Category Archives: India

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.

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Colonialism and Self Respect in the 21st Century 

I’ve noticed a peculiar trend. Behind a screen of nationalism, there are two polarized views that the outside world holds about India – simultaneous idolization and distain of Indian culture. Where does this come from?

There is no question that India is a land which pulls the extreme emotions out of nationals and visitors alike, but is there something deeper which affects the perception of the outside world?

Who are the voices who have defined what “India” is? Who are the ones narrating India’s history?macaulay_Colonialist

Thomas Babington Macaulay was one of history’s more unsavory characters and is credited for “divid[ing] the world into civilised nations and barbarism, with Britain representing the high point of civilisation.”

If that doesn’t make your skin crawl, I don’t know what does.

Another blurb from Wikipedia states:

In his Minute on Indian Education of February 1835, he asserted, “It is, I believe, no exaggeration to say that all the historical information which has been collected from all the books written in the Sanskrit language is less valuable than what may be found in the most paltry abridgement used at preparatory schools in England”.

Here is the thing, Macaulay never even learned Sanskrit, but relied on English translations of the works to for his analysis. In addition, the most influential colonial historian, James Mill never learned any Indian language and never visited India! He took Macaulay’s false ideas further by publicizing them across the Western world. He was motivated to provoke coercion and dominance so that the British could pillage and rule. These colonialists wanted the intellectual wealth of India for themselves. Macaulay and Mill were people who made conclusions based on assumptions rather than actual knowledge to protect their power.

There has been a false narrative spread, and it is high time to clear it up. Indian Flag Face

Amartya Sen’s “The Argumentative Indian” goes into more detail on how the self-confidence of Indians has been tarnished by these false historical reports.  These views have deeply imbedded into the Western understanding of India, and Indians’ understanding of themselves. Brushing off India’s contributions to merely the spiritual realms is short sighted.

Let’s unravel it a bit.

Sanskritic writings have often been brushed off as simply useful for spiritual purposes.  The West has a perception that yoga and ayurveda are the only relevant contributions of ancient Indian sciences to the world, but this is also shortsighted.

What about India’s ancient contributions in math and science? Aryabhata‘s pioneering astronomical calculations, Pingala’s use of Binary Code and Zero and Chess are just a few. Anyone who has heard Indian classical music recognizes the music as a mathematical wonder to your ears. Architectural concepts pioneered in the Hindu temples of South India and Vedic city planning were foundations that have been used throughout history. The oldest discovered university in the world is in Bihar, India. Oh yeah, and ever heard of the Taj Mahal?

This historical fallacies have been imbedded deep into the Western view of India and certainly the Indian psyche as well. New voices need to rise up and share the beauty and deep history of the subcontinent. The history of India needs to be retold to the world.

India and the Art of Mindful Lingering

As one walks down any Indian street, you will find one thing which is unmistakably unique to South Asian and Middle Eastern cultures – lingerers.Chai Stall

Men running chai stalls, taxi-drivers, tailors running a store – most of them just waiting around for a customer to come by. Not to mention pedestrians teenage boys crowded around a single mobile phone or aunties sitting on a mat on the stoop of their homes, just shooting the breeze. They’re just kind of all hanging out, not really doing anything. Lingering. Passing the time.

Lingering has been forgotten in the West. Lingering has been replaced with constant stimulation. We can not wait for a single thing. We expect our minds to be constantly occupied, endlessly performing.

America and India are on the opposite ends of the spectrum when it comes to our sense of time. In India, time happens to you. In the US, we tell ourselves that we have control of time. We schedule it, put it into our calendars, find every possible way to avoid wasting it, and define our lives by fighting against it.

On one side, there is the temptation to leave no margin in life and being constantly busy. Whereas on the other side, there is the temptation to leave too much margin and be constantly in a state of ease and boredom.

These are two extremes where I believe, it may be best for us to fall somewhere in the middle.

We can see our value even by the words we invent. In the West anti-aging, productivity and quality time are concepts we all understand. Anyone who has visited South Asia has an understanding of “time pass.”

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Environment and Capacity for Chaos

In India, the noise level and sensory overload is unlike any you will see anywhere else in the world. However, I would argue that the mental clutter, distraction and constant activity of the West is just as harmful and possibly more difficult to shut down. Perhaps both cultures react with the way they spend their time because of the atmosphere surrounding them.

In India you will find people sitting and spacing out while the whirlwind of noises, traffic, animals and constant clutter of activity. In the West, you will find people in silent corporate offices, headphones in, with a mind racing 100mph with tasks, meeting requests and project deadlines. The human mind can only handle so much clutter, yet we also seek it out. We do our best to balance the equilibrium of “busy vs idle.”

 

How do we create the “linger factor” in our lives? 
chai

  1. Expect the unexpected – because you know deep down that life throws curve balls at you.
  2. Unschedule your schedule – it might feel terrifying, but spontaneity will do you some good.
  3. Diversify your friend group – when you hang out with people of different cultures, maybe they will be constantly late, will stay at your house “too long” or will take 2 hours to eat a meal at a restaurant. Maybe they will stretch you. And maybe you will love it.

 

 

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! 

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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.

Three Tips for Succeeding Professionally in India

Living and working in India can be a strange mix of personal and professional, informal and formal, fascinating and frustrating.

Indian White HandshakeAs a Westerner, one of the biggest struggles I had was figuring out how to navigate personal and professional life while remaining in the appropriate frame of mind for the moment or context I was in. What are the unspoken rules of professional life in India? Where are the invisible lines of work vs play, colleague vs friend, or manager vs peer?

Here are three tips which I’ve learned through my own mistakes in my personal and professional life:

1) Know your place in the Hierarchy

Have you been hired as a contractor for 6 months to do training? Are you an employee of a large company sent for a long term project? Are you a manager of people? No matter what your place, it is essential to find out who is “above” and “below” you as far as the corporate hierarchy is concerned. If you’re a Westerner like me, you probably cringe that I’ve just written “above” and “below” in this way. Western companies are great at pretending that we are all equal and that people should feel open to knock on the CEO’s door at any time. In Indian companies, this hierarchy is simply acknowledged and consistently reinforced according to who has more power. This hierarchy is not written anywhere on paper, and others are unlikely to give you an organizational chart. This is discovered through observing others, asking indirect questions from other staff, and finding out who you are able to go to and ask direct questions to when you are confused.

One of the most important ways you can immediately implement this is by learning who to address as “Sir” and “Maam.” These are basic manners in the office place, and you may be surprised to know that even someone just a year older than you, or someone in a slightly different position than you could be cause to call them “Sir.”

Also learning to interpret age is important (don’t be fooled by a thick mustache on a 23 year old). Even though the person who picks up the garbage or the person who brings chai might be 60 years old, it is not appropriate to call them “sir” or “maam” in an office context, but it could be nice to express gratitude and respect for them as a person by adding “ji” to the end of their name. This is another example of acknowledging hierarchy in an appropriate manner. There are endless rules of hierarchy and where people’ s place social status puts them in how they relate to you, and how you relate to them.

You have even more responsibility if you are a boss or manager to respect the hierarchy. You must realize the power that your words have. People may just bend over backwards even at your slightest suggestion. You are not seen as an “equal” but as a superior. Even though you may relinquish this power and attempt to implement a flat structure, your employees have it hard wired in them to put you in your proper place in the hierarchy.

2) Don’t take cues from other foreigners

I made this mistake of taking cues from a male boss who was about 10 years older than me, a clear authority figure in the office. I was in a role where I was just an employee of the company, around average age of the other employees and an unmarried female. How I addressed other employees and colleagues needed to be different than my boss. I made the mistake of picking the wrong role model given my age, gender and position in the office. He had figured out behaviors that worked for him, but would not work for me.

I also made the mistake of mimicking the dressing style of my friends who were not in the workforce, when I should have been watching what other working women of my age and marital status were wearing instead. I showed up to work in everything varied from ripped jeans to a saree. In India, what you wear speaks volumes about who you are, where you come from, and what you do. This is infinitely more difficult for women than men. I made the common mistake by dressing either too casual or too “wife-like.” Selecting the right amount of jewelry, applying the right kind of makeup (if any at all), wearing the appropriate length and style of clothing, with appropriate texture and fabrics is all a matter of great delicacy. If you work for a larger company in a metropolitan area, they may have clear guidelines on what to wear, then you don’t have to wonder like I did.

3) Learn where you fall on the personal scale of society

The biggest factors your place on the societal scale, are your age and marital status.

Age – If you are a young person, you may think you automatically deserve respect based on your merit or achievements. The fact of the matter is, older people always know best in Indian society, regardless of either of these. Indians know that no matter how old you are, there is always someone in the family older than you, who will have the final say. You are always a youngster in someone’s eyes. Seeing oneself in the context of your family (including ancestors), your caste or religious group is an integral part of the Indian mindset. Even if you don’t belong to an Indian family, figuring out who deserves respect because of their age alone, is an imperative part of successfully understanding where you fit on the personal hierarchy.

Marital Status – Simply put, being married equates being an adult. Married life is one of the ancient philosophical ideas of Hindu Stages of Life and is still very much in practice today. For example, even if you’re 45 and unmarried, people may not know where exactly to place you in society. This is a invisible social system, yet highly important and envelops all parts of life.

Other qualities which you may be judged on while ranking on the personal hierarchy scale:

  • what kind of a career you have
  • what kind of careers your parents and siblings have
  • your basic ability to speak politely to elders
  • your physical appearance (height, weight, tone of skin, good looks)
  • how nicely you dress/ quality of your jewelry and accessories

Becoming friends with a few key people that you naturally connect with in the office is a helpful both personally and professionally. Getting to know an Indian family in the home environment by attending festivals and family events will help you understand important aspects of personal life which affect each professional outside the walls of the workplace. You will gain insight on new parts of Indian life which help you understand why people do what they do. This is not only important for your professional life, but your overall survival in the country.

Ways to master this:

Find an informal mentor of your age and gender. Find ways to learn their lifestyle and kind of copy them until you’re enculturated enough to have confidence in your own ability to make culturally accurate judgements. By spending time with various types of people outside the office will help you understand more of where you fall on the social scale and therefore, the professional scale.

Don’t be afraid to make mistakes, but find a trusted friend to make them with. Find that special friend to whom you can ask questions. without being judged.

Other applications: The workplace, is not the only time I’ve run into troubles with these three challenges. These rules also apply in organizations like religious clubs or social societies.

What Downton Abbey Teaches Us About Indian Society

“We all have our parts to play in society, and we must all be allowed to play them.” -Lord Grantham

DowntonAbbey

KabhiKhushiKabhiGham
Ideal, yet troubled families: the Granthams from Downton Abbey and the Raichand’s from Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham

There are striking similarities between the formal, high context cultures of the grand homes of early 20th century England and modern Indian society. Many of the quotable moments of the  much beloved English drama are almost exact translations of what you hear in Bollywood films or Indian TV serials (similar to soap operas).

From master/servant dramas to “inter-caste” marriage (Sybil & Tom), to dowry pressure (Mary’s inability to inherit the estate), you will find a wealth of similar problems in the Grantham family as you would a modern Delhi-dwelling family of Sharmas.

Hierarchy within the Family

The hierarchy of respect is still in place in most Indian families. The pressure to accommodate the wishes and traditions of the elderly over personal happiness are still as strong as ever. The matriarch of the family reserves the right to run the rest like puppets. The Dowager Countess of Grantham  is like a manipulative Bollywood Daadiji, going behind unsuspecting youngsters’ backs to arrange a match, managing the family estate without actually lifting a finger, or keeping unwanted guests away with a cold breeze of indirect disdain. If Daddiji/Granny wants something done, it best be done, or there is a fire of manipulation about to consume those in the way.

Servants/Master Dynamic

One of the thriving themes of Downton is the tension between the servants and masters. Jealousies run rampant and loyalties are tested. While there seems to be a much greater distance between servants and masters in Indian society, similar rules apply when it comes to unspoken rules of employment. It is never the servant’s  place to  personally advise ladies and lords, even more so in Indian society. As an employer, servants can never be your friends, and one must keep the professional and impersonal. Downton clearly indicates this distance whenever someone from upstairs enters the servant’s hall and the staff stand immediately. Servants in India still do this today and often greet their employers with a formal “Namaste” or “Pranaam.” Close servants who live with the master sometimes touch the feet of employers and employer’s relatives as a sign of outward respect, and establishment of position.

High Value of Virtue and Reputation

Reputation does not depend on what one says about oneself, but on what the larger community thinks. Especially for women, the values of cleanliness, external beauty, upright behavior, and purity are main criteria of which she is evaluated.  The Grantham family goes to great lengths to hide Mary’s one night stand with the Turkish diplomat. Mary’s line “Pappa will be ruined,” sounds like a line from a desi dulhan juggling the thought of running away with her lover the night before her arranged marriage. Other external factors such as a veering from adventure and danger are highly valued. For example: The modesty of women riding side saddle (horse in Downton, scooter in India) is an indication of femininity, modesty, and an avoidance of perceived speed and danger. High virtues of women are of imminent value.

Marriages of Status

Money is a major factor for marriage in Downton. Mary and Matthew are the ideal match as money, status, and love come in one package. In dramas like Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham, the son of the wealthy, high-caste Raichand family (played by Shahrukh Khan) diverts from the norms by marrying simple townsperson (Kajol) and spends the rest of his life trying to resolve his broken relationship with his family. Similar rebels like Sybil and Tom Branson, who wed against all societal norms, have a serious price to pay for their love.  There is an “us VS. them” mentality” which binds the Granthams to the Raichands.  Mary sums it up by telling Sybil “He just isn’t our kind of people.” Arranged marriages in India certainly have flavors of status, money, and position of the family, much like the Granthams.

Bent on Tragedy

In Bollywood and Downton Abbey, there are no shortage of tragic moments. The fatalistic times of post war Europe set the stage for death and financial ruin. An upwardly mobile India still carries the memories of lack of healthcare, ethnic clashes, and financial struggle. Economic difficult times still cloud the majority of the population. In films, tragedy and pain are an expected part of the story and a way of adding extra drama which the masses can relate to.

Formalities of all kinds exist in Indian society, which are represented in parallel in Downton Abbey, set in the pre-departure time of the British Raj. While the West experienced modernity at the turn of the century, India has been experiencing a similar wave of societal change since 1991. The times may be different, the focus on formalities, family structure, and societal pressures are shockingly similar.

Why I Found NBC’s “Outsourced” Irrelevant

A lot of people have asked me over the past year:

“What do you think of the show Outsourced?”
“Did Outsourced really depict India?”
“Is the work environment in India really like that”

In the beginning NBC had a lot of potential material to work with. Most Americans are curious about exotic India. A fascinating world of elephants, masalas, chaotic traffic patterns, and sarees…and almost every American has had the experience of call center frustrations. How are these two worlds compatible?

As frustrated as Americans are about calling a call center, most Indians who work in a call center are equally as frustrated. Long hours. working at night, dealing with rude ethnocentric people. There was A LOT of potential material that could have been used for the TV program.

Creative Downfall

I understand the “Office-like” concept of the show. Overstretching stereotypes to the point that everyone feels uncomfortable with the overly awkward dialogues. You laugh at the expense of the characters and ‘foot in mouth’ outbursts.

But the script writers ran out of intelligible content fast. Then the show digressed to blatant sexual humor, and overstretching some very untrue stereotypes. It simply became a trashy “America Pie” type of show.

I don’t know why, but I had a vague hope that this would be something that lightly poked fun at common stereotypes and helped people understand cultural differences.

Harmful Stereotypes Reinforced

From someone who lived and worked in India for a number of years….If anyone behaved like Charlie or Todd, you won’t survive.

Yes, we know that America is far more open with our lack of shame. But do we need to make each episode a moral debauchery of Americans?

Bachelor parties? An Australian mother and an American call center manager having a rendevous in plain sight on an balcony above a busy Indian market? Sleeping with the boss then bragging about it in the workplace? The blatant sexuality was too much. Even for American TV.  Americans already have to deal with some Indians assuming we are all morally inferior, un-spiritual, hypocrites. Why would we air a show that projected this harmful and untrue stereotype?

As in most declining TV shows, dirty humour is used as a sad replacement for clever witty interactions. Another cheap American show filled with filth to get ratings and attempt to entertain viewers with false stereotypes.

Character Flaws

Least Realistic/ Most Exaggerated Characters:

  • Charlie– The awkward American cowboy, perverted borderline sex offender. I’m met very few of them in life. And certainly none in India.
  • Tonya- Obviously she was a complete skank and too undignified to be believable. If a woman behaves like that in India without a support system, she will most likely have her ‘easy going’ attitude broken by perverts grabbers on the street, or possibly even become the victim of rape. The show portrayed her as a happy go lucky professional who seemed to bounce back from any situation. Not possible.
  • Rajeev — His character was far too articulate for someone who would typically be so closed minded and money hungry. Like an Indian Michael Scott, he was far too verbally abusive to be real.

Semi-Realistic/ Semi-Exaggerated

  • Aasha- You will find some confused Desi women caught in the middle of a modern and traditional world, but her Indian accent was so bad it was hard to ever believe her character. Sorry Rebecca Hazlewood. Stick to British films next time.
  • Todd– The football loving American boy that just wants to watch football and hook up with pretty women certainly exists, but don’t last long in India. Generally his open romantic relationships would have gotten him a lot of disrespect from subordinates rather than being the fun loving boss that the show depicted.
  • Manmeet– The awkward and womanizing cassanova definitely exists. Men who want to be a stud, but not sure how. Manmeet was too openly determined and eager. You will find sneakier versions of this character in real life. People who behave this week behind closed doors, but are ashamed to openly talk about it.

Most Realistic Characters/Least Exaggerated characters

  • Madhuri–The shy and naive woman is the fact that a lot of Indian woman like to put on. I found her to be one of the most loveable characters as she would occasionally let her fun side come out.
  • Gupta–His character was realistic to the point is that this is how some 14 year old boys behave in India, not 30 year old men. His charming sense of humor was the only thing that kept the show going for a few months. He was a partially embodied “Michael Scott” of the show. The man that refuses to grow up.
  • In short…

    I had hopes in the beginning….and was ashamed in the end.

    The show reinforced harmful stereotypes of Indians being bobbleheaded order takers. AND Westerns being moral bottomfeeders that slept around with every living breathing human available.
    This is not the message that our world needs today. Thankfully the American public is smarter than that, got bored with it, and the show got cancelled. One less cheap show with worthless content crowding the airwaves.