Thursday, October 21, 2010

What's your culture ?

Culture, is not a cake, where you measure the ingredients, treat them in specific dynamic ways, apply the requisite heat for a longish time, and then expect to always get the same result. There is no beginning and end, but there is an existence and fine tuning of the culture. And most of all there is a give and take, that enriches.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel is recently reported to have announced to her countrymen, that, her country's efforts at becoming a multicultural society , had failed. And she then attributed that to the refusal of the (primarily Turkish) immigrant workforce to learn German, and fit in with the German Christian way of life.

On the other hand , Bengaluru (Bangalore to you uncultured types :-) ), currently groaning under the onslaught of folks from across the country and the world, (thanks to being a great IT and industrial hub) , seems to taking on a cosmopolitan multicultural hue, and there are local son -Booker Prize winners , exhorting the natives, to clutch close their language and ethos and save it from the external culture attack .

Actually, if you think about it, Europe is a bit like India. A federation of areas, organized almost linguistically. French, German, Italian, Spanish.... Some economically very good. Some not so good. Others borderline. Europeans can travel freely through the set of countries, seamlessly passing through border check posts. Languages overlap at these places. Economies probably don't. The various countries have attitudes. On family. Religion. Importance of money. Attitude towards children. Rules. Government interference. Etc Etc. Northwards in Europe, things are a bit conservative. Southwards, things get a bit easy, sometimes chaotic. People often look a bit different. Things are more "kinder-freundlich" .

All a bit like India. (Of course we are totally kinder-freundlich....across the country). Linguistically organized states. Some poor-cousin states. Some trying to match Shanghai :-) . Yes, we can travel freely through these states. Unlike Europe, we boast of languages and dialects in double digits, often with confusing scripts and random root language sources. But there is one huge difference. We have a large amount of religions being followed here, and no state has a monopoly on a given religion. Not because someone made a rule about it, but because , throughout history, folks of various religions have settled across India, and made their lives there. We now (1950) have a constitution that upholds secularism, but we didn't need a rule to teach people that. Yes, sometimes, events and subsequent trauma has caused communities to shift geographically. Sometimes, economics and opportunities have caused these shifts.

And so I wonder, can culture be implemented by order a la Frau Merkel ? Can it be installed by brow beating folks a la the various Senas ? How much attention do we attach to sloganeering masses ? Specific religion centric rules ? Codes of dress ? Gender specific laws ? Vote garnering subsidies ?

Where does culture actually start ?

In the family ?

3 stories.

A family friend's daughter , a Hindu, and her Business School classmate , a Moslem, wanted to get married. The families lived in different metro cities. Both the children were very close to their respective extended families. But a grandparent was there in only one of the families. The girl's. The parents wanted only happiness for the kids. The boy's father and uncles, came to visit the girl's family. The meeting was very cordial.

But what stayed in the minds of all, was the fact, that in a small living room (as Mumbai houses tend to have), the boy's uncles refused to sit on chairs, and sat cross legged on the carpet, out of respect for the girl's grandmother in her late eighties, seated on the divan, who had come especially to meet them. That's culture.

Today, the relatives speak of the girl returning to her folks for her first delivery as per tradition, and her ma-in-law, a Moslem, coming on several visits subsequently to visit her at her maternal abode, play with the grandson, and finally taking her daughter-in-law home with great pomp and celebration.

Sometimes you make friends with folks totally out of the blue. We have such a friend in Goa, who we met in 1975. Belongs to one of Goa's well known staunch Catholic families, with a surname having lots of prepositions and Latin names and hyphens. With one of those wonderful rambling old houses, with a personalised chapel, wine cellars , massive old kitchens churning out lip smacking stuff. As was customary in her young days, , she had gone to Portugal, and was fluent in Portuguese. But as was also customary, she started working early, which took her around India meeting interesting and well known folks. She decided to get married to a Hindu gentleman from Bengal.

While there wasn't too much of a hue and cry from his side, she did tell me with a laugh later on, that after their initial shock and disappointment , when she explained to her parents, they were pleased that the person she was marrying was at least a Brahmin ! Turns out , that fine distinctions, a la caste system, still exist in Catholic Goan society. A Brahminical way of thinking. They were married for many years, both doted upon by the respective in laws, till the husband passed away. She remains an honored respected member of her husband's Bengali extended family at all the religious and cultural family functions.

That is culture . Not the nitpicking in the name of religion, language and color.

And finally, here is an international story Frau Merkel might learn from.

40 years ago, I did grad school in the US and my very first apartment roommate and I have been in touch through all these years. We knew each other's extended families, from the old days, and although we couldn't meet physically very often, we made up for that in our long newsy emails, and confidences .

Her parents lived well into their late nineties, greatly cared for by their daughters. Long hospitalizations, the impending trauma of a loss, how to deal with it, was something she would write to me, and we found out, that both our religions, actually upheld the same kind of teachings; family responsibilities, the honor in being the primary caretaker of a loved one, the thought that in our minds, the person doesn't go away (and never mind all those arguments about reincarnations etc). A few months after her father passed away, I underwent a very traumatic event of suddenly losing my mother over a few hours. It took a long time to come to terms with things. Of course the "inclusive" nature of family mourning in India helped, but one struggled with oneself, and in anger at what had happened. My friend and I were in touch, and we communicated a lot by email.

One fine day, I received an envelope by airmail. It was a card announcing a memorial Mass, in honor of my mother, being held by my friend and her children, at her church, presided over by her pastor. Of course, by the time the card reached me (12 days) , the event had already happened at the church 12,000 miles away. I was totally stunned. And immensely honored . Here was a mass being held, by a close friend, who understood what the loss was, and tried to handle it the way she thought best for me. By Prayer. Something she believed in.

My late mother was an enlightened Hindu religious lady, who was once a trustee (the first and till date the only woman trustee) of one of the most famous temples in Pune). She enjoyed attending and presiding over the beautiful pujas and celebrations, , but she also taught us to be respectful of other religions and their rituals. This was a family belief, passed down through generations, and she was very strict about this.

Somewhere Up There, I can see her nodding her head , eyes full, at what her daughter and her friend had been up to. She must have been present in spirit at that Mass.

I guess we will never learn . It isn't about power, rigid rules, disrespect and inhuman behaviour .

Culture is how we were brought up. And how we plan to bring up our children.

The boundary conditions may have changed, but the rules of decent behaviour remain the same....


  1. What a wonderful, wonderful post, Ugich! I was moved to tears reading it. Yes, culture is what you say it is. The rest is just propoganda by persons /parties with vested interests.

    I write for Saffron Tree, and I have just finished preparing a draft for a post to be published at our upcoming festival, CROCUS. Celebrating reading of culturally unique stories. Your post resonated in many ways with my draft. Do try to read it when it is posted.

  2. Lovely stories, Suranga! Of course, culture cannot be imposed. As you say, it is about respect and decent behaviour!

    Personally, I would differentiate between culture and religion, though.

  3. Years ago, in the 60s when my granduncle married an American, my grandmother was totally against it ( this was her brother), while his mother welcomed the daughter in law with open arms. That truly is 'culture' - for a lady who had not moved out of Udupi that was then a village, she was so forward for her times. And she had no education. So how does one define 'culture'? It has nothing to do with your educational qualication, your religion. My grandmother was her daughter, so it can not be the upbringing.

  4. 'Culture is how we were brought up. And how we plan to bring up our children.' Absolutely agree Suranga!! Wonderful..moving post!!!

  5. Absolutely wonderful!! Just the kind of writing we need in these times! Loved it, and am going to share it with all my friends...

  6. Oh Suranga, your posts always move me and show a great deal of common sense which I do so wish was prevalent among folk in countries which operate on the same basis as ours...

    There are sooo many people who are afraid that they will 'lose out' on control if they just 'give' a little and learn to use the common sense they were born with.

    Hugs Kate x.

  7. I truly love this post. Coming from a multi cultural mix (my family has Punjabi, Konkani, Japanese, U.P.-ite and lately a Nagpur Christian entrant), I hate this kind of state-facism. You know, kids in the family get confused and wonder what they are - they love to fit in!

  8. Loved those stories. Culture is something you're inducted into, plus something that you cultivate over a period of time. Your belief, values, attitudes, practices etc stem from and are linked to your culture.

    But, primarily, aren't we all the same ("human"), irrespective of who we are or where we come from or what language we speak or which faith we belong to? That's precisely what allows us to connect with one another, transcending the self-centred politics/fanatics-driven agenda of creating communal discord.

  9. Tears in my eyes. yes, that's real culture....humanity and love across all the artificial barriers and boundaries. Culture keeps changing and should.

  10. Truly tears in my eyes
    why dont we hear more voices like yours every where?

    Love and acceptance is the message in all of this

  11. G Thank you.

    Sandhya Thank you. And do send me the address of where I can read your post in CROCUS ! Would love to read it !

    Manju Thank you. I would agree with you that religion and culture are two different things , but I feel they must intersect, where religion remains a more personal thing, and culture, a glimpse of its possible public manifestation. Ideally.

    Radha Hats off to your great grandmother ! Yes , that was SO unusual. But I have seen this kind of thing happen. Joint families and many children per couple (as opposed to 2 now) , meant a child imbibing from across a section of the the family elders, and it was not unknown then for a child to grow up with a slight right of centre attitude under someone's influence. I have known such folks in my family. Also if your grandma was already married by then, she would probably take cognizance of what your grandpa's family thought about all this foreigner-marrying in those days... But 3 cheers for your great grandma !

    softypinkngloriousred Thank you.

    Anu Thank you.

    Kate Thank you.

    Ritu Thank you ! And what a mix of great cultures ! And I agree with you about the kids....

    RGB You know, culture is something that comes automatically, when you have absorbed from your family how to relate with other human beings. Thats why I think it depends on your bringing up, and thats why we need to take such great care as parents.

    Starry Thank you. yes it should always keep evolving, so long as we ensure it is not hurtful to others.

    SSStoryteller Thank you. And welcome to the blog....

  12. You will find us at .

  13. I thought a comment wouldn't do justice, so I wrote a post

  14. Marvelous, interesting post as always and, of course, I agree with you completely! Hope you have a lovely weekend!


  15. I wish more people though like you, instead of being irrational regionists and religionists. After all isn't the person his nature, his principles and beliefs matter more, than the religion he prescribes to, or the language he speaks?

  16. Wonderful Post - I am so pleased I found you - or did you find me. Talk of culture and religion - I just go with my heart. Some people we meet who are so different in many ways then we are - we immediately feel close to. Some people who are like us in many ways - there is no bond. My children and grandchildren are all over the world in different cultures. Grandma stays in the woods - praying for all - wherever they find their peace and happiness is fine with me.

  17. Beautifully writte. I totally agree that values form the genesis for culture. I lved your stories.

    Values is what parents can give, and once given - it has multiplier effect.

  18. Truly deep indeed.

    When i hear of some durga puja pandals where Muslim artists perform, that is diversity and our culture for me !

    Primarily it is all of us. And then, begins culture !!

    Wonderful stories. As usual. Beautifully crafted too.

  19. This is a beautiful post..the kind on post that makes one smile and hope things go the exact same way for everyone around :)

  20. sandhya Thank you. Checking now.

    pinashpinash Thanks so much ! Just saw and commented on your post !....

    Sylvia Thank you ! Its fun looking back and learning !

    arbithoughts Its really up to us parents to give confidence to the children to think freely and decide. I do so thanks to my parents.....

    One Woman's Journey Thank you. And I have always thought that regardless of countries, color, shape, size , language, it is important that minds meet. Your grandchildren are so lucky to experience so many cultures, with such a firm sensible base provided by you....!

    NsIyer Thank you. We realize what our parents gifted us in terms of values, when we are able to pass them on to our children. So many today, do not make time for this, when there children are young, and keep running after the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.....

    Kavi Thank you. The seed for this post happened when I saw Frau Angela Merkels remarks. I've lived in Germany, and could see why she was saying what she did. And then one appreciates what one has, be it tattered, torn, poor, etc, but with such a richness of thought.

    comfortablynam Thank you.

  21. So profound and well said. Deeply touched and blessed to have found such a enlightened voice. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and letting us be part of your world.

  22. Beautifully said.

    "Culture is how we were brought up. And how we plan to bring up our children.

    The boundary conditions may have changed, but the rules of decent behaviour remain the same...."

  23. that is the most wonderful post ever !

    If only more and more and more people started thinking like you !

  24. Wonderful read and worth the award Suranga . I always love your writing. Best to you and keep sharing your wonderful world with us.

  25. Its a beautiful post and really pulled a string somewhere. Personally, when you deal with parents and their reactions to inter-faith relations I wish I can make my dad and mom read this post:)..

  26. amzing amazing amzing pot.. stirred my heart!
    I guess we will never learn . It isn't about power, rigid rules, disrespect and inhuman behaviour .

    Culture is how we were brought up. And how we plan to bring up our children.

    The boundary conditions may have changed, but the rules of decent behaviour remain the same....

    wow!! these are teh words of wisdom!!

  27. I came here through Shailji's mention. Immensely enjoyed this account and yes, I am touched. Thank you.

  28. Marvelous! Very nice indeed. A very apt interpretation of an often used widely abused word

  29. That was so beautifully said! I wish there were more people like you! And some of those close minded people would read you :)

  30. You are good for my mind and my heart.


  31. Nice and superb posting. or

  32. You have said it, and so well, Suranga.