By Preeta Kuhad Balia
Our earliest impressions of the world are perhaps a composite vignette of childhood experiences. Like layers of paint which effortlessly spread and imperceptibly take on the next coat, only deepening the hue, the years growing up with our parents were perhaps an exercise in discovering our cultural affiliations.
My parents hailed from distant corners of India. My mother’s family migrated to Calcutta from Varanasi a few generations before she was born. Growing up in the British Presidency town, speaking the elegant Bengali of Ballygunge Place, Mummy told us of her weekly trips to the theatre to watch English movies, and training for ice skating in high school.
My father’s family was boorish in comparison. A thoroughbred tribe of merchants and money lenders, they lived in the marwari ghetto of a small port town in the eastern coastal state of Andhra Pradesh. They were ostensible followers of Jainism but the unspoken religion practised daily was money.
Without any formal introduction to a stranger at the door, each of us three siblings knew from a moment’s absorption of the deportment of a person if the relative was from my father’s or my mother’s family. They were as different as chalk and cheese. The marwari spoken in Papa’s family fell like a ton of bricks against our ears, and the lavatories in his family home terrorized us into constipation.
Let’s say that it was easier to mingle with Mummy’s family, their refined aesthetics, with predictable moments of great affection following the family practice of frequent hugging and kissing. In contrast, the staid air of low education, ritualistic religious practice that defined the culture on Papa’s side of the family made any association a grim obligation towards them.
Crucial to our need for cultural identity was a determination of our personal identity, and it was evident that our mother’s extended family did not see us as curiosities since many of them were themselves the outcome of inter-regional and inter–religious marriages. There was a very strict code in the paternal family laying out who was fit to be married to and, thereby, we stood ineligible to qualify as members of the tribe.
Even though our house in Jaipur doubled up as a comfortable guest house with Mummy cooking and cleaning up for the entire extended family of her in-laws, we were indisputably regarded as the pariahs. Did that one decree by itself consume us so completely as to mobilise our alignment with one side of the family? It certainly was a continuing irritant that those who lived with us, and availed with proprietorial assertion of the resources of our home, were also demeaning of our mixed parentage.
Perhaps they disapproved of our externalities as wholeheartedly as we did theirs. We hated the way the food would alter to suit the tastes of others. My father’s parents, however, chose to live with us as against their older two sons’ families. This arrangement ensured we would have to confront our bipolar realities on a daily basis.
In my adult life as a lawyer, I find that the orientation of the courts, the people occupying offices of governance and executive, rely on their individual cultural orientation to arrive at decisions that bear an impact on society at large.
Rajasthan is a region stricken with paucity of resources. Water is scarce, and so is capital. The regional culture promotes multiple uses of available goods, or recycling. For example, even vegetable peels, rather than being discarded, are often dried in the sun and stored for later use after appropriate treatment. You will see mango peel, and even the seed inside the mango stone, being sun dried for later consumption.
In a strange extension of the same cultural make-up, the judges once allowed charagah or cattle feeding ground (as demarcated in the planning map of the town) to be used for installation of windmills for power generation. In the usual course, it would be a statutory offense to allocate land use contrary to the defined purpose in the map but, in this case, the judicial officer put forward a unique justification. It was held that while the wind mills stood to serve a certain purpose, how would the upright mills interfere with the small cattle grazing between them?
At a children’s literature festival named ‘Kitaabo’, hosted annually for the past two years in Jodhpur, it is an interesting social exercise to watch resource persons from various metropolises come and share energetic literary ideas with young children. A Chennai-based story teller does a captivating dramatic rendition of a Bengali folk story involving heightened pantomime. The young audience is not merely stunned by the story’s charm, and that of the performer, but some young girls are thrilled to know that the storytelling woman is a HR manager in an IT firm who moonwalks as a theatre artist.
In Rajasthan, a state notorious for female infanticide and misogyny, this is a refreshing note. The larger plot in the mind of the 12-year-old in the audience is that, contrary to what her culture idolizes, she has choices — very many more than she thought possible. In its many faces, the literary sessions attempt to tell you that all truths are acceptable, and each truth belongs to someone.
As an ethnic group, many children have only been exposed to vegetarianism. However, a poem about ripe fish and strange fruits, an unfamiliar idiom that at once casts a frown of incomprehension upon a young face, is made a funny limerick along the way. Soon that young one is so captivated by the song and rhythm that the nouns and adjectives are no longer foreign. Perhaps to impress upon a student group the cultural realities of a faraway place, stories and games, poems and songs, serve as a great starting point.
We build tolerance only once familiarity has been bridged. To familiarize a child with the soft lisp of a folk artist from Manipur, we let the simple tales in unusual settings be told. There again a dialogue is initiated, and the first scratches of empathy are conjured up.
Does a common culture allow a group of culturists to do the unthinkable? Some cultures believe it is okay to steal, others forgive promiscuity, and yet others endorse corruption. My mother’s family home had a badminton court where everyone played, including the women and children, and the father-in-law could be contending with his daughter-in-law’s racquet shots. Creating not merely a metaphorical space but a real one is a necessary move towards altering our cultural conditioning.
Kids at Kitaabo collide with cultural precepts that are foreign to them – a poetry writing workshop that encourages them to pen down the nonsensical, or the mere allowance that literature is valued, chafes at their cultural upbringing.
My siblings and I eventually evolved our own cultural climate because our parents refused to subscribe to either of their inherited cultural frameworks. They read widely, forged new friendships, and allowed for the external world to scrape any cultural conditioning.
If my grandmother thought teaching young girls to dance was corrupting, we lived up to prove there was no apparent damage. Cultural countering is thus no contest. It is a continuing process, and cultures evolve and bloom through cross pollination with others.
(The author is a non-litigation lawyer with a fondness for all variety of fiction, fine arts, food and faraway lands. She tweets @preetakuhad)