Monday, 8 August 2011

Reflections on Culture and Tradition

I had a powerful experience yesterday when shopping at the Arpico supermarket in Colombo. The counter clerk was a friendly and smart-looking youth. When I handed him my credit card, he took it with his right hand, and with his left hand holding his right elbow. The gesture brought back memories and feelings in a rush.

In 2000, when I applied for Australian citizenship, I was surprised when the Australian immigration officer (a Caucasian) took my passport with both hands. This is, of course, the (East) Asian way of showing respect. I guess he had been trained to be culturally sensitive because of the large number of East Asians applying for Australian citizenship. Although I immediately recognised the gesture as one of respect, I was not emotionally touched by it. However, when the youth at Arpico took my card in the respectful Tamil style, it touched and moved me, and this is why.

When taken to visit temples as a child, I was taught to throw flowers on the idol in an underarm movement using my right hand, with my left hand holding my right elbow. I don't know if this is prevalent in the rest of India or even in the rest of South India, but it is definitely part of Tamil culture. The left hand is considered unclean and must never be proffered to others, either to give or to receive anything. Only the right hand may be used in any transaction. This much is common to all of India. When great respect is to be shown, as when showering the idol of a deity with flowers, the left hand must support the right at the elbow. I believe this is a uniquely Tamil gesture.

The incident made me think a lot about my life, especially my ideological choices. In my late teens, when reading about communal riots and killings in the papers, I determined that religion was evil and nothing but superstition that led men astray. I was also studying engineering at the time, and I believed that science and reason were the answer. I guess I still do.

That started me on my journey of conscious agnosticism. I never became a communist, like many other idealistic students, but I did try to be a practising agnostic. This meant consciously violating rules that had been taught to me as part of my culture if they made no sense. I would whistle after sunset, I would ask people where they were going as they were leaving, I would openly blaspheme. (In later years, I would mock my wife for murmuring prayers in Sanskrit, "a language neither she nor God understood.") I inured myself to stepping on paper without flinching, and to moving books aside with my feet, conscious acts to defy Goddess Saraswathi's certain wrath. The heavens never opened to strike me dead, and I have remained an agnostic with a healthy aversion to organised religion. I even composed a couplet to summarise my philosophy:

There may or may not be a God
But religion is a fraud

It has been decades since I even thought about the respectful supported-elbow gesture, and the fact that a young man half my age, from my own culture, in another country, was keeping the tradition alive - no, living the tradition - made me think for a long time.

I have forged a powerful identity for myself by defining what I stand for and stand against, and this has made me what I am. Still, I found myself asking, have I gained or have I lost?

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