Category Archives: Hindi Language

Themes of Honor and Shame in Bollywood Movies

Two huge Bollywood blockbusters just hit theaters in the last two weeks across the world. Both are selling out as crowds flock and millions of dollars have been made so far.

On the surface both films look quite different.

Padmaavat is an epic drama about two warring kingdoms, staged in the 13th century. It capitalizes on the glamor of the royal life in the prime of Rajput glory. It has clear protagonist (Queen Padmaavati and King Maharawal Ratan Singh) and antagonist (Sultan Alaudin Khilji). The basic thrust is that Sultan Khilji becomes obsessed with Queen Padmaavat and conquers her kingdom so that he can take her for himself. Spoiler alert- in the end, upon defeat of the Rajput army, the entire clan of Rajput women burn themselves alive to prevent capture by the conquering army, thus maintaining the honor of the community.

Pad Man, is staged in dusty streets of North Indian Varanasi, in modern times. The protagonist is real life inventor, Arunachalam Muruganantham and the antagonist is society itself. He is a simple man fighting against societal norms to create low cost sanitary pads for women. The thrust of the film has created a movement across India to openly discuss menstrual health of women, a topic which has been taboo for millennia in the Indian subcontinent. He faces many obstacles, the biggest one being the sheer shame put on him from the community, accusing him of being a pervert, an adulterer and mentally ill.

However different these two films may appear, a common thread ties through both of the films – defending honor and avoiding shame.

In understanding the underlying motivations of societies, there are three worldviews:

  1. Guilt-innocence cultures are individualistic societies (mostly Western), where people who break the laws are guilty and seek justice or forgiveness to rectify a wrong.
  2. Shame-honor cultures describe collectivistic cultures (common in the East), where people are shamed for not fulfilling group expectations and seek to restore their honor before the community.
  3. Fear-power cultures refer to animistic contexts (typically tribal), where people afraid of evil and harm pursue power over the spirit world through magical rituals.

These differing worldviews are what propel a number of our East/West conflicts and misunderstandings. Grasping the shame and honor context is one of the most critical pieces to understanding modern India, as we know it today.

Most of the Bollywood films have some sort of shame/honor theme. If you watch closely, even the most seemingly glitzy and modern Bollywood films carry this theme underneath the skimpy dancing and flashy cars.

Amidst the glamor of Padmaavat and the simplicity of Pad Man, these films show how critical these motivations are to Indians. However modern, anglicized and forward India may be on the world stage, lets not confuse the true underlying motivations of shame and honor that lay in the modern Indian heart.


Credit to Author, J. Georges, for definition of three worldviews.


Firangi Bahu- Does This Really Represent Indian/Western Marriages?

Built on drama, jealousy, lies, and mistrust, Firangi Bahu was just like every other saas/bahu drama on Indian television, with one exception, a British bahu instead of a homegrown one. After one dreadful season, Sahara One cancelled it.

firangibahu-indianwesternThe show shows Camili (British born 20 something) who met Pranay (a wealthy Gujurati boy studying in London) and secretly get married after a whirlwind, short-lived stint of infatuation.

Pranay was a  babied son who didn’t know how to balance the challenges of family responsibility with having a love marriage. Camili was a naive but sweet spirited girl who desired to please people around her and fit into the conservative Indian Desai household she found herself a part of.

Like many other serials on Indian television, this show skewed several portions of reality. The show did a good job of breaking down negative stereotypes of Westerners, but unfortunately reinforced negative views of Indian families:

Exaggerated View of Dysfunctional Families

Fortunately, many foreigners who have experiences in India know that the dysfunction of the Desai family is not the reality for most Indian households.  This show had all the stereotypical “worst case scenario” characters –a vindictive older bhabhi who was trying to control and hurt others , a mother-in-law who was desperately trying to maintain power over a changing household, and an unsupportive and childish husband who was easily manipulated by catty female relatives.

This show was not unique, as many of the family serials thrive of jealous relationships, and mere emotional drama to keep ratings high.  Sadly, shows like this make Indian families look horrible to the outside world. I’m calling “bluff” on these negative stereotypes.

Inflated “Love” Story 

Pranay and Camili’s meeting and marriage was based on almost no true relationship, but pure infatuation. The scenes of their “love story” mostly consisted of bumping into each other at the train station followed by eyelash batting and romantic music playing in the background. Not much you can tell about a person by just batting your eyelashes at them.

Most of the successful Western/Indian marriages I’m aware of were based on two people having common interests, mutual friends, common values, and healthy friendships. Most couples get to know each other, spend time together in a variety of situations, and do their best to see the “true colors” of their partner before making a lifelong commitment.

Camili and Pranay got married without his family’s knowledge, which is also rare from what I’ve observed. From any cultural perspective, families are bound to be very upset if a young person does this. In my opinion, the characters started off on the wrong foot to begin with. Things are bound to get rocky when a couple doesn’t have a strong foundation or a shred of family support.

Excuses Abuse of Women:

A recent episode showed Pranay confronting Camili by grabbing her by the face, pinning her arm behind her back, and falsely accusing her of being unfaithful and getting pregnant with someone else’s child. I was a little shocked, although I know Indian television and movies show this kind of behavior all the time, and excuses it as just “the way things are.” I know this kind of abuse does certainly happen, but I especially want to emphasize that this is not the norm of cross cultural relationships.

Camili is a girl who had no father, was raised by an alcoholic mother and has now found a new variety of abusive relationships in her sasuraal.  In the West we call this kind of person someone with a “victim” mentality. Camili seems to be to be a woman in love, but someone who didn’t get the whole picture before diving into a lifelong relationship. She is now married to a pampered adult man who thinks it is ok to abuse and manipulate women in his life.

Pranay is portrayed as a “typical Indian boy” who loves his family and would do anything to protect their honor, even if it means rooting out people who attempt to dishonor their reputation. In the beginning of the show, Pranay was understanding, sensitive Camili’s family problems, and seemed to be an advocate for her finding acceptance with his family. His colors changed as soon as he was back in his native environment. As soon as he was faced with a major conflict, his prejudices and fears about white people all emerge and were acted out against his wife.

Most women I know who have willingly married their desi partner would not put up with this kind of abuse, neglect and blatant mistrust from their spouse.

firangi bahu relationships

Balance this Show with Real-Life Family Situations

I don’t believe this show portrays reality of most Indian/Western marriages. Camili is now stuck in an abusive family with a husband who treats her poorly. Of the desi/non-desi couples I know, these kind of dysfunctional situations are not the norm.

A family (from any cultural background) who mistreats their daughter-in-law with this kind of extreme abuse is unacceptable, and certainly not the norm in Indian families. I’d like to see a show which portrays real issues that cross-cultural Indian/Western couples face.

But functional, happy marries don’t make for good TV shows.

I’d also like to disclaim and say that the word “firangi” is not an accurate word to describe many of the non-desi wives of Indian or Pakistani men I have met. Firangi has a connotation of being a complete outsider and someone not to be trusted. The word “Videshi”, or just simply “Australian”, “American”, “Peruvian”, or “British bahu” are more appropriate. Its kind of like calling a Chinese or Korean person “Oriental.” It is degrading, antiquated, and inappropriate language.

Being White in India – Privilege and Power

I recently had an opportunity to share my story of racial identity. This is a much more personal blog than I usually write, so please respect my story in your comments.

Growing up, I didn’t realize white people in America had a “culture” as I was living in a fairly homogenous community. As a young child, even though I had some friends who were not white, it took me a move all the way across the world to crack open my worldview. In my early 20s, living in India, I was given the opportunity to be a minority for the first time in my life. Multiple layers of being different – from the way I looked, to the fact that I had not yet learned the local language, to the fact that I behaved differently from others around me, gave me the opportunity to stand outside of my worldview and look at it from an alternative perspective.

Aside from the stares, getting taken advantage of financially, and being asked all kinds of strange/invasive questions about my life, I realized there was something else peculiar about being white in India.

I saw what it was like to be in a position of power without having to work for it. 

julia-roberts in saree

Being a white woman gave me a status that I didn’t earn. Whether it is the history of British colonization in India or the social power of Hollywood, white equates power, wealth and beauty in the Subcontinent (none of which I was really considered to have a whole lot of in my own country.) This presented me with an internal dilemma. I didn’t feel like I identified with this stereotype of white woman “power, beauty and class,” but I wasn’t Indian either.

In Indian culture, it is often a compliment to an outsider when they are told “You are so Indian.” or “You are becoming Indian.” I also used to find this a great compliment as I was working hard to learn the Hindi language, and be able to adapt to live in India without too much unnecessary struggle. Now I find it unsettling when someone says “You are so Indian.” Because the fact of the matter is, I’m not. 

Playing skimpy Indian dress up? Or appreciating the culture?

In recent events, a white woman was sexually harassed in Mumbai and took her abuser down when her social media post went viral. News outlets ran the story like wildfire, but many Indian women were left feeling outed. “How come when we Indian woman try to do this, no one listens. One white lady posts about her harassment, and the internet lights up.”

There is a painful truth of white privilege in this story.

I think about the Indian women I know. Many who have had to overcome family expectations to delay marriage and get an education, women who struggle against stereotypes of the subservient daughter-in-law, women who bridge two worlds- fulfill family obligations and succeed in the workforce. I haven’t participated in these struggles, but still reap the benefits.

When the Rachel Dolezal scandal went down, I had an epiphany. I can actually say that some part of me related to Rachel Dolezal and her wrestle with the pain of being a white person when she so badly wanted to disconnect herself from the story of white privilege. However by pretending she was something she was not, Dolezal disrespected not only black people across our country, but herself.

When I face someone who flippantly says “You’re so Indian” I know they may actually mean “Wow, you’ve adapted very well to Indian culture,” but the comment scrapes at the root of white privilege. Making perfect rotis, speaking Hindi, wearing a saree, or even marrying an Indian – does NOT make a person Indian. One can appreciate all things Indian, while still maintaining their own identity. 

Respect for Indian people and my own family, keeps me from trying to imitate something that I am not. My family raised me with values that I deeply appreciate. I will never forget the rugged individualism and creativity that they allowed me to have – things which make me very American deep down inside. I can never forget that when I put on a saree or attend a Diwali celebration. An American is who I am, and yet I can love Indian culture and appreciate the deep traditions, history and ancient cultural practices without trying to paint on a facade of “being Indian” to be accepted.

In fact, I have so much reverence for India, that I would never flippantly claim to be Indian when I have not shared in the struggles of what that truly means.

Jai Hind! 


Thank you to my family for accepting me and walking with me on this journey of racial and cultural identity. Thank you to my Indian friends and family who accept me for who I am and yet generously invite me to experience their culture alongside them. 

For more on my thoughts on racial identity see Why I’m Ok Being White.

Don’t Risk Being a Bollywood Outsider

We recently started getting Hindi channels at home in the US. The other day I mentioned to another non-desi friend, that I had watched the Colors Screen Awards on my new channels.

Bollywood Female Actors at the Colors Screen Awards, January 2013.
Bollywood Female Actors at the 19th Annual Colors Screen Awards- January 12, 2013.

When I mentioned this, she asked me “Wow Jess, so do you know the actors and actresses enough to get all the nuances of an awards show?”
I replied, “Of course! You kind of HAVE to!”

As she asked this, I realized how much Bollywood matters to understanding modern culture of the subcontinent.

Bollywood is something that unites the nation. Indians from all over the country watch Bollywood- from Chhattisgarh to Chennai, Kashmir to Kerala, Himachal Pradesh to Hyderabad in addition to their regional film industries. Bollywood brings together the many cultures and subcultures of India. To bring further unification, many stars even act in multiple cinemas (for example Ashwariya Rai’s work in Tamil, Telegu, Bengali, Hindi films, and Hollywood). The music of Bollywood represents many classical and fusion styles celebrated across the subcontinent. Sociocultural trends are addressed, and everyone from rich and poor pine for new spins on the classic “boy-meets-girl” love story that Bollywood does so well.

Bollywood is bringing together more international themes into stories, as the Indian diaspora is increasing in number across the world. The popularity of Bollywood across the Middle East, Latin America, the Caribbean, the Americas, and Africa has never been greater.

To contrast, in the US, if you don’t know who Orlando Bloom is, or Amy Adams, no one will judge you. It is perfectly acceptable to say “Oh, I don’t have cable” or “I am more of a theater fan” and one is immediately excused from needing to know about Hollywood stars. While some people actually read People magazine and watch the Entertainment Channel, there is a large part of the culture that does not.

Unlike in India, if you confess to not knowing who Ranbir Kapoor is or Katrina Kaif, people will look at you as if you have a horn growing from your forehead. These actors are icons of success, beauty, wealth- and many Indians hold them up as icons to the world as national heroes. Nearly everyone in India has a TV, from rich to poor- and Bollywood is one of the major morsels of consumption via TV. Whether you like it or not, Bollywood actors serve as cultural icons.  They often set controversial cultural trends- inter-religious marriages, marrying someone much different in age, divorcing, deciding not have children. People watch Bollywood actors every move- and love to gossip and speculate on the lives of these cultural icons.

But if you admit that you don’t follow Bollywood, you are immediately labeled an outsider. And honestly, you kind of are an outsider. It is impossible to avoid the infiltration of the stars on every TV ad, billboards, blurbs of personal Bollywood star information on the national news, and in conversational topics as they take place in desi communities and homes.

If you’re interested in learning about Indian culture, don’t underestimate the power of film. Don’t risk being an outsider. Follow Bollywood.

Cross Cultural Book Review

Life of PiBeing a train commuter, I get the chance to read quite a bit. And being a member of the Chicago Public Library, I am able to check out the newest books of the season via my Kindle.

Parameters: I enjoy books which address human suffering, complicated relationships, or ones that enlighten us on life.

I’ve attempted to write a one sentence summary of my thoughts after reading the book, or what I felt the book was trying to accomplish.




  • The Life of Pi— a friend recommended this book to me, and I did expect a profound ending. This book is pure imagination, and only for those who let their minds go on an adventure. I don’t want to spoil the end, but I enjoyed the philosophical underpinnings of the story.
  • My thought? “Illusion helps cover pain.”
  • The Help– I had several “aha” moments when it came to topics discussed in this book: racial tensions, white guilt, and modern prejudices. I found this to be uplifting and lighthearted despite the heavy subject matter.
  • My thought? “I still have negative perceptions of Southern culture.”
  • The Jungle– understanding the patterns of immigration in Chicago, and the difficulties in the meat packing houses of early 1900s Chicago. Reinforced my decision to life a vegetarian lifestyle. This book left me with several strong emotions- just when this guy’s life started to get better, it got worse.
  • My thought? “Every criminal has a reason for the decisions they made. Whether they were wise or not, many people’s lack of choices lead them to crime.”
  • Marriage is for White People– I also had several aha moments while reading this book on the challenges that the African American community faces when it comes to family and marriage.
  • My thought? “A lack of marriable men in a society, causes a whole slew of  problems.”
  • The Mahabharat- Sons of Gods–typically a rusty, poorly translated epic, only this particular translation captured my attention, and expressed the real heart of the story in English. The author basically translated this in “thought for thought” method rather than “word for word.” Sort of like “The Message” versus “The King James.”
  • My thought? “Aahhh, now I get why Arjun is a big deal.”
  • Being Different: An Indian Challenge to Western Universalism– one of the most challenging philosophical and comparative religious books I’ve read. He is deeply mechanical with his analysis, and uses many “behind the scenes” examples which are very anti-Abrahamic. This guy really hates Abrahamic religions and has obviously been wounded by Jews or Christians in the past. This book is a reaction to people thinking that Hinduism is merely animistic.
  • My thought? “This author’s agenda—dharmik philosophies are the only world through view to subscribe to, and if you disagree, you’re an idiot.”
  • Dreaming in Hindi -one of the best practical linguistic books I’ve read coupled with a woman’s personal journey of learning a new language in her middle age years. I could relate to some of her struggles, but certainly not all of the problems she brought on herself from bed hopping and flirting with random men.
  • My thought? “There is definitely a right and wrong way of learning a language within the subcontinent, and this woman did it right.”
  • When She Was White: Biography of Sandra Lange  This woman was born into a white Afrikaaner who was born with African black African features.  During the time of deep segregation, family people who were between the lines got trampled on. Sandra Lange is an inspiring character, but also has a sad story.
  • My thought? “Seeing deeply wounded people change their behaviors is almost impossible. A very uphill battle.”


  • Gora– I read the most horrific translation of this book ever known to mankind. But I muscled through it and finally got to the end since I heard it was such a great book. I couldn’t keep track of the characters. The only way I made it through is because I knew the ending. I was honestly just looking forward to the ending. It was awful.
  • My thought? “People are judgmental until it hits too close to home.”
  • At Home By Bill Bryson– this didn’t capture my attention until page 250. By that time it had taken me so long to get there, the book was due back and magically disappeared off my Kindle and back into the Chicago Public Library archives.
  • My thought? “Do I really care about the history of the armchair in England? No.”
  • A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson– by far the most boring book I’ve ever attempted to read. He starts in the stars and the galaxies, and ends in the garbage dump. Basically I felt like this book was just propagating a particular worldview more than entertaining the reader.
  • My thought? “Wow, if you don’t prescribe to this worldview there is nothing for you in this book.”
  • The Invisible Man– This classic left me disappointed – I was expecting some philosophical ending, but was left underwhelmed.
  • “That’s it?”


  • Crazy Love by Francis Chan– since many were in a craze, I also jumped on the bandwagon. A straightforward, to the point, inspirational piece on rekindling a relationship with God.
  • 7 Spiritual Laws of Yoga by Deepak Chopra– you can’t teach yogic philosophy in a book. Had some good summaries, but I can’t imagine anyone would retain this without actually practicing yoga.
  • Multiplication is for White People– this book probably could have been 20 pages and made the same point it did in 200.
  • Sideways on a Scooter by Miranda Kennedy– another foreign woman’s adventures in India. While part of it I could relate to, much of it I couldn’t, but still a well written memoir on her experience.
  • Ishmael– This classic left an impression on me for a couple weeks, and I was surprised at the philosophical conversation this turned into. It brought up some challenging thoughts on the environment, ethics, and supremacy of man.
  • A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson– another hilarious Bill Bryson memoir. Look out for bears.
  • Three Cups of Tea– I read this about 4 years too late., as the controversy about Greg Mortenson had already arisen. He did many things “the wrong way” when it comes to development and many things “the right way” when it came to building relationships and caring about people. I felt like this was a case of the headstrong American doing whatever he wanted, even if half of it was stupid. Very entertaining and imaginative story.

3 Reasons Why We Need to Change Our Minds About Bihar

As I am now a regular visitor of Bihar, I hear a lot of talk about Bihar being lawless and corrupt. The picture of the past is still lingering, but people either haven’t seen the new Bihar, or are unwilling to let go of the old dusty stereotypes. For too long, Bihar has been seen as that weak little brother that everyone likes to make fun of. I find a different and promising Bihar.

1) Language and Cultural Stronghold

While Bihar has a reputation for being uneducated and backwards, I find that preserving culture and language is a priority here. Unlike some other places in India, where kids are growing up with butchered Hinglish, I’ve been shocked with modern youngsters in Bihar who are comfortable with speaking high level “shudh Hindi” in normal conversation along with studying English in school. In places like Delhi, I hear youngsters who can only speak their parent’s mother tongue half-heartedly or revert to English entirely. I can’t remember the last time in Delhi where I heard someone give me change at a store and without thinking hand me over “ek sau teis” rather than “hundred twenty three” rupees. Its refreshing to see high scale malls unashamedly flaunting billboards in pure simple Hindi, rather than adulterated ads like “Drink Karo, Enjoy Karo.” Bihar is a Hindi learner’s paradise.Another complaint of urban Indians is that highly populated cities are becoming Westernized in all the wrong ways, but I don’t find that in Patna. I find the people very connected to their traditions while also moving forward for a better Bihar.

2) Tourist Attractions

Although Bihar might not be the first place you think of when you think about the sights of India, but Bihar hosts international tourists at spots like Bodh gaya. Between 2003 and 2008, the inflow of foreign tourists to Bihar saw a near-sixfold rise from 61,000 to 346,000. (Wikipedia) Who knows what else is around the corner?

3) Developing Forward

Nitish Kumar

While the memory of Laluji still lingers on, the legacy of Bihar belongs to progress. If one plans to carry on any intelligent conversation, you cannot underestimate the importance of knowing about Nitish Kumar. He is leading the way in development and showing other states how to do it.

In 2011, Bihar was actually identified as the “least corrupt state” in a study by economists Bibek Debroy and Laveesh Bhandari.

Most of the people I find who criticize Bihar are A) people who have never here B) people who only know manual laborers and gypsies from Bihar who have settled elsewhere C) snobs from other states who are trying to prove their state is better. The future of Bihar is promising. The tides have turned. The old stereotypes of a rough, backwoods Bihar needs to be unraveled and forgotten.

Musings of Tea

“we await the great Avatar. Meanwhile, let us have a sip of tea.”

-The Book of Tea
In my travels I like to observe the differences in the way people approach life and how food and drink habits indicate that.
In the East you will find people stopping mid day- many times to enjoy a cup of tea.
No good party can be had without tea.
You can’t properly entertain guests without tea.
Everyone from rich and poor families will serve the same tea in their homes.
Chai runs thick in Indian’s blood.

This morning I made a cup of chai carefully mixed with cardamom and ginger for my Indian father in law. As we enjoyed the fresh morning air we chuckled as he mused at the way Canadians drink their coffee in HUGE mugs and drive off to the next destination plopping it in the cupholder.
“Why so much? and why so quickly?” he asks.
Cup holders and to go mugs are unheard of in the East. No one would ever think of having their tea on the run.
Tea is meant to be drunk sitting down.
It is a time to think, relax, converse, and reflect.
Why would anyone sacrifice that experience for a cupholder?

What does this tell about us in the West?
Have we in the West become a big portable mug culture?
Have we mobilized our relaxation? Have we forgotten how to ponder?

“There is a subtle charm in the taste of tea which makes it irresistible and capable of idealization.Western humorists were not slow to mingle the fragrance of their thought with its aroma. It has not the arrogance of wine, the self-consciousness of coffee, nor the simpering innocence of cocoa.”