Sunday, January 29, 2017

The Curious Case of Food and Friendships - Culture Diaries: India and Amrikka!

Ever since my arrival at the United States, everything has been a learning curve- a learning curve not only in terms of what I learn from this culture but in terms of what I see as weirdly different from my own and, how it probably affects my relationships and interactions. I would venture on to say that my posts, poetry and writing have all been a product of my socio-cultural and economic upbringing- they are my little snippets of cultural diaries and on that front, this topic is something that I have been sitting on ever since I came here.

Within weeks of having arrived at America,the initial newness of the physical surroundings and people diminished; customs, practices and people's levels of interactions started looming in on my now more-aware mind. I have been trying to keep an open mind to learn about new cultures and ways of interactions but some parts of how India works with its relationships blew me away after I realised just how significant they have been to my development. I keep running simultaneous comparisons between how things are back home and in my brief life here thus far- they have been a very interesting mix of emotions. The last year and a half has made me a more critical person, a more accommodating and a less pampered person. It has made me more of an independent woman that I was than ever before and I cannot stress enough on the importance of some friendships here. My life here has pushed me to discover pieces of myself I hadn't known about before- in some cases in a good way and in some ways, not so much. America, sometimes is the backdrop, a contrast that has been teaching me to recognise different scenarios and different ways of living our lives- how I have been living mine, what this culture has to teach and what really does work in my own culture.

In this piece though, I want to elaborate on food and relationships. You might not think there is much of a connection between the two, but good lord, there is! I'm not exactly talking about food itself in entirety but in the bonds that are developed over sharing some. Have you heard the quote about 'families that eat together stay together'? I cannot believe in that idea enough. I sit here at 3:00 in the morning writing this with a cup of hot chai and it only reinforces it. It takes me back to conversational times with my friends and family, my own tea-master and our discussions. It's nostalgic, it's beautiful. Food does that to us- it brings all our senses together to that particular time, it helps us be in the moment more than anything else. Think about your last meal together with someone when you/your friend didn't look at your respective phones? When was it? What did you guys talk about?

I would assume it's easier to remember if the scenario existed because we are completely engaged in the conversation. We remember what we ate, we remember the music and the sounds of the cutlery, we remember the smell, we remember the way our food felt and we remember what we see. All this is logged in to our memory because we decided to have a good, mentally stimulating conversation over something physically nourishing to the body. This is the time for our body and soul combined! This is also one of the chief reasons I have ever invited the few people that I consider to be important to me in this country to come over to my apartment and share a cup of chai with me, if nothing else.

Eating together isn't necessarily something that builds relationships within family members but it extends to relationships outside home, too. I firmly believe in the concept that people who eat together build better relationships. When I was much younger, family dinners were accompanied by the radio in the background (we didn't have a fancy TV with fancy programmes on it) and absolutely delicious comfort food by my mother. I had this habit of reading books while eating which my parents never encouraged. I think about it now and am glad they did that (Now, I reflect on how televisions are ruining that time together. Me... I was content with the radio). That dinner etiquette stops me from listening to music or cordoning someone off by indulging in a personal activity when I have a meal with someone around me- it's the first space in my culture where I learnt to invite someone in.

On the large too, the Indian community and other Eastern communities are so organised so as to bring  the extended family together several times a year. We have a lot of celebrations each year for which we congregate to have large events and food (which we all eat together). The act of coming together to cook and eat is a wonderful concept, it's personal and it's important. We also have yearly rituals like devasam which are days on which members of the whole family get together to pay respects to our deceased ancestors. We have specific menus for most of these-we have aunts who specialise in each of these recipes and we all await food with the plantain leaf on the ground, all hungry. The men in the family help serve (as in mine) and it's the time where at the least 15-20 people sit together in a batch to eat as a family, jokes running about. In fact, devasam has its own menu in our culture that no one ever changes and we constantly keep telling the elders in our family about a change in menu because we get bored with the same food each year. One of my aunts says every year that she will have it written in her will that she will vouch for pizza and sandwiches for her devasam menu; it's a standard joke we all share each time. Post-death-remembrance is a solemn topic, you'd think. And yet, sitting together and talking about it with a pinch of lightheartedness and acknowledgement of our own temporal states in this world is pretty common and healthy, over comfort food and a congregation of people that care about you and love you.

And here is the thing, this probably exists in Western cultures too- getting together for meals and occasions, probably a little lesser given lesser number of major festivals that conventionally and culturally demand togetherness. But what strikes me as alarmingly different is what I find in friendship circles and peer networks. My friends from school (KG-Grade 10) and I still are in good touch. Many of us are in different parts of the world pursuing our own careers and we still try to keep in constant contact. I would think that a lot of it stemmed from our relationship blooming with sharing food. You see, when I was in school, I would generally take two boxes of lunch: one was for me and the other was for my friends. My friends loved my mother's rasam sadham and on many occasions, I've opened my lunchbox to find hardly any in it. We didn't ask one another's permission to have some food from the other. We'd all attack each other's lunch. I can still tell you which dishes are the specialty of which of my friends' mother/father. In college, one of my friends could take one look at my food, eat it and tell me if my mother or my father made the food. In a lot of cases where my dad would have made it, she would say 'Come on Hema, he has to improve! Tell him'. It was hilarious. I'd recount these tales back home and there is now something that connects my friends and my family before they get to see one another in person. Personalities and familiar affection already builds itself in. 

In my culture, you don't really refuse food when someone offers you some, it's rude to do so. I come from a nourishing, feeding culture. My late paternal grandmother used to tell us that when someone arrives at your doorstep, you invite them in irrespective of whether they're your friend or foe. You give them something to eat and drink, and then proceed to discuss matters. For some reason, it has stuck with me after all these years because I saw them all do it. I've seen all the matriarchs in my community nourish those who arrive at our homes. When someone is content and well-fed, you're going to have a more cordial conversation, I would assume. Every time I go to someone's house in India, the first thing I am asked about after basic inquiries about my well-being and my family's is an offer to eat/drink something. With some of my friends' parents it's almost no choice-- you are going to eat no matter what, if you've not had your meal yet. I see it as a manifestation of love and care. No one exactly forces you to eat but you are always offered multiple choices and when you finally deny it to a point where some of them might get hurt- you ask for some water so as to not offend the person trying to feed you.

What is actually happening in this scenario is that you are taught to accept the love that friends/family offer you. When that happens, you are letting someone into an intimate circle of your life- you are giving them the right to feed you without feeling like you owe them something in return. For me personally, when I let someone pay for my food, it's a step higher in our friendship. I would only do so with people I am comfortable with or trust. I would get the next cheque, I know. But it also means that I have reached that stage in the relationship where I am comfortable at the prospect of someone paying for a basic necessity in life at the time without feeling like I owe them something in return. Friendships bloom when you feel like you don't owe your friend something in return. This isn't a transaction (I still don't understand some of my American friends tell me 'I owe you one'. It makes me feel like an outsider).

Friendships and sharing food/meals go a long way. Some of my best friends and I bond over good food and amazing chai. Sometimes, I feel very lonely in this country because I don't have anyone to share some tea with. Don't get me wrong, I love my alone time and there are many moments I have been glad for no company but for some piping hot ginger tea and a good book. But there have also been those times when I'd sit on my apartment's porch hoping I'd find some neighbour or even a passer-by to sit down and have some tea with me because it gets that lonely. That is one of the things I have had to come to terms with living alone in a foreign country with its own values and culture. And oh, I wish it was a little more amenable on this front.

What I also find innately different when it comes to food culture is how rushed mealtimes are in the States. Eating food has to be a calm, relaxed time with your friends/family or yourself. I find the American culture of 'to-go' and 'drive-in's' a little scary as it puts people in a rush-mode. I keep spotting people eating wrapped burritos and sandwiches in their cars or at their desks, alone. I find it odd to sit in a room that has seven people with three of them eating at their desks, alone; because my first cultural instinct is to gather with them and eat together, offer them whatever I have. I simply cannot imagine not offering people what I have before I touch my food myself and even though I know it's nothing personal when my American friends do decline, it still kind of feels hurtful and weird to me-- it's almost as if I am not really friends with them because I have not crossed the borders of having dined with them.

Almost all my friendships grew with a healthy relationship surrounding food and dining habits. I tell some of my good American friends: in my culture, when you become friends with someone, you don't just become friends with them; you become friends with their family. More so, your closest friends become family. I can drop by any of my best friends' houses without warranting their presence in their own homes and still be treated as family by their own, be fed and have conversations with. You always end up having them. Sharing food is the first step towards inclusion in many communities. If I am seeing a friend's mother for the first time, my first instinct is to bring up something we can both relate to. Most often, it's the food she may have sent through my friend or a story my friend passed on to me. When I am my best friend's house and her grandmother offers us tea and breakfast, it's amazing to see how her grandmother gives it to us every time- she would have made chai with exactly the amount of sugar each of us take in our beverage. She tells us which of the two cups is for whom. Now, that is an intimate detail. Food is an intimate detail, you learn that when you start eating together. My sister has been away from home ever since she turned 18-- going from college to work to marriage and now, here in USA. I am spending time with her over dinner conversations after almost a decade now. She is highly maternal and makes really great food that I love. Sometimes though, we'd be having food-- my baby niece, my sister and I; with my mother on Skype and I'd take a small serving of a particular dish. My sister would insist on me eating more and would start commenting on how little I eat and how it is affecting my health. My mother would suddenly intervene saying that that isn't a dish I particularly like or that that is not how I eat/cook that vegetable. That too, is intimate knowledge. It takes a long time to understand what our friends and family like with respect to food. I finally have the opportunity to catch up with my sibling over mealtimes now and I believe it fosters a good, much stronger relationship. Similarly so, tell me: don't you feel somewhat happy when the waitress at your regular diner knows your favourite dish and how it's cooked, whether you take coffee with milk or hot chocolate with whipped cream? Why do you think that is?

This isn't just for friends and family. I would even go on to talk about my own neighbours, for that matter. My neighbours in Madras know the dishes of theirs that I like and sometimes make some extra for me. They drop by and give me some food if my parents aren't in town and I need dinner. My mother and our maid would sometimes sit together for coffee and biscuits after the work gets done. At my place of internship during my architecture days, the employees would sit together and have lunch. These are times that bring people together and it bothers me a little bit that eating is a largely solitary affair in this culture.

Mealtimes are mostly meant to be communal times, in my opinion. We would all benefit from sitting together and sharing a meal or even a cup of tea, once a day. Of some of the culturally different situations I have come to encounter, just trying to schedule times with friends to hang out and have dinners/a quick cup of coffee or tea has been the hardest. I wish there was more space in this culture for more on-the-fly, extempore meetings for breakfast and the like. The people I am most acquainted with and close friends in the country have all been to my tiny apartment in Columbus for a cup of chai at the least because I don't know of any other way to welcome someone into my life and personal space. When you meet someone outside of the conditions in which you would ordinarily meet another, you are planting the seeds to a good relationship.You are opening yourself up to more than you regularly do- more emotions, more trust and more conversations. You are generally less cranky when you eat and you have company, which is almost always a good thing. You tend to be more comfortable, more happy and probably more conversational.

I hope more of you start eating together or set aside time to have more in-person meetings over food/drinks than indulging in a solo eating affair. Tell me if there is some food from my culture that you want to try and I'll try and make it for you. Let's get together and bake cookies. Offer me muffins if you make some. Eating together is a culture I don't want to forget coming here (I don't mean to say this in any accusatory way, by the way).

We have little time with one another. I hope we can bond over chai and biscuits, not always emails/texts. I hope we can become good friends. I hope we can be friends enough to let myself ask you if you want to catch some breakfast together, if free, out of the blue.

Much love and the smell of ginger chai to you,

Also, here are some heart-warming advertisements for you to check out. These ads particularly work well with an Indian audience because these are all some real-life situations. This is honestly one of the best ways we bond. I would love for you all to take a look at these tiny clips and see what I am getting at! :)

And some interesting articles I found online:

The Importance of Eating Together
The most American thing there is: eating alone

Would love to know your views! :) 

Friday, January 6, 2017

The Privilege that Comes with a Penis | Understanding Us (Women) and Your Privilege

You've read much about the Bangalore New Year night's incident: inebriated men passing lewd remarks at the women gathered that night for celebrations, groping and sexual assault. You've probably seen the molestation incident at Kammannahalli caught on CCTV camera. You probably saw the onlooking bystanders who did not intervene- there were about five of them. I counted. They saw, some stopped and came back to stare more and did not do anything. It makes me sick to my stomach. You've probably read that a million times now on social media. Women are coming forward with these attacks, trying to raise their voice loud and clear above a drowning chant of men and other women who refuse to see the original problem of the situation. Sometimes it works, it does create awareness. But, I don't know if it has ever been detailed for some of you. I want to do that today. I want you all to crawl into a woman's skin (I'm writing this in binary as men and women/femme/queer- I welcome the thoughts of trans and other genders- I didn't write this in entire inclusiveness because I don't know your experiences and didn't want to write something wrong that may offend anyone) for a few minutes as you read this post. 

You think sexual assault is horrible, a terrible act. That's a wonderful start for you to acknowledge it. But it's not enough. Those onlookers in the Kammannahalli incident probably agree with me- they agree it's wrong to molest anyone. But again, it's not enough. I would gamble on one of these being chief reasons for not intervening- fear of being attacked themselves, not wanting to be involved in an issue that could become a police case (and in turn, the possibility of their families being put at risk), nonchalance or of a she-asked-for-it-late-this-night mind-set. Some of them are understandable reasons even, but still- they are not enough for you to merely watch when someone needs help. Now, the woman in the video was brave (that's a default setting in women that I have to explain to you later) and fought till she could get herself away from these people but what if she had been overpowered? I hate to ask of men- What if it was your daughter/mother/sister/wife/girlfriend/friend? Other than hitting an emotional nerve at the thought to simply have you imagine the feeling, it makes me sick that I would have to put you through a fabricated hell dragging a loved woman into the picture in order for you to even see a fraction of what I am talking about simply because then, it is again not about the woman. It's still about you- a man, and what runs in your head when someone close to you is hurt. Step away from your privileged role with a penis. This is not about you. This is about us and our everyday battles and wars. 

Now, some of you wonder why I would have to sound so crude in saying 'penis' instead of a man. I am sorry, but I am not really sorry. It is true. You have the privilege to be a man simply because of your penis. At the least, a cis man, of the heterosexual orientation. You have a privilege. You have a voice louder than a few people from other categories combined because we are historically still there. We live in a patriarchal world. I am writing things down this crudely because I want you to reflect on this. I don't know who this is reaching.I don't know if it reaches beyond my echo chambers but to the masses that I know to read and agree with this (as I see on my newsfeed), I want you to see even further. 

A friend had recently posted about her experience with a stalker on her blog, racing thoughts of what to do, how to react and simply- the kind of fear every woman is acquainted with. Only yesterday, I was one of the two/three women at a poetry night to read poems surrounding sexual assault and molestation. I know of women in my family and my friends circles who have been victims of abuse and domestic violence. This is just what hit me in the span of three or four days. If I have to account every time a man touched me inappropriately, I could give you a book. Almost every woman would, especially if she is from India.

Now, you all know this to a good deal. Let's dig a little deeper. 

Men: Assume you want to go from point A to B and you don't have private transportation. Say, you'd have to take the bus. What would you do and what would go through your mind? I want you think about it for a second before you read any further. 

Done? What was it? Say it out loud, please. Great. 

Alright. Do you want to know what we go through? It starts at home with our parents asking us to be careful. An average Indian woman's mother would have asked me (an average Indian woman) to adjust my dupatta if it looks like my breasts are garnering attention; I am asked to be safe (I really don't know what that means- it's out of my control). I go out to the road, I wonder if my clothes are in order. Is my cleavage visible? Are my bra straps peeping? Is that guy across the road a threat? Why is he staring at me like that? Is it my dupatta? There is the bus stop. I hope I am not attracting too much attention. Would that neighbour aunty think I am promiscuous because I am wearing extra kaajal today? Here comes the bus. Oh boy! It looks crowded. Do I wait for the next one? But I'd be late. All the seats for women are taken. I could wear my backpack and keep the men away but I'd be yelled at for taking up too much space. There is the stalker boy. Why doesn't he give up? I can feel someone's groin against my back-wait-is it just a lunchbox? Maybe. No. It's a hand- definitely a hand. Here is this woman making an eye contact with me- she knows. She understands. Maybe if I moved a little? No, that would mean two men at my back. One of them looks harmless though. But are they, really? Why is this bus jerking so much! There is my stop. Let me get past this crowd. Did that guy just touch my waist? Get out. Get out. Ah, air. Let's get to college. Oh, great- I have some sneering, lewd comments. How does that guy know my name? Is he following me? Shit, he's following me. There are not many people on this road either. Wait, oh, I am okay. He wasn't following me. There is destination B. Breathe. 

(In fact, I wrote to a publication about this 6 years ago- An Open Letter to those Opportunist Uncles who Sexually Abuse women on Buses).  

Now, tell me. Was that tiring to read? Yes? That's how we feel every single day. Don't get me wrong, we are not fragile, defenseless women. If a man would try to touch me brazenly, I would now raise my voice. I would try to hit him and defend myself. But more than the physical strain I would ever have to go through, coping with issues of trusting men at all comes to the foreground. I have been sexually molested several times- starting from when I was in Grade 2 or 3 (that is the earliest I remember) and here is the thing- it's not just that preying man on the road. My Grade 3 memory is with a family member! These people are within families- extended and otherwise- people that your parents trust you with. One of my closest friends and I are conversing about this fatigue just as I write this and with her permission I am telling you her story: She was inappropriately touched by her grandfather. She is still uncomfortable about getting physical with her own boyfriend of several years- her heart says yes but the body screams no. She is one of the strongest and well-read people I know with a clear voice but no one but for me and a few others perhaps, know about this-not even her mother, whose father was responsible for this. Can you imagine how deep a disgust has to be if we can all feel it in our mouth after decades? I've been sexually harassed by opportunistic uncles on the bus, a bus conductor, stalkers when I was in school, a coach I loved with all my life- you have to understand how much energy I need to summon in order to write all this so publicly. When I read my poem yesterday at a poetry night I consider to be a safe space, a piece that took me 9 years to write, I saw in the eyes of some women that they felt what I was talking about. It's a kind of experience almost most of you men will never go through (I am not dismissing the innumerable cases of men who have been molested and raped though. Again, our society doesn't validate their trauma either. They ask them to buck up and be a man). 

Do this, my dear men reading this. I know you are against sexual assault and victim blaming. I do. But have you ever sat down to talk to your lady friend or sister about what goes on in her head? I bet you have listened to these experiences but have you asked them to tell you in detail, to trust you enough to tell you how it hit them mentally? Do any of these incidents after decades still have a hold on them; weigh in on their everyday decisions? ASK your wife or your girlfriend. Go on. I would ask you to be prepared to listen to the disgust, though. 

Is this post one of those big rants? I would partially agree. But would you learn more about your own stance against sexual assault towards a greater understanding- I would be inclined to say yes. Learn more about consent. Learn more about empathy. I am trying not to hug my own 4 year old niece without her permission- consent is everything. I hug only when she is okay with it. We have a lot of experiences and one kind of physical contact that you deem harmless may in fact, scare a woman to no ends because of her experiences. I read an article online that summed up what rape anxiety is-I need for you to read it. Almost every woman you come in contact with has definitely experienced this. Do you understand how real this situation is? Do you understand how tiring it is to be un-trusting and on-guard all the time?

A lot of mothers tell their daughters: ALL men want one thing. Now, I have my qualms about that statement. I would like to think it is not true. I was talking to the previously mentioned friend about this and this is what she said: "That's the problem you know. Remember the uncles you wrote about, in the buses. They are someone's father. Someone's husband. They are men that care very much for their families and this families care very much for them. Love them. Just the way we do our fathers. What goes wrong? Why can't they be trusted? It makes me realise that it's all men. And the futility of that. All men! How does one fight that?[sic]"

What can I say to that? These are merely some difficult conversations and thoughts we have to have every day. I am not saying I don't trust men. I'm actually on the other end. I try and trust people on the outset, with my own boundaries. I try to let not scarring incidents change my trust in men. But it's something I have to dedicate myself to do- I have to spend time and energy on something I would very easily get blamed for- as a victim. Victim-blaming is way too real. My relatives have implied that of me. Your parents are doing the same when they say 'This is why she shouldn't go out late in the night!' A lot of this is care and concern but it's stifling and suffocating. I can't have a regular life because a boy on the streets can't control his sexual urges? I can't wear comfortable clothes, I have to avoid crowded buses, I can't hang out with male friends, I can't watch a late-night cinema, I can't stand around tea-shops, I can't do this and I can't do that- all of this is for absolutely no fault of mine. I have a curfew because I might get raped. Do you realise how fucked up that narrative is? 

This issue has been misinterpreted in many ways. The #NotAllMen hashtag in response to the Bangalore's incident is a disgrace. Am I supposed to give you an award for not molesting someone? These hashtags are virtual good-for-nothings. What happens to us is real. The trauma and the hurt is real. If a woman cries when she sees something like this happen, like when you remember Nirbhaya's incident (remember this?), it is because we know this. We can feel it in our bodies- it's a lot of disgust.  And I don't even want to start on marital rape which is still not considered a crime in India!

For starters, we want you to acknowledge this situation we are in. Let's agree that there is still a chauvinistic, patriarchal setting in the country that blames the victim and not the perpetrator under the guise of cultural values and belief systems. Read about it more. Ask people. I want you to understand this inside out to the point where you feel like you can't bear to hear of the details anymore. Then, I want you to use your privilege for good. Next time your parents say that the girl in the shorts was asking for it, tell them they are wrong. The next time one of your peers tells you that a woman is over-reacting, call them out. There is nothing manly about standing there and not saying anything about it. The next time a woman tells you how tiring it is- listen. If you see someone being attacked on the streets- help them. Let's all call out on misogyny and making all this sound normal. It's not! Movies are constantly showing the lead actor as a stalker who pursues a woman until she says yes. (If you know and understand Tamizh- see this. It's nicely-explained to some extent) I would assume that the man who hacked a woman (who refused to fall in love with him) to death at the Nungambakkam Railway Station is one such follower. Let's use social media to boycott such movies and raise opinions. What else can you do beyond sharing FB posts and outrage on Twitter? I would love to hear from you. 

My dear men reading this, I am not saying you're all like this. No. But I am saying that most of you do not really know how much trauma lies under this because you're privileged. You're privileged if you can go out at 2 AM for a run without being worried about being sexually harassed. Now, you may be afraid of being robbed- have you been afraid of being touched without consent? Especially in a country like India where this is happening, it's growing and it's scary. The response to these things are a list of victim-blaming and chauvinistic tones coming from people in power, politicians. Why don't we have a sex-offenders registry in India yet? If I can report every single man who touched me inappropriately, if there is a fear in the system, I would readily do it. (We are going to have a sex-offenders registry in India, hopefully soon) But a lot more of what we have are men and women in positions of power that say 'boys will be boys'. That, I hope never becomes something you teach your kids, even as something that could be interpreted in a matter-of-fact way. It's a shame! 

I have to stop this for this is something that I can keep going on about. All I am saying is you are privileged in more ways than you know, as men. I want you to see to the maximum possible extents that you can, what it is that women have to face every day. Ask them. Make this a breakfast table topic. Learn, educate yourselves. Tell others who might not be on social media, not in your echo chamber. If you don't tell your parents who victim-blame a woman that they were wrong to be wearing what they were, or drinking, or out at 10 PM, you are still helping the oppressor. 

You are still a part of the problem. 

Be the change you wish to see. 

Much love to you for reading all this! 


Also watch other videos that shed light on the things we have discussed here and the like :

Image Source: A still from the short film 'That Day After Everyday' by Anurag Kashyap. The image doesn't belong to me.