Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Culture, history, and the lack thereof (or, random musings at dawn)


I'd like to discover India. Does that sound strange? I know I've lived here all of my life.. but how much do i know about it? I sometimes think I'd like to see the world... the people, the cultures, the history... then I ask myself how I could ever hope for something that big, when I haven't seen my own back yard.. It's so easy to believe in, and slot people into, stereotypes.. (Don't we all?) but can human nature, much less mother nature be slotted that easily?

I want to travel. and by that I mean truly travel. I want to live among the locals. I want to BE a local. that's someone I've never been. I want a culture to call my own. I hear you laughing.. "you're Indian," you say... "you have culture.." sure my country has a rich and varied history, and since you can't have history without acquiring some culture, you must be right, rt?

Except than I am not my country. I do not "belong" anywhere or any when.. I want to know the history behind a place... not the kind they taught in school. I want to know about the men and women behind the legends... the people who became the heroes. those who built the monuments to time... and not just the ones who commissioned them.. I want to know those who toiled in the summer and in the monsoons.. those who, possibly, did not want the monuments built, but were forced to anyway... those who, discovered and loved these relics before the Archaeological Survey of India began to charge an entry fee... Those who lived and loved among the monuments to others dead, but not forgotten... the other places they saw... the grounds they walked.. the thoughts they thought.

I want to know what the ghoonghat-clad women of ancient Rajasthan would have thought of their bare-breasted sisters in the territories that became Kerala... What the Mughal men with their courtesans thought of the Dravidian priests and their devdasis... What the French in India thought of the English in India? More importantly, what the Europeans thought of the Indians... did they ever get beyond the "hmm..these guys could make us rich" phase...? How did palates accustomed to pièces montèes, and potato and meat stew react when they met dum aloo, sambhar and the aptly named gun powder? Did everyone get a round what we so euphemistically call Delhi belly today?

We've all heard stories about how the invaders — "they" ruined the lives of the locals "the us" and ransacked our culture? How come I've never heard of an Indian version of Pochahontas? I refuse to believe it never happened.. Maybe there was.. and maybe, the anonymous Pocahontas from the sub-continent (I'd like to think she was dravidian) refused to move to England, to be paraded as a "tamable native".. insisting, instead, that her John Rolfe take over the responsibilities of gruhasthashrama and, thereby, of her extended family! Maybe that killed him... imagine having to plan (and fund) weddings for all those younger siblings and cousins....and having to remember who's who among your wife's cousin's cousin's in-laws... (most definitely not for the faint-hearted!) And may be she then married some wealthy old man her father approved of, (of course no self respecting pop would've approved of some "Firang" back in the 18th century.. or that's what I've been told... doesn't help that the same people who tell me this are the ones who insist all Anglo-Indians are of Royal blood — more or less, anyway..) had a ton of sons (of course she didn't have daughters.. no self-respecting mother-of-sons ever does, does she? in any history... in any country and in any culture? Pardon my ignorance, but did Achilles have a sister? and would Thetis have dunked her in the Styx to make her invulnerable??) and died of old age, syphilis, boredom or child birth... and basically faded into the non-existence that seems to mark the lives of women in this part of the ancient world.

I've always found it strange that, in India, some courtesans are remembered better than queens... (Kinda ironic that a system that insists that women behave in a particular manner rewards the few who don't... but that's a topic for another day)... yet it's fascinating. The country is such a kaleidescope of cultures and of people, And when you haven't been born into one of the many available options, that choosing is hard. And not knowing your own, or your neighbor's, history makes it that much harder.. I hear u laughing again... "What idiot has to choose cultures?" All I can say is having a culture seems important to me... It gives you a norm.. and if you don't have a clear cut idea of what is acceptable and what isn't... It gets that much harder to decide if you are a conformist or a rebel... And maybe it's because I have stayed as far away as I could from my own...

(Lord knows well-intentioned folks have driven me nuts with their "OhmyGawdourcrapdoesn'tstink! We'renotthesedirtyIndians" brand of BS, and I'm proud to say I've returned the favour — "Youstinkmorecozyou'reneitherherenorthere" or "Howcanyoucallsomeplaceneitheryounoryourgrandparentshaveeverbeen,'home'?" doesn't make you very popular in the community, trust me)

So I want to learn. I want to know the history of the land. From before some of my ancestors left their potato farms in the land of clovers to wander among the sugarcane fields in the land of the idli... I want to hear the songs in the rocks... of the coal that once was a forest... I want to hear the stories of centuries past... I want sepia-toned memories awash with colour... I don't want to study culture and history... I want to live it..

1 comment:

Heptanesian Blue said...

Really good....I guess I like your straight writing better than your ramblings...makes sense....now I will write something on similar lines and this will become a vicious circle...omigawd!!!!! Readers beware!