Stranger in a Strange Land

This is my last guest post for Sepia Mutiny, and I want to thank all the bloggers and readers here for their interest, comments and links.

gringo Since I was invited to do this, I meant to write a post about cashews in an okra curry. I had this dish at a wedding reception during Thanksgiving break, and the table of the kids with whom I’d grown up thought it was tasty but not exactly home cooking. My little sister wanted to rebut this presumption; just because we didn’t recognize it, she argued, was no reason to assume that it was not Telegu, or not South Indian. Non-Indians seem to find these distinctions amusing and/or confusing. A white friend of mine is dating a Tamil Brahmin and I’m still trying to make him grasp that everything from her religious practices to her food preparation will be different from my family’s traditions. Still, these can be difficult to map out, literally: when I recognize that “we” do something that other people don’t, does that mean that the something is Indian, Southie, Telegu or just us? Continue reading

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NSFW, But for Temple

While writing my last post, I ran across an article about trying to reduce the number of families who had their daughters become devadasis. I was fairly sure that I knew what that meant, but Googled for confirmation and thus saw this NOT SAFE FOR WORK site, which was the third hit. Abhi blogged about it previously here.

I don’t want to be putting down someone whose circumstances and mindset I’m only gleaning from a website, but for a devadasi to operate for personal profit seems rather irregular. I suppose this independence removes it from the most objectionable aspects of the “traditional” devadasi system as still practiced today. Yet to be doing it so differently while working under the same name worries me, because that kind of definitional blurring often works to bury the problematic actions under the newly legitimized ones. Kama dismisses the question of why she isn’t working in a temple with “For many years it has been illegal to leave girls in the temple because of the many problems that have become associated with the poverty and exploitation of many Devadasi.” This answer seems to minimize the inherent problems of temple prostitution. Continue reading

Freedom Of, Freedom From

A conservative friend and I spotted the Onion’s headline “Activist Judge Cancels Christmas,” and — unsurprisingly for all of you who have put up with my ranting on this subject — proceeded to have a disagreement. He predicted that there would be an instance of “life imitating art,” and I found the notion of a judge’s interfering with non-governmental celebration of Christmas as ridiculous as the Onion did. (The parody is not about state-sponsored Nativity scenes, which are likely to be found unconstitutional.) I said that I wouldn’t want the government to attempt to represent Hinduism, as they’d probably make as much a muck of it as non-Hindu retailers do, and continued to be puzzled as to why Christians and the occasional Jew did. He replied that this was only because I was living in a country where the government was unlikely to do such a thing, and that I’d be less likely to protest it in India.

My understanding was that India’s Constitution had requirements similar to those of the U.S. First Amendment, requiring that the government neither establish religion nor constrain the exercise of it. But a closer look shows that in this, as with so many things, the American Founders valued brevity over the locquacious explanation dear to desi hearts, and I hope that some Mutineers can help me understand how the difference works out in practice. Continue reading

Movement Without Immigration

desitech.jpg Most of H.R. 4437, the “Border Protection, Antiterrorism, and Illegal Immigration Control Act of 2005″ discussed in Abhi’s post, looks like the trainwreck that he deems it. Still, I think that the part that amends Section 274A of the Immigration and Nationality Act (8 U.S.C. 1324a) to increase penalties on employers for hiring undocumented workers is a step in the right direction. The United States needs a more honest immigration policy, one that includes neither support for law-breaking nor animus toward immigrants, and as long as employers win on the cost benefit analysis — F x P < S, where F= cost of fines, P= probability of getting caught, and S= saved money from using undocumented labor — we never will have such reforms. Supporting illegal immigration is at best a short term help to such aliens, as they deal with the longterm problems of having to remain invisible and lack access to the safety net for the elderly, i.e. Social Security and Medicare. Whose sympathy for the undocumented cab driver extends far enough to pay for his prescriptions when he’s too old to drive anymore? Continue reading

An Oriental Gives Up

When an Indian television station insists on titling a finance program “Oriental and Occidental,” it is time for me to expend no more energy on protesting such terms’ use as racial descriptives. oriental.gif

I had thought that having American Heritage Dictionary recognize “oriental” as problematic was a step forward, but I suppose I can count on the thick-brown-skinned folks at CNBC-TV18 to maintain the status quo. Nonetheless, I will complain that the subject of the show doesn’t even seem relevant to the name; what does foreign investment in India have to do with that old binary of “Oriental” versus “Occidental”? Particularly when some of the global market gurus include non-Occidentals like Ayaz Ebrahim, the Asia-Pacific CEO for Asia-based HSBC. The explorers of the exotic East, at least when it comes to the international flow of capital, no longer are solely Caucasians.

The prompt for an economics writing competition when I was an undergraduate was something like, “Free trade contributes to peace.” I don’t know if that is true, but I would think that genuinely free trade — in contrast to the protectionist economies of 18th and 19th century imperialism, against which Adam Smith wrote — might erase some of the old ways of Orientalist thinking. Continue reading

Help a Wannabe-Desi Out

white india.jpg Verity, at the conservative blog Albion’s Seedlings, says she wants to settle in India and buy property there. However, she’s been told that she can do neither.

My understanding is that with the approval of the Reserve Bank, she can buy property for residential purposes, and Wikipedia claims, “Citizenship of India by naturalisation can be acquired by a foreigner who is ordinarily resident in India for twelve years (continuously for the twelve months preceding the date of application and for eleven years in the aggregate in the fourteen years preceding the twelve months).”

Anyone know more about this than just what a Google search turns up? Continue reading

Merry Krishmas

I loved this suggestion from the thread on Chrismahanukwanzakah:

All Mixed Up – i sort of have a soft spot for christmas trees… i think they’re fun. when i have kids i’m going to decorate my tree with Om ornaments and little sita, ganesha, and ram ornaments…and my tree is going to be topped with a flute playing krishna. [okay i probably won't do that...but it was a fun picture to paint in my head]. Not mixed up after all – I actually did that last year. Put up a tree with ornaments and bulbs and topped it with a silver idol of Krishna playing the flute…My “Krishmas” tree :-)

christ.gif The Christmas tree already was up when I went home at Thanksgiving, and was quite pretty except for the hideously oversized red bow at the top. What to do with the top of the tree is an annual problem. Many years we’ve just stuck a random ornament, or left it bare. This year, I suggested that Mom replace the aesthetically distressing ribbon with a big gold OM that was gathering dust on a high shelf in the kitchen. This way we could avoid distressing the Christmas fanatics by not secularizing our tree, without having to put an angel or star in which we don’t believe there. Manish, this doesn’t fall into the schlock category of a tree in the shape of an OM, does it?

Yes, despite what you might have thought after reading my grumping about the made-up “discrimination” against Christians, I celebrate Christmas and have done so for years. My mom claims that when we were very little, she would give us gifts on Diwali instead (supposedly some people do this for Pancha Ganapati), but we would cry at Christmas because we didn’t get presents then. As they couldn’t easily afford two gift-giving seasons back then, my parents opted to assimilate a bit more and get in on this Christmas thing, and now that they’re better off, we go for the full materialist extravaganza of gifts, food and travel.

But thanks to William A. Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights and the man who got Wal-Mart to fire the poor schmuck who knew about Christmas’s pagan origins (and now is launching a boycott of Land’s End), I might have to give up Christmas. Continue reading

Conversion Factors

One of my most terribly Americanized tendencies is to find out what’s going on in India mostly from non-Indian sources. For example, while editing an article about prison rape, I ran across a couple of press releases by a Southern Baptist organization that was trumpeting its success in Christianizing higher caste Hindus. Presumably their particular delight in making inroads in this sector of Indian society is not due to caste snobbery as such, but to missionizing’s generally having its best luck among marginalized groups rather than the mainstream. This is true not only for Christianity in India, but also of Islam in the United States, which found many more converts among African Americans, particularly those who were imprisoned, than among affluent whites.

My reaction to this news was complex. On one hand, I’m very opposed to the laws in Tamil Nadu and Gujarat that briefly attempted to ban mythical “forced conversions” and required people to register any change in religion with the government. If people wish to peacefully convince others of a particular belief, even one with which I don’t agree, they should be free to do so without fear of punishment or deportation.

On the other hand, I find conversion activity vaguely displeasing because it inherently pre-supposes the superiority of one religious faith over another. For whatever reason, I don’t mind thinking liberalism preferable to conservatism, capitalism to communism, but a similar judgment on religions tends to raise my hackles. Moreover, one could claim that the Indian government appears to treat all conversion activity as objectionable, even when it doesn’t involve Hindus. Ennis’s mention of Indian Jews two months ago neglected to note that the Indian government objected to having the previously-Christianized, long-ago descendants of Jews officially converted to Judaism on Indian soil. Continue reading

World AIDS Day on Indian Standard Time

I meant to post this yesterday and now invoke my ethnic background to excuse my tardiness.

aids in India.jpg While my laptop’s already suffering from too much spyware to withstand finding a cure for HIV, I did want to note World AIDS Day in some way. Via Anupam Chander, I see that HIV+ women in Golaghat, Assam joined a rally “to acknowledge they are living with AIDS and should not be shunned.” From what I can tell, India is doing surprisingly well, particularly compared to some African nations, in admitting its HIV crisis. When I last visited in 2003, there were bilboards with giant pictures of condoms, which is something I’ve never seen even in Houston or Dallas, where conservatism appear to be greater than in Bombay and Hyderabad. Though the government is unwilling to say just how big the population of HIV+ Indians is — as a NYT editorial puts it, “India is providing numbers no one believes” — it has not gone through the lengthy period of denial that the U.S. government did in the 1980s, which allowed HIV to threaten to become epidemic among margnialized groups.

The problem now is getting treatment to sufferers, and unlike the issue of accepting the existence of the disease (though that certainly is far from complete, and contributes to the difficulty of accessing treatment), seems likely to get worse, not better. The WTO is supposed to be giving developing nations more time to comply with patent rules, but Indian already reformed its laws last year. This has had the benefit of drawing large pharmaceutical companies who previously feared that their investments would be unprotected. On the downside, however, are millions of Indians who cannot afford the cost of a patented drug and whose salvation previously had been the cheap generics that local drug makers had pirated. Continue reading

Majoritarian Blasphemy

I came over to Sepia Mutiny to write about this and discovered that something similar already is being thoroughly canvassed in comments here. Ah, well.

Recently I’ve marked the onset of each winter by complaining about the people who complain about the de-Christianization of Christmas. My last post on the matter focused particularly on the bizarre spectacle of some Christian extremists who are offended when Wal-Mart fails to greet them with Merry Christmas instead of Happy Holidays, and who assume they are being discriminated against because Christmas, unlike Kwanzaa and Hannukah, didn’t have a section separated from Holiday on the giant retailer’s website. I found their desire to have their religion associated with trees and Barbies very bizarre, concluding “Personally, I’d be annoyed if paintball places declared themselves to be celebrating Holi.” paintballHoli

Then I stopped and thought about whether I’d feel differently in India, where I’d be in the majority rather than in a small minority. Maybe there I’d feel that something was being taken from me, that my place in the majority was being disrespected, if the day before Diwali, someone merely wished me “Happy Holidays” in an attempt to be inclusive of Eid (which this year came the day after Diwali). Can anyone who’s been in India more recently than I recall instances of Hindu holidays being traditionally tied to secular items, and Hindus’ being offended when the secular items were dissociated from the religious holiday? Speaking of commercial acknowledgments of faith, I’m not offended, but I am a little puzzled that my planner notes Christian, Jewish, Muslim and even Buddhist holidays, but nothing of Hinduism. I think the maker, Quo Vadis, is based in Canada, but surely there aren’t so many more Buddhists or Muslims in the Great White North than there are Hindus? UPDATE: Here’s one way to get a multicultural holiday — put bindis on Mary and Joseph. Continue reading