Sunday, February 05, 2006

Applied Cultural Anthropology

Dance, Satyrs, Dance!
Guntur, Andhra Pradesh

I have felt really crummy since Saturday, when I slept all day after the wedding reception. What I thought was just a stress-related muscular ache in my shoulders has spread throughout my body and now my back, neck, and all my joints are aching, and I'm incredibly fatigued. The fact that I've been bitten by a number of mosquitos this week isn't encouraging (all these are beginning signs of malaria, among other tropical diseases).

Parimala and family went off to Tirupati, the largest and most heavily visited pilgrimage site in all India (possibly the world) to offer thanks to Lord Venkateshwara for a successful marriage. Judging by the icons in their homes, Sri Vishnu (Venkateshwara, at left) is the primary deity of both families.

Phani is studying to take the placement exam for the MCA, Masters of Computer Applications. His undergraduate was Math. He goes to
prep classes about five hours a day, every day (and this is just to prepare for the entrance exam).

Vijay is working on getting his 3D animation stuff on the web. It will be at his new blogsite,
Vijay is encouraged by the fact that all the core
animation for the new Lion, the Witch & the Wardrobe was done here in India, in Mumbai. He's also a big fan of KungFu and other action movies. A good survival skill in India is to learn how to fall asleep on your straw floor mat, while your host family watches KungFu DVDs on the computer, as the overhead fan whirs furiously to keep mosquitos (mostly) at bay.

My host family are really lot of fun. The mother is a spritely 43-year-old pixie with insanely crooked teeth, which keeps her from smiling openly in photos, and a great, goofy sense of humour - always horsing around. She is the leader of a women's self-help group - a group of women who join together to save money, perhaps 100 Rs each per month. With this money as collateral the government gives them small business loans to start a businesss. They spend the first five years paying back the loan with interest. Her group did that long ago and now they are making money. "She is doing this hard work only for our education," Phani said proudly. In her role as leader of the DWRC group, Krishnakumari has travelled expenses-paid to Delhi, Vijayawada, and many other Andhra Pradesh cities.

The dad, Madhusudana, is a homeopathic doctor. He had patients coming in and out of the house all day long. Dad spent about 2 hours showing me his reference book - you look up a symptom ("sweating," "menses - delayed" and so on) and the book suggests a number of homeopathic rememdies. Under the heading "Delusions," the book has entries like "Satyrs: Has visions of them dancing," "Turtles: sees turtles all around," and "Hippopotamus: Fear of self becoming one" (I am not making this up). This is along with other, more ordinary delusions like "that one is being followed." I wondered silently why anyone lucky enough to have visions of Satyrs dancing about would ever want to remedy such an affliction.

Guess who's coming to dinner?

Sunday I was again trotted out (this time with no warning) by my host as the star attraction to all his school masters. I have a feeling this was in response to the teachers' demands ("introduce us to the American journalist"). Great, here I am wearing a face pack and doing laundry - all my good outfits were dripping wet - and suddenly the sitting room is full of his school teachers, all of whom want to shake my wet hand. Two of them were very cool, and one even offered me suggestions for story ideas in Andhra.

Later that afternoon I was confronted by - I am sorry to say- a classic Indiot. The Indiot is not uneducated - far from it. In fact, they probably have more education than anything else (including life experience, tact, timing, and respect for boundaries). No, this person is extremely educated - but far from intelligent. A typical member of this sub-species has saved up all his aggression against America (God knows what we've ever done to India to deserve this, yet, the Indiot really resents America, and all Americans, though they've rarely met any) - AHEM, anyway, this guy has saved up all this seething, inarticulate rage at not being the master of the universe he so clearly believes himself destined to be, and takes it out on - Guess Who? The one American he is likely to ever meet in close quarters (since he lives in Bubbenapalli, Whatever Pradesh).

I feel somewhat vindicated that the Dalai Lama, as well as his senior Rinpoche, also encountered Indiots during their visit here. The Indiot idea of demonstrating intelligence is to put others down - or rather, attempt to, since they're rarely successful. Then they get all flustered when they're beaten at their own childish game. Buddhists are supposed to be compassionate at all times, but even the DL and Rinpoche ended up taking the mickey out of these guys so I felt in good company in doing so, in my own half-joking way.

"Madam what is family life opinion in US?"

-Pardon? (All this is being asked to me the minute I put a handful of food in my mouth.)

"Family in US, what is it?"

-I don't know how to be any more polite about this, but, you're not making any sense, I'm sorry. I don't understand your question. Probably because I am a stupid American.

Then he resigns himself to having to compose a complete sentence. It's obviously a great deal of effort for him. All this time - he has been dreaming for years of getting an American on the spot like this - he has prided himself on how good his English is; perhaps even envisioned how he'll tell those Americans what-for! Now when it's actually put to the test and found lacking, it's quite irritating to him. Almost as irritating as it is to me. This in addition to the fact that others are watching and he will lose face. After all, that is the most important thing- far more important than accuracy.

If I sound resentful, even angry, it's because this is far from the first (or last) time I have had this particular, very predictable, encounter. Having had this experience, I do my best to turn the conversation humourous. It never works. The inquisitors are determined to put an American, any American, on the spot and make me personally answer for all the sins of "my" government, not to mention my culture.

"In America, what is the difference between married life?"

-....and...? ...married life in India, I guess you mean? I try to get out of this one diplomatically. Well, I really don't know, because I'm not married! Ha ha ha.

"Why are you not married?"

-Because no man could possibly ever tolerate me. (And vice versa. Can I eat now?)

"But in USA, how is the married life different?"

-(deep sigh as food grows colder by the minute) Well, we don't have arranged marriages; as you know; we have only love marriages in the West. We have more personal freedom and make more individual decisions without consulting the family. Also, at one time, we married quite young and had more children; now people are marrying much later and having few children, maybe one or two.

"And what about the divorce?"

Now we get to his real point - criticism of the west.

-What about it?

"Why are people doing this divorce?"

-Well, as I said, I can't tell you because I have never been married. (Thinks to self: maybe because they married someone like you?) However, since you're not going to leave me alone, I will make up something plausible: Divorce is much easier to do in the west, and more accepted.

"Easier, and more common!"

-Yes, it's very common. Many people have two marriages, one in their 20s, another later in life. However, not everyone divorces; at this point in time it's about 50%. This has only happened in the most recent generation. My own parents, for instance, have been happily married for 52 years.

"Fifty-two years!"

-That's what I said....

"Why Americans are doing divorce like that?"

-Because they are stupid Americans, with no morals and no hearts. They have no affection for one another and care only for money and sex. I guess that's why they don't ask for any dowry when they marry....?

Also, they have horns growing out of strange places on their bodies. They are really part animal, part two-legged money machine. That explains why they are so stupid and don't recognize that, in fact, they are not fit to run the world. India would obviously be far more suitable as a world power, since in India, marriages last forever, whether you want them to or not.

Now, can I EAT MY LUNCH PLEASE??!?!?!!??!?

A moment of silence. Then, "I think American peoples are very arrogant."

-Have you ever met any?

"What madam?"

-I mean, what is that statement based on? What has happened to you in your exchanges with Americans that you find them to be so arrogant?

More silence, because of course, he's never met any at all, unless you count the one's he's met on TV.

"The Americans are telling other countries what to do. They are always bossing other countries."

-Oh I see - the American government is arrogant! Now we can agree on something. Yes, the American government certainly dominates other countries and has done so for a long time. For a minute there I thought you were talking about American individuals! After all, you certainly wouldn't want to go abroad and be judged by people who've never met you, nor any of your countrymen, on the basis of all your government's actions. You wouldn't want to be held personally responsible for your Prime Minister and President.

Now would you?

The Reluctant Diplomat
Maybe the all-over aching muscles aren't malaria after all - just overexposure. As a minority here, I really feel what Black American writers and filmmakers have called "the burden of representation." Everything I do and say is seen as representing my country and even my culture as a whole. Certainly not a job I volunteered for, and I don't recall having been elected. It's a lot to handle unprepared, over a humble lunch on Auntie's floor mats. I think we were all glad when it was over, the requisite photos were taken as proof of contact with extra-terrestrial life forms, and the unannounced guests left me alone again with the family. "Athai" returned to horsing around, pretending her hand was a spider crawling up my leg as I smacked it away repeatedly. Asha came over with her girlfriend Sireesha and we had an impromptu Mehendi party. Now all our hands are decorated with rusty lacework. Phani took photos and we uploaded them to the computer to have a slideshow. I was part of the family once again.

Now if I could just rid my vision of these dancing satyrs....


kiran kumar Chava said...

Having a good bath with very hot water sometimes works for norml bodypains. Try it!

Sirensongs: Indologist At Large said...

A hot BATH? And where in this region do you expect me to get an actual bathtub? you're lucky to even get a bucket of hot water, let alone a bathtub!

A five-star hotel might have it. One can dream....

Shinu Mathew said...

He must have been waiting for all these years get an American to grill!! God, what a lucky guy! At last he fulfilled his dream! blessed soul.
Couldn't you ask him about the rapes, the poverty, the un-ending suffering wives are subjected to, etc.. that is prevalent in India? True, here a divorcee in looked down on and stigmatized. And that's the only reason our marriages are SUCCESSFUL. Ladies tend to overlook the harassing and abusing for the sake of family and children. IS that what you call a SUCCESSFUL marriage? With no voice, no freedom and no individuality.
Every American visiting this country is subjected to this kind of grilling.
It's just a psychic thing. In their mind America is the biggest bully and if they can take a prick at ANY AMERICAN they feels like they stabbed the AMERICA. Just leave it.
I am in a hurry nowadays. So can't update my blog regularly. but still I am watching the nepal situation closely

kiran kumar Chava said...

Actually I mean a hot water shower with two buckets of water.

here we normal people use bath for just anything to pour water on your body

Kim said...

Be careful... you could have not one, but TWO STRAINS of malaria! (just like our favorite anth professor)