Sunday, 22 January 2012

The Weight of Tradition

One of my friends posted on Facebook about a Japanese custom where the host comes out and stands in the cold when taking leave of a departing guest, waves goodbye to them and only goes back into the house when the guest's car is out of sight. We had an interesting discussion about how spontaneous gestures are touching but when these are cast into concrete and become part of a culture or tradition, they could become onerous. In my response, I said the Japanese in particular have a culture of forced politeness that makes them think they're being rude even if they do perfectly reasonable things, like avoid the chillies in a dish that they find too spicy. I said they needed to be kinder to themselves and not let tradition oppress them so much, and this then set off the cultural antibodies that perpetually lurk in my bloodstream. Hence this blog post.

I've been a bit of an iconoclast all my life, much to the exasperation of my extended family. (My immediate family has been much more supportive, possibly because my parents were themselves no admirers of traditional customs.)

Two examples come to mind.

1. One of the cultural differences between North Indians and South Indians is the practice of touching the feet of elders. South Indians have a practice of not just bending to touch the feet but of prostrating full-length before elders to receive their blessings. However, this is typically done on special occasions only, such as when taking leave of one's grandparents after a month-long stay, or at weddings when the bride and groom seek the blessings of the elders present.

With North Indians, this is more of a "quickie", and is accomplished by just bending down from the waist instead of prostrating themselves on the floor. Since this is a much more "lightweight" action, they can afford to do it more often and they do. One could say they do it at the drop of a hat (almost as if they were bending to pick up said hat ;-). See someone with grey hair, dip and touch! To South Indians, this is amusing to watch. Also very emotionally touching if you're not used to it. I know of a Telugu girl whose family's objections to her marrying a Rajasthani dissolved when he visited their home and executed a machine-gun touching of everyone's feet as soon as he entered. After that, all the elderly ladies would vie with each other to cook dishes for him and wouldn't hear a negative word about him. It helped that he was also a nice guy, but that's the secret weapon North Indians can use to disarm their Southern neighbours.

The dark side of this tradition is of course when it's forced. I know of girls from liberal and westernised families marrying into more conservative ones, who are expected to touch their parents-in-laws' feet every morning when they first see them. Quite a few of them chafe at this because they consider it demeaning.

On a lighter note, the daughter of my cousin (who married a North Indian) refused to touch the feet of her paternal grandmother, saying, "We South Indians don't do this." And this from a girl who spoke no Tamil at all! Identity can be donned and shed as convenient, it would seem.

2. One of the arguments of the neo-conservative Hindu is that if one only takes the trouble to understand "our great rituals", one will understand the wisdom of our forefathers. I call this bullshit, akin to treating scriptures as sacred just because they're in Sanskrit. After all, one can find some pretty bawdy stuff masquerading as ancient Sanskrit literature.

Marriage rituals are believed to belong to this set of misunderstood cultural treasures. I was surprised to learn that the term "decent marriage" as a requirement in Indian matrimonial ads was a code-word for elaborate rituals. Perhaps simple weddings seem indecent to some people. I recognise that every such ritual had an original purpose and meaning, but since Indian society has been traditionally agrarian, these rituals have a lot to do with land, harvests and fertility (fertility both of humans and the soil). Many of these practices are therefore outdated in a modern, urban context. Many practices also have a feudal basis, and I would reject them out of hand. Hindu rituals are riven with casteism and sexism, and the baggage needs to be discarded and the entire culture given a complete and thorough overhaul.

My mother pointed out one such example at a cousin's wedding. There was a ceremony where the bride was seated on the ground and the yoke of a bullock-cart was placed (lightly) on her head. This would of course be trumpeted by the neo-conservatives as rich in meaning, because it is meant to symbolise the responsibility of a wife. I guess my mother's feminist sensibilities were offended at this, because she wondered aloud to me why they didn't seat the bride and groom side by side and place the yoke over both their shoulders. It would have symbolised the fact that they would now have to bear the responsibilities of a household together and share the burden equally.

In short, I am a student of culture but not a blind fan. I hate it when cultural traditions oppress the individual.

And now I've got that off my chest :-).

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