that these two states share a lot of similarities beyond their love for Marx. Or maybe it was through all the comrade bonding that recipes got exchanged and became localized.

The last item, Aloo Poshto, is seriously something. It is potatoes cooked in Khas Khas (poppy seeds) and seasoned with mustard oil. Khas khas is fairly expensive item, and seldom used in a large scale while cooking (at least by us Tamils), but this item was fairly dripping in it. When I spoke to the provider of the item later, I remarked that this was a really expensive item to cook. To which he explained that it was not the case traditionally. Large parts of Bihar and Bengal used to or were forced to cultivate poppy to feed the needs of the British run opium factories back in the eighteenth century. So Aloo poshto or even plain Poshto in mustard oil was a very logical food for many peasants. They simply ate what they grew. Now that poppy seed production is highly regulated, this item has become practically unattainable for many.

I hope India retains its diverse food and the stories that go with them, at least long enough for me to finish my food tour. And I hope that in places I visit in future, localites are not diffident about their cuisine but push us to eat it with pride.

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