Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Love And All That Jazz

I was checking my email when I saw this advertisement for a matrimonial services website:

Is it just me, or does anyone else see the irony of an arranged marriage advertisement that promises love?

Perhaps there is a blinding moment of romantic love somewhere during the lengthy process of arranging a marriage? Does love come suddenly tiptoeing in, as families check whether the horoscopes match, whether the bride is fair enough, and the groom comfortably wealthy?

Or maybe love comes later. On the wedding night, perhaps? Maybe there is a very Indian sort of love then; a heady cocktail of flower-strewn beds and dutiful sex, of virginal fumbling and earnest baby-making?

Or does it come still later, as the husband and wife settle into familiar traditions and festivals, and find their place in the larger family? Perhaps when he comes home from work bringing flowers for her hair, their relationship morphs into a real tenderness? Is it then that love develops?

If you ask me, I think the truth is that a very different sort of love develops in Indian marriages - and it is not between the husband and the wife. Parenthood - and the love of children - is the Big Love in an Indian marriage. It seems to me that when a child comes along, many couples put romantic love on the back-burner as they find a fiercer, deeper maternal or paternal love that all but consumes them. The legendary Indian attachment to children burns brighter than anything else, and provides life-long sustenance to the marriage, replacing notions of romantic and sexual love.

Maybe this sort of marriage is really what humans need - a stable, no-nonsense system that creates companionable partnerships, so that we can get on with the real business of making and raising children, populating the gene pool with little copies of ourselves.

Maybe the ancients got it right a long time ago. Why fret and fume over male-female relationships, when really, it’s all about babies?

I am too much a product of Western thinking to be happy with a partnership geared towards childrearing. But Darwin would have approved, don't you think?

Monday, June 16, 2008

The God Question

In this deeply religious country, it is hard to publicly question the existence of God.

Try declaring to an uncle or an aunt, that you do not believe in God. Worse still, ask them *why* they believe in a blue-skinned being flying around on a giant eagle saving the world. The initial response is a startled silence, followed by a quick look around to see if anyone else overheard it. This is then followed by much tsking and shaking of the head - " shouldn't talk like that!", they'll say.

I have a problem with this attitude.

What do they mean, "shouldn't talk like that"? It is an honest question, for crying out loud. I get especially upset when people say this to children. If a child asks you a question about God, you owe that child a sensible answer. It may or may not be the right answer, but it is better than giving the child the impression that even *asking* such a question is criminal.

When I was 10, I attended a discussion session organised by a Hindu religious group. In a mixed gathering of children and older people, a middle-aged woman was talking to us about God. When she said "Any questions?", I stood up and asked "But how do you know God exists?". It was a genuine question, I wasn't being cheeky. The speaker smiled at me very condescendingly, and said I was too young to understand, and that when I grew up, it would all become clear. Meanwhile, it would be better for everyone if I just sat down and joined in the prayer.

I sat down, feeling snubbed. I was seething inside. Did my question not deserve an answer, even a small one? It was my first brush with religious tradition, and I remember thinking how closed and narrow it was!

Later, I asked my father the same question. "Appa, why do you believe God exists?". He smiled and said, "Well, I don't really have any proof. But several wise and good men in whom I believe think they have seen and experienced the truth. And because I believe in them, there's a good chance God exists". I was happy with the answer - it gave me something to think about. "Who are these men?", I asked, and it led us into a discussion of Indian philosophers.

The point is not whether my father was right or wrong. The real point is that he gave me a logical answer to his beliefs. It is when people brush aside questions, or spout dogma instead of answers, that I see red.

As I grew older, I made my own observations and deductions. I now believe that we still don't know the real answer to whether God exists, but I've also come to the conclusion that it doesn't really matter. All I want from religion - if anything - is a set of rules to live my life with a clear conscience. And since I have already made up my set of very satisfactory rules, it is not particularly important to me to figure out whether God is for real.

This is not a particularly radical line of thought. Several Indian schools of religion have similar views. Buddhism, for example, is most definitely an agnostic religion. It believes that the eight-fold path of living will lead to salvation, and does not require any belief in a divine being. Mahavira, who founded Jainism, said quite clearly that he didn't believe in a Creator God - he chose instead to believe that the universe has always existed, will always exist and is governed by natural laws.

The Mimamsa school of Hinduism believed that there is a natural Karmic law, where cause and effect apply, with no need of an all-powerful God to enforce the law. Carvaka, who founded a stongly atheistic sect in around 300 BC called the vedas the ramblings of rascals, and said:

While life is yours, live joyously;
None can escape Death’s searching eye;
When once this frame of ours they burn,
How shall it ever again return?

The Rig Veda itself, which modern-day "Vedic" fundamentalists revere as the one authentic source of Hindu religion, says of the creation of the universe:

Who really knows, and who can swear,
How creation came, when or where!
Even gods came after creation's day,
Who really knows, who can truly say
When and how did creation start?
Did He do it? Or did He not?
Only He, up there, knows, maybe;
Or perhaps, not even He.

When you read books of Indian philosophers, it is obvious that we have a great and ancient tradition of religious questioning, of frank open thought. Tragically, the tradition is no longer alive. In its place, we have dogma, backed by political and economical lobbying. The rot has set in, and I fear it is irreversible.

- Deepa

P.S. Whether you believe in flying Gods or not, I think that painting of Vishnu on Garuda is a beautiful example of Bundi art. It is from, and retails for $50.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Grinding for everyday cooking

Near Gate 3 of Jama Masjid, I saw this little iron pestle. It was part of doctor's toolkit, used to powder roots and herbs (much more interesting than writing out boring prescriptions!).
It reminded me of a similar, but larger iron mortar and pestle in my grandmother's kitchen. Every year, large quantities of spices would be ground in it. The pestle was about 4 feet high, and you had to stand in order to bring it down hard on the mortar. A woman from a nearby village would come visit our house, she would spend all day grinding. We'd hear the rhythmic thwack of the pestle and sneeze when the masalas tickled our noses. We all tried our hand at it, of course. The pestle was amazingly heavy, and we were full of admiration for the woman who hefted it so easily with one hand.

These days, I don't see iron mortars and pestles in Indian cities. We've mostly switched to ready-made masalas. You can still see some stone grinders, though.

My mum has a tiny stone mortar-and-pestle, which she uses to make fresh garam masala for cooking. I have a small one too, that I use for crushing garlic, green chili and ginger. Every time a green chili crunches satisfying under the pestle, it awakens something atavistic in me. Take that! I want to say. And that! And that!

My motorised grinder isn't half as fun!