Friday, May 18, 2007

Honoring my Mother

Now that I have returned to the States from India, I get asked over and over (and mostly by my curious family) how India was. A complicated question, to be sure, and quite a mouthful for conversation over dinner or chai. No one ever seems to ask anything specific, so I'm left to answer with a simple "It was great!"
A fantastic cousin of mine (who I might mention is a loyal reader of this oft-neglected and even more often ignored blog) asked some pointed questions about my experience. Basically it was "Don't you feel that as good as India has been doing lately, it hasn't really improved all that much? Look at the poverty, the corruption, the indifference of the people, how did you deal with that? Have you noticed that Indians/ primarily Hindus don't even ackowledge the problems? How do you feel about it?" (Thanks so much for your email, Adiba, because I haven't written in weeks, and haven't reflected on India much either.)
After finishing my response I decided I would share it with all of you, since it is how I feel, however disjointed or incomplete a picture it may be:

I don't think that the lack of acknowledgement of India's problems is simply a Hindu trait. Not from what I experienced at all. It is just a completely different mindset. In America, there is generally a sense that if one works hard, prosperity, if not comfort, is within reach. In India, people believe that in order to prosper, someone, often a neighbor, must go without. It is this cruel attitude that fuels the complete and utter disinterest in the calamities of life that occur in India. Everyone is so concerned and caught up with the real or perceived slights and injustices happening to them that no one else's problems matter, be they sexaully trafficked children, neighbors raped and killed in a recent pogrom or newborn girl babies being left to starve so that the families dont have to raise them. Indians, while having an idea of what is wrong with India, have no real hope or vision of how to fix it. The corruption is so overwhelming, crushing and rampant that it appears nothing can be done to fix it, work around it or even improve life with it.

Have you seen the Bollywood film Raang de Basanti? It is incredibly fabulous, and if you haven't seen it, you should rent it as soon as you are done reading this email. It is my new favorite Bollywood film, edging out Lagaan. Both star Aamir Khan and have music written by A.R. Rahman, and both deal with the Indian struggle for freedom and meaningful independence in the wake of oppressive indifference, but Raang de Basanti hits closer to home for me. Rent it, seriously. You'll see what I'm talking about. There's a whole slew of films I could recommend to you that thoughtfully, and from an Indian perspective, examine the realities of modern day India that are worth watching and helpful to gaining a clearer picture of what some of India's many faces look like. Muslims, Hindus, Jains, Sikhs and Christians alike all believe that their India is all they've got. Even in the rare instance they are seriously trying to create a life somewhere else, there is a mislaid but I imagine natural tendency to not piss on what you've come from. I mean that in the sense that Indians, no matter how lazy, no matter how corrupt, no matter how unethical or unhappy, like all people, want to believe that they come from something great.

No one wants to believe that they, their history, culture and country are inferior to anyone or anything. It might be true, it might be blatantly obvious and it might be wrong in the sense that comparing cultures is impossible and that every culture is right in the fact that it exists. (Frankly, that last one is pure bullshit to me.) But people want to have pride in where they come from, what they are, and what makes them who they are. This supercedes the fact that they don't care about the plight of their neighbor, they hate their country's religious majority or minorities or will step on anyone and everyone to fatten their lot. I saw people of all faiths in the same breath condemn America and the West and wish desperately to come here and on the other hand, proclaim India's global superiority and decry its poverty & lack of infrasture. Its complicated.

Human life is not sacred there. In a country with over a billion people, life of all kinds is what they are in excess of. Losing one or two, or even thousands, doesn't phase many. Even if it did, it's not like they could do a thing about it. Money is important here in America, sure. People's lifestyles and fast paced lives might re-inforce that fact. But we work hard for what we have, and mostly I think we do it to at some level to be happy. I might be turning this into a cheesy discussion of why I like America so much, but so be it. Human life here is importanat.Often affluent white lives are the most valued (think of every time a white woman goes missing: how much media coverage is there of it in a country where every 4 seconds a woman is beaten and abused), but life is valuable here. We could argue about the current government's (and by extension, all governments') seeming callousness toward life (think the Iraq & Afghanistan wars we're in, think Hurricane Katrina, think the ridiculous price of pharmacuticals and insurance dominated healthcare system where nearly 50 million Americans go uninsured each year) but the people here care.

Brought on by the Christian and Protestant ethic of giving back and the church culture of soup kitchens, women's circles and what not, Americans give alot. After every natural disaster, the nation's sympathies and donations pour forth to help our fellow humans. India-not so much. I spent the last two years of my life serving my country in the nation's capitol, teaching kids to read, beautifying schools, parks and community centers and teaching my peers about social issues, responsibilities and civic leadership. I proudly wore my country's flag on my left shoulder despite my blatant disagreement with the govt and sheer disappointment and disgust at what is being perpetrated in my name as an American. In America, there is a healthy dialouge as to why military service is wrong or right, necessary or excessive- in India, anything that is patriotic and jingoistic is accepted and celebrated (once you get past each person's ingrained prejudice towards other ethnic/religious groups of Indians).

Ever heard of Arundathi Roy? She's an AMAZING Indian writer who wrote a novel called the God of Small Things and a non fiction book called An Ordinary Person's Guide to Empire (if you havent checked them out, please do, you wont regret it, I promise!!!). She's a rare Indian writer and thinker in that she is not impressed by all these fierce displays of nationalism and military/economic might. Unfortunately, as far as I can tell right now, she seems to be very lonely in her sleepless spot of speaking out against injustice in India (and the world around us). Most Indians I met, while having possibly heard of her, were not actually familiar with her work or her ideas. This is purely anecdotal evidence of my experience, but most seemed very resistant and even shocked at the ideas of hers that I brought up.

In India, and among Indian company, I don't feel that healhty (although not so much withing the last 6 years) American (and much more so british/european) distrust of govt, of critically thinking about the state of today's world or wanting to know the full story of what is happening. (As a result, India's press is notoriously lazy and unaccustomed to act as a check or balance for a corrupt, bloated government that betrays the people.)

In addition, India is SUCH a patriarchal society, it is sometimes sickening to witness. Did you know there is a higher ratio of men than women in india? Families have been using sex selective abortion, abandonment and female infanticide to achieve their dream of a male child for so long that the population has acutally tilted towards the y chromosome. Indian men are immature, incapable, incompetent, socially inept, entitled, emotionally weak and unavailable because society makes them this way. They are celebrated since birth simply on the merit of their penis and not disciplined as children. They are fed ridiculous, fuedal, disgustingly backward ideas about women, their worth and how to treat them; especially the notion that women are responsible for society's sexuality and if not sequestered behind dupattas, burquas, appropriate male figures including only father, brother & husband and purda, that they are fair game and fresh meat, available for abuse. This is in additon to their usefulness/responsibilities as workhorse incubators that dont deserve rights, education or freedom. (Some believe differently, of course, but it is a perspective that is few and far between in a country with over a billion minds.) It is these attitudes, fostered and then perpetuated by society and damn near every single Indian family, regardless of caste, finance or religion that create that typical Indian male behavior and the oppression that Indian women face everyday, generation after generation.

Not to be a complete downer, there is some hope. the Indian grass roots is an inspiring sight to behold and thankfully exists because of India's idealists. Many of these wonderful folks are women. It's just that while I met some of these amazing women, it wasn't in a day to day setting. I saw muslim women, my relatives, being sequestered, oppressed, married off at young ages (younger than me, so in my opinion, too young), educated and receiving university degrees, only to fulfill their proper roles as housewives,.What was worse was watching them believe it to be their destiny, their sole purpose. I saw Islam and India fail them, their ideas & ideals distorted by greed and patriarchy. It made me sick. India's a funny mother though... in light of mother's day, I can't help but reflect on how I love her. She is enthralling, infuriating and inexplicable all at once. I wouldnt exist without her.