Sunday, April 17, 2005

India:Linguistic and cultural diversity

On April 4th 2005, Lydia and I were invited as guest speakers to Dr. D’s class to speak about cultural and linguistic diversity found in our individual countries. Lydia is from Puereto-Rico and she talked at length about how Puerto Rico was not unlike the 53rd state in the Union. She spoke about her experiences growing up bilingual and struggling, at least initially, to comprehend English; but how she eventually got to know both her ‘Spanish and English’ sides.
I spoke about the linguistic diversity in India; how, when people travel from one state to another in India, they have to pick up a new language; and how age does not really matter in picking up and communicating in a new language. Indian states are like individual nation states, each state has its own language, culture and traditions and people moving to a new state have to learn its norms.

India follows a three-language policy, the official, the national and the state language. In many states, particularly those in the southern and eastern extremities of the country, do not acknowledge the national language. So, the medium of communication is very often the official language -- English. But in rural India the communication is largely in the local language. So, India is truly a melting pot of different languages.

What amazed me was the fact that very few in the education class knew about this type of linguistic diversity. Some of the students wanted to know if scripts (of the state languages) were different across states. Well, since most languages use distinctive scripts, the students were astounded that Indians learned a new language each time they moved across state lines. To most Americans this would seem truly mind-boggling.

Sunday, February 27, 2005

At the molecular level it doesn't really matter

I gravitate towards people naturally, or should I say people gravitate towards me… These are people I share my commute with, friends and acquaintances. Well, it was at the train station that I met Sujata. Sujata is a post doc microbiologist. She and I started chatting under the strangest of circumstances. It was a particularly miserable day as the heavens opened up, and the wind howled in our ears, and SEPTA trains ran approximately twenty minutes behind schedule. As we huddled under the near non-existent structure at Temple station called a concourse, I happened to open my purse to look for the train ticket when she spied the photograph of Guruvayoorappan in my purse. Instantly her Kerala instinct was roused, and she came to me and asked in Malayalam where I was from; to which I cheekily replied, from Bombay.
She then looked at me pointedly and repeated the question again and so I had to give her the spiel about how I am not a Keralaite, but my hubby is and I think he is from ‘so and so’ place in Kerala. That seemed a more satisfactory explanation to her and she stopped quizzing me on my origin. Well twenty minutes elapsed and yet there was no sign of our trains, so we started talking about this that and the other. I asked her what she does, and she said she is a post doc working in Temple U’s bio lab. So I asked her about her subject, her thoughts on the different species and her views on cloning of the sheep Dolly. She came up with this very profound response… She said, "You know at the molecular level it does not really matter, all organisms including humans are the same." Not being a microbiologist, I found this information strangely disconcerting. Since we are humans for some reason, we think we are unique because we are thinking beings; but ask scientists and they will tell you it does not really matter, that we are all made up of the same basic cell structure, not unlike Dolly - the sheep that was cloned.

Monday, January 10, 2005

Thoughts on romance and relationships

I have always wondered what marks the line of demarcation between love and friendship in men and women. For that matter, I have wondered what is the meaning of romantic love and how much of it really has to do with sexual intimacy. Either, I am getting old or the way some of my friends define romance is beyond me. Sometimes, I get the sense that they are really unsure of it themselves.

Take for example the classic case scenario of a woman and a man. The man has slept with her for a good measure and then insists on being her "friend." The woman feels jilted and states that she cannot do a backward flip from a romantic relationship to a merely friendly one. Sometimes I wonder, why can’t any man ever tell a woman straight upfront that he is done with her and she is a closed chapter in his life. Instead men often opt for the classic break-up line; ‘I like you like a friend.’ Don’t they realize that only makes things worse.

The worth of a human life!

Whenever they talk about death and destruction on a large-scale, like the one caused by the South Asia Tsunami, I think, is that just a statistic or is it human life that is being reported? For some people, who cover news on a daily basis death, destruction, decomposing bodies and other details may after some time become more a matter of statistics. However, this morning, I read a BBC correspondent’s story that prompted me to think that even reporters and news correspondents could think otherwise. The correspondent recounted how he was horrified at the sight of the large-scale destruction in Aceh. He wondered about the lives of people that made the piles of bodies lying by the side of the road in Aceh. In light of the enormity of natural disasters one is forced to contemplate the worth of any human life. And then again in a given lifetime how could any human being make the best of it.

When we were growing up we were taught to do good and told that good would follow. Our scriptures state as much. Well, this in itself is a debatable point. More on that later. Last night I saw this movie called, ‘Groundhog Day’, which mirrors the sentiment that, if you live life virtuously it is worth much more than a lifetime spent selfishly. The main character in this movie, (Bill Murray) repeats the same day, i.e. ‘Groundhog Day’ again and again. Initially he uses the day to satisfy selfish pursuits, however he soon tires of living his life in this way. Finally he realizes he is happiest and most fulfilled when he invests his time helping others and spending it in pursuit of learning something worthwhile. Trapped in Groundhog Day, he aids people, rescues kids, stops a man from choking on a bone, learns to play the piano and to ice-sculpt amongst other things.

At this point it dawns on him that life is more than his cynical vision of a glass half-empty, and then he sees the dawn of a new day. I think that living life virtuosly is a worthy goal to follow.

Dinnertime conversation or Dinnertime and conversation?

What is it with men and women and how they define dinner? Ask any sane man, (I know a few) and they cringe at the thought of discussing anything during dinnertime. Ask any sane woman and you get a different perspective on the whole issue. Sometimes I wonder where the men would be without distractions such as the television, Internet, MP3, etc. etc., especially during times when they want to escape conversations.

Generally a man defines dinner as stuffing his face and filling his stomach with whatever is cooked, while flipping channels on the television. Ask a woman and she will tell you that dinner-time is the most important time of the day. It is the time of the day to catch up on what happened during the day, narrate it to a good measure and then ask the man about his day. Only to realize most men interpret conversation and dinnertime as separate things. As a result, the woman ends up getting monosyllabic or sometimes no replies from her man (depends on which channels the man is surfing and how much he can distract himself away from it). So, looks like men and women interpret dinnertime very differently.

Monday, January 03, 2005

Food stereotype response:

Yes, I did write that people are generally very picky about food. Taste is a very subjective phenomenon. It is almost as subjective as love or happiness. Although love and happiness are emotions and taste is not an emotion. It is very subjective. Just because I say that I love one variety of food does not mean I hate to try new things. Meaning to say, I am inclined towards tastes I grew up with, than new experiences I seek to cultivate.

Sunday, January 02, 2005

Stereotypes: On Ethnicity and Food

The other day V and I were in the laundromat. An old man with blood shot eyes and rumpled collar walked in with his laundry – nothing particularly remarkable about him; he was your average blue collar white guy. Despite a room full of people, he came up and asked me if I knew how the laundry machines behind him worked. I felt like telling him it was not rocket science, but conditioned by years of strict Indian upbringing, I told him to do what needed to be done. Meanwhile, my load of laundry washed, I started folding my clothes. He came back again and said the machine was jammed. At this point I thought it best to ignore him, but V being a decent sort helped him. The third time around just as V and I were getting ready to leave, he ambled up to ask me if I worked in the laundromat! This assumption on his part spurred me on to think about stereotypes. Old meat and potatoes guy assumes a Hispanic-looking woman cannot be anything other than the help in a laundromat. Well, all of these stereotypes make no sense in our hybrid world full of different identities.

Incidentally last night’s Saturday Night Live began with a skit on stereotypes. It was hilarious. What with Liam Neeson, stating that he was tired of playing an Irish drunk who dances to Irish music. And then again Horatio Sanz, has been cast time and again as the archetypal fat lazy Hispanic, when he is disinclined to play the Hispanic stereotype. I guess stereotypes and assumptions exist everywhere, one just has to learn to look past them.

This is the time of holiday and cheer, and I notice people socialize more, tend to wine prodigiously and dine more. However, even in simple acts of sharing food, stereotypes exist. These are the more serious kind, the ones that deal with the taste pallet. Some people fashion themselves, as connoisseurs of fine food and push different kinds of food, while others, like me, prefer what they have been used to all their life. Not that I am not in favor of a little variety, but I don’t fancy too much of it. I think, the simpler you keep it, the better. And in my case that means a largely vegetarian cuisine; something that I grew up with, something that reminds me of home and does not make me feel like I am a part of a food experiment. I guess, that puts me squarely in the stereotype bracket of a fussy Indian eater who insists on her daali-toi-sheet or curd-rice. Were I a man, my stereotype would be the Brahman with the ucchi kudumi eating his sadhya off a plantain leaf… the sambaar and buttermilk flowing past my wrist to my elbows as I eat with my fingers, proper Indian fashion! Now I’ve got myself hungry!

Thursday, December 30, 2004

Plus Ce Chance, Plus Ce le Mem Chose

The more things change the more they remain the same!

Have you ever noticed what happens when you stop commuting by your usual train in the morning… like during the Christmas break? Say, you take the same train from the same station almost everyday when school is on and then when you stop for a brief spell in between. The next time you take the ride, the whole experience seems somehow new.

V and I saw this movie Swades in a theatre the other day. It was our first hindi movie in a cinema theater in a while. The hero of the film, Shahrukh who goes back to his home country (India) after a long stay in the U.S. He is touched when he finds a kid (who should probably be in school) forced to make a living selling water on a train station for 25 paise a cup. Most things in life come back a full circle. No matter how much you think, things have changed there are certain things that remain the same.

The other day NOVA had a special on the theories trying to explain the existence of the universe. They said Isaac Newton divined the theory of gravity; there was Albert Einstein who probed the notion of relativity, or the many physicists who assembled the elements of quantum mechanics, which at times defies logical thinking; all this does in a way. If only all these scientists, physicists, knew or were exposed to the Rigveda they might have found their answers. If not there in some other Vedic philosophic doctrines, which dwelt on the origins of mankind; which exactly proves my point the more things change the more they remain the same. Only human beings question it, find out answers through science and experiments and just when they feel comfortable in their superiority of knowledge, their entire beliefs are shaken by natural disasters such as tsunamis. But, it is at precisely these low moments in life, that your beliefs can help you swim out of the muddied waters.

I heard a Washington Post reporter swimming off the coastline in Sri Lanka recounting his experience of being caught up in the tsunami on Jim Lehrer’s News Hour. "I heard my brother who was on the shore call out to me to come on to the shore for safety and I looked up to see a huge wave of a wall of water rushing towards me. I felt like it was a scene straight from the Bible with Noah’s ark rising."

This just goes to show that it is our beliefs that remain with us, when all other things around us seem to be changing. Nevertheless, when our mothers, aunts or elders baby us it still has the power to upset us.