Category Archives: Culture

Traveling to Kerala, Part I: Fort Cochi

I so want to do this part of my trip justice, but I am running low on time.

Kerala was a wonderful place — so different from Delhi — quieter, cleaner, greener, cooler. Kerala was the reason I wanted to go to India in the first place. I loved Arundhati Roy‘s novel The God of Small Things, which is largely set in Kerala.

Fort Cochi is a port on the Arabian Sea/Indian Ocean. They have been dredging the bay so larger container ships can come into port, but the port has historically been a center for the fishing trade. Along the coast, one sees many fishing nets — Chinese fishing nets.

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There are also small fishing boats.

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Because there are many fishmongers there, unlikely customers (who may be unlikely to pay) show up as well.

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We even saw a customer looking over his purchases, one of whom was trying to make a break for it. A crab darted toward the sea, and frankly, it was sad to see that last desperate effort. The customer nabbed him before he made it.

As I have been mentioning, there are wild dogs all over the place. We saw this cute dog…

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…and then we saw her pups in the greenery behind her:

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It is said that the Syrian Orthodox Church was brought by St. Thomas the Apostle in 52 AD, so Christianity is very common in Kerala and throughout much of the south of India. The Portuguese later brought Roman Catholicism to Kerala in the early 1500’s. Churches there are highly decorated (inside), unlike the stark churches of New England. Here is the Santa Cruz Cathedral:

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We stayed in a lovely guest house, the Grande Residencia. Because we were there off season (monsoon season), we got great rates. Unfortunately, that also meant a number of restaurants were closed. We ate at one particularly bad “italian” restaurant. The restaurant, an outdoor number, next to our hotel was very good. Stick with seafood in Kerala. Oh — and order the Keralan paratha. Oh my god, is it good! It’s made with coconut milk. Yum!

Our time in Fort Cochi was pretty relaxed. We strolled around the coast and did a little shopping. My niece and nephew had a great time in the pool.

The second night there, we went to see a Kathakali performance. I really wanted to see one, especially because it is referenced in The God of Small Things. I’ve got to be honest — it was not at all what I was expecting. It clearly takes years and years of training (they said six) to perform this art — a story dance filled with non-verbal gestures that tell the story. There is some singing, but the bulk of the story in conveyed in complex movements, including eye movements and stylized facial expressions. It is a painstakingly slow process to communicate the story, and in its traditional forms, kathakali performances begin at about 8pm and go on until sunrise. They are religious in nature, and traditionally, they are performed at temples. We saw a performance at the Keralan Kathakali Center, where they gave is a primer before the two hour performance.

Here the actors are applying makeup:

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This is just before the performance:

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A man made these prints using a chalk-like powder. The performance surprised us all. The demon made this screeching sound that truly sounded demonic. The nuances of all the movements were pretty amazing, but as a short attention spanned westerner, I think I’d have a hard time with the all night performance.

After Fort Kochi, we were off to Alleppy, Marari, and the houseboat on the Keralan backwaters.

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Welcome?

A bit of culture shock hit me today. I am really enjoying myself here, and yet there are a few cultural aspects that are hard to get used to, particularly what seems to me like rampant sexism.

For example, I smile at people. It is who I am. Yes, I’m sure I look insipid, but that is what I do. Culturally speaking, women should not smile at men here. Yet I smile without thinking, and then I get a disdainful look. I brushed it off, but when I was rejected from a temple today, it all suddenly got to me.

We (Jon and I) began our day out by going to the large temple to Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth. It is a very beautiful temple. I bought flowers and prasad outside the temple and gave offerings as I went through, and I did pronom to the various gods to which I gave offerings. Priests gave me a third eye with the red powder (they dab a bit of red powder on your forehead). It was a very lovely experience. One of the priests talked to us for awhile, explaining various mandirs. It was a lovely beginning to the day.

Then I wanted to see the nearby temple to Kali, the goddess of destruction. I really like Kali, partly because of the role she plays in Bharati Mukherjee‘s novel, Jasmine, and partly because she is a strong goddess, a female role model to some degree. She is a mother figure in Bengali tradition, though she is also very fearsome. She exudes power. I like this description on Mantra on Net. A devotee of Kali, Ramprasad, writes:

To be Kali’s child, Ramprasad often asserts, is to suffer, to be disappointed in terms of worldly desires and pleasures. Kali does not give what is normally expected. She does allow her devotee/child, however, to glimpse a vision of himself that is not circumscribed by physical and material limitations. As Ramprasad says succinctly: “He who has made Kali . . . his only goal easily forgets worldly pleasures”. Indeed, that person has little choice, for Kali does not indulge her devotees in worldly pleasures. It is her very refusal to do so that enables her devotees to reflect on dimensions of themselves and of reality that go beyond bodily comfort and world security.

So when I went to the Kali temple, Jon and Chauhan came with me. I was wearing a long sleeve kurta, and I had a dupetta on my head. I was also wearing a calf-length skirt. Chauhan went up first, and then Jon. It was I who really wanted to see this temple, and a man came up to Chauhan and said I could not go because I was wearing a skirt, so I turned and left, waiting outside in the sun with some kid asking me for rupees while Jon and Chauhan visited the temple. As I read now what Ramprasad said, I can see more clearly the serious iniquities between men and women here. Don’t get me wrong, there are still some serious iniquities in the US, but when I was rejected from this temple, it made me more acutely aware of the ways I was getting second class treatment. And it made me feel very unwelcome. I realize it is not personally directed at me, but I am an individual, and my experience is my own, so in that sense it is personal.

The disdainful looks (and I have been dressing very culturally sensitively — salwar kameezes, mainly), the direction of all questions, comments, tours, etc at Jon rather than all of the adults and children — they bothered me after that last straw.

I wouldn’t say that it ruins my trip, but it makes me very sad. I am not in the slightest expecting to be treated like a maharani, I just wanted be treated as respectfully as I am treating others. Though I was unable to stay in her temple, Kali taught me a lesson today.

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Sayers in Noida

My sister and her family moved to Noida, which is just southeast of New Delhi, on Monday! They are keeping blogs about their experiences. My brother-in-law is writing the blog Swimming in India, and my niece and nephew are writing a blog called R.E.Lee India. Enjoy!

Gender Identity: NPR, Zucker, and Ehrensaft

As I was driving on Wednesday, I heard this piece on All Things Considered. I heard most of it then, but I looked it up today after work. It’s part of a two-part series, and I listened to the second part today, as well.

The first part deals with small children (2, 3, 4) who strongly identify with the gender that is opposite of their genetic make-up. It details two boys, one on the east coast, one on the west — both who strongly identify with being a girl and with “girl-things.” The set of each boy’s parents goes to see a doctor about their son. The east coast set goes to Ken Zucker, and the west coast set goes to Diane Ehrensaft.

After listening to this piece, I began to read up a bit on Zucker and Ehrensaft. This article called “Drop the Barbie! If You Bend Gender Far Enough, Does It Break?” reveals how “behaviorist” and rigid Zucker is. As part of his therapy, he has parents take away all of the “girl” (in this case) toys. He has the parents disallow him to play with girls or pretend he is a girl character is his play. In the ATC piece, he brings up that if one were to bring a black child to a therapist, and that child says, “I’m white,” then should the therapist have that child live as white? or should the therapist try to make that child comfortable with whom s/he is? He says one would do the latter. He claims that both “confusions” stem from surrounding dysfunction.

This is not an apt comparison. At the very least, racial identity has more to do with cultural identity, since race is a social construct. Whereas gender is obviously cross-cultural, and it is biological to at least some degree. [Honestly, there is a lot more to this — I can intuit it. It is not an apt comparison, yet at the moment I do not have the words to fully articulate it. One one hand, a) a black child identifying as white — what does that even mean? White culture? The whole question of a black child claiming to be white relies on an idea that there is a limited way to be black and a limited way to be white. b) Does this happen? If anyone has thoughts on this — I’d love to hear them!]

In terms of Zucker’s idea that gender “switching” in small children is caused by dysfunction (thus nurture), he, of course, seeks to find the cause (from the article “Drop the Barbie!”):

Zucker and his colleagues try to uncover the psychodynamics in the family that might be at the root of the child’s gender distress. Girls may develop GID, he believes, because they’ve formed the perception that being a girl is weak or dangerous. One little girl he saw recently, for example, had witnessed her mother being assaulted by the mother’s boyfriend. A boy, on the other hand, in a family where the mother is suffering from depression and is emotionally unavailable, might make an effort to act like a girl to get closer to her.

He goes on to say:

Parents are encouraged to set limits on the cross-gender behavior of the child. “We urge them to say, ‘Let’s figure out what other things you can do besides play with that doll,'” Zucker says. “In some situations, we have to work hard with parents’ own issues about gender. Could be a mother who’s had difficulty with the men in her life and has a lot of mixed feelings toward men. That gets translated to the boy, and her fear that he’ll grow up to be like those men causes him to reject being a boy.”

Hmmmm. This smacks to me of the ol’ “Let’s blame it on the mother…” “Gay son — he was mothered too much!” Here, mom is the cause of both disorders. I can’t say I see sound logic here, either.

When Ehrensaft was interviewed, she said something that I thought was pretty profound (from ATC):

Ehrensaft, however, does not use that label. She describes children like Bradley and Jonah as transgender. And, unlike Zucker, she does not think parents should try to modify their child’s behavior. In fact, when Pam and Joel came to see her, she discouraged them from putting Jonah into any kind of therapy at all. Pam says because Ehrensaft does not see transgenderism itself as a dysfunction, the therapist didn’t think Pam and Joel should try to cure Jonah.

“She made it really clear that, you know, if Jonah’s not depressed, or anxious, or having anything go on that she would need to really be in therapy for, then don’t put a kid in therapy until they need it,” Pam says.

If it’s not a dysfunction, then don’t make it one. Human nature is such an odd beast, and I wonder if I’d take that approach if it were some behavior that seemed truly wrong from my perspective. I guess the difference is that in order for something to be truly wrong, I would think it would need a component of causing harm — causing harm to the self or to others. Part of what is difficult for me is that this feels like an automatic response for me, to use a phrase I don’t really like, a “no-brainer.” Yet, I am having a very difficult time articulating why. Anyway, check the series out and let me know what you think.

Pequot Museum & the Hill-Stead Museum

A friend and I visited the Pequot Museum in Mashantucket, CT today. I’d been wanting to go to this museum since I moved here, but things just kept getting in the way.

Overall, it was a pretty cool museum — one that spared no expense. It’s nice place. My friend and I were particularly intrigued by the supercool looking firehouse on the reservation — very cool architecture. We both agreed that this was the hippest fire station either of us had ever seen. And I’ve been to wedding receptions at fire stations.The museum had a lot of diorama-type displays — the “ancient peoples” displays of history museums. Those kids of exhibits always make me think of this passage in The Catcher in the Rye where Holden is in the Museum of Natural History in NYC by the Park, and he describes the diorama exhibits and mentions how he feels comforted by them because they never change, that no mater when he visits, that eskimo will always just have caught a fish, and that deer-skinned clothed woman will always be starting a fire. Not that there’s any correlation between the two, other than the fact that those kinds of exhibits make me think of the novel.

While I did really like the museum, I wasn’t blown away by it like I was the National Civil Rights Museum, which I visited last year when I was in Memphis. I highly recommend that one.

Last week we went to the Hill-Stead Museum, which I also had been wanting to see for awhile. It was an enjoyable tour — and I really like having a tour guide. But I also thought the museum was a little stodgy. Okay — I do love china, especially antique china (it’s my one anglo-phile weakness) (okay — Jane Austen, too) (Who am I kinding — there’s lots more English “stuff” I like — but not colonialism!). But the museum is a little self-important in terms of commemorating Theodate Pope and her wealthy, art-collecting father, Alfred. And when we asked questions of our tour guide, she did not seem to like that our interests went beyond the realms of the immaculate life of Theodate Pope, whose name incidentally means “gift of God,” a name she took on. I’m going to start calling myself Gift of God and see how people react.

Don’t get me wrong, the Hill-Stead museum and grounds seem to do a lot of great things, like the Sunken Garden Poetry Festival, and I did enjoy the museum. At one point we saw these two little paintings — clearly Indian in origin, and I think they may have been mughal miniatures — a fascination of Bharati Mukherjee. In an interview called “Holders of the Word”, she describes the way these paintings influence her writing. When I asked the guide about these two works, she consulted the “room guides” to all the pieces of artwork, and those were not listed. While there were two or three Japanese woodcut prints in the house, the fact that there was no listing for these obviously eastern pieces made me think that this house had a particularly Eurocentric point of view. And that irked me a little. I suppose it has every right to be Eurocentric, but again, it seemed a little like the wealthy class patting itself on the back for being so wealthy. I was particularly interested in the library which had a large collection of old books. I searched titles that the family owned — and I saw noting that seemed “against the grain” in any way. The guide was trying to portray Theodate (and she continually referred to her as Theodate) as this very progressive woman, simply because she became an architect at the turn of the 20th century. She opposed a woman’s right to vote — how progressive could she be. So she was wealthy enough to pursue her own goals… Grr.

Clearly I felt some classism that drove me a little nuts.Nonetheless, I plan on going to see Billy Collins this summer. So there.

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Lani to Will

A college friend of mine very recently underwent gender transitioning surgery. He has a blog called Self-Made Lani that chronicles the experience. It’s really interesting (and personal). Check it out.

One of the things I have found most interesting from anecdotes told to me by people who have transitioned is the way hormones — and genetically passed traits — have drastically impacted them in ways they may not have expected. While living in Northampton, I had an acquaintance who began losing his hair after taking male hormones because of male pattern baldness. That idea never even occurred to me before.

Anyway — I wanted to pass along this interesting read.

The Symposium!

While I realize one might think I have forgotten about this little blog because I post so rarely, I have not. I have had a particularly busy semester since I was teaching the Senior Symposium class at my school. It is a class where a group of seniors reads exclusively one contemporary author for a semester, and then the author visits campus for two days in January. Well, the author Bharati Mukherjee came to campus Thursday and Friday (as in yesterday). I don’t have much time to post about it now, because I am in the thick of doing my grades and comments for the end of the semester, which also ended yesterday.

It was a whirlwind two days — and Friday especially was a wonderful day. She was such a gracious author and guest, treating the students’ work, questions, and thoughts with the highest respect. She gave us great insights, and she patiently answered our questions. I really enjoyed her many personal anecdotes. She brought her husband, Clark Blaise. He was also a wonderful guest, full of stories and conversation. He also happens to be a baseball fan, so Sujal told them both the famous story of the time I brought my grading to a Red Sox game — AND — left the game early even though I could have had the chance to walk on the field. (woo-hoo)

Pat Rosoff, an art teacher at my school, made this beautiful quilt to commemorate Mukherjee’s visit! Sujal and I will have to find the perfect spot for it.

And now, I must get back to work.

Reaching for the Brass Ring

As I previously mentioned, my mother vsited for about a week. Among the many planned activities, I slipped in a visit to The Carousel at Bushnell Park in Hartford. She’d been wanting to see the Capitol building, and the park is right there.

It also happened to be the carousel’s 92nd birthday, so they had a mini-celebration by giving free rides. As the music started on the band organ, and I know this is crazy, I almost teared up. Here is a good site that has samples from the Wurlitzer 153 band organ that is part of the Hartford carousel. The tinny sounding music has an out of tune, eerie feel, and yet it easily summoned up nostalgia for me — like a cheap shot in a Lifetime, Television for Women movie. I also wish I had a picture of the Wuritzer that plays the music, but this will have to suffice. It’s a pretty amazing series of instruments — lots of pipes, drums, etc. I wish I could bring it to you, so you could hear the dissonant pinging, the low strikes on the drums, the slight whistles — it’s a mix of strange nostalgia and something stale that one does not quite understand how it has survived this long. And to see the instrument, it’s antiquey-looking — but intricate and beautiful as well.

As I mentioned before, it was the carousel’s birthday, and so they also had free cake for everyone. I, of course, can never pass up cake, so I waited in line for this yummy cake with the other Hartfordians — kids and adults. There were also quite a number of what seemed to be homeless people in line. Of course this makes sense, but there was a weird, multi-layered irony to it. It had a ring of Marie Antoinette’s alleged words, “Let them eat cake.” My friend Lara has more recently jokingly accused me of taking cake out of the mouths of the homeless. How is it that people come to be humiliated to the point where they stand in line for free cake because it is food? Let me add to this, and bear with me as I make my second point about the irony.

When we were on the carousel, I looked up for the brass rings — or the gold rings, as Holden Caulfield calls them — and I saw no brass rings. One hears about reaching for the brass ring on a carousel. Metaphorically, of course, it is meant to convey the idea of striving for something that seems just out of reach. It even has a sort of capitalist feel to it — that if you work really hard, strive to succeed, yes, you too can become rich, or in this case, grab the brass ring. I see this as the big lie of capitalism, because that belief system is not true. Timing, privilege, and access have a lot to do with whether or no one will succeed. Yes, hard work helps pave that way, but it is wrong to say that alone will bring success in the capitalist society in large part because a capitalist society relies on a large working class — a hard-working class. Keep ’em wanting more, and you’ll get more out of ’em. So here the carousel stands, the brass ring metaphor hanging in the air, and those who obviously have not benefitted from capitalism are waiting in line for cake.

On another note regarding the brass ring and Catcher in the Rye, I looked for the literal ring and didn’t see any. I have always been a bit confused about it and could never quite picture it. I know that expression comes from carousels, but I still can’t visualize it. Anyway, here’s an explanation of the term brass ring.

Finally, to round out our carousel experience, my mother and I spent two days in New York city. We strolled through Central Park, looking for The Central Park Carousel. Our rides on this carousel were $1.50 each, not a bad price for a lovely ride. The one had a Wurlitzer 150, and frankly it did not sound as out of tune. I think this one might have been a bit faster than the one in Hartford, but the one in Hartford had real horse hair tails.

Don’t worry. I don’t think I’ll become a carousel guru (or freak), but it was interesting to ride these two carousels. If you are around either of them, check them out.

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The Bhagavad-Gita

I started reading The Bhagavad-Gita, a cheap copy I picked up at Borders, because I am about to begin preparing a new class for the fall. I’m teaching a class on the works of Bharati Mukerjee and I thought it might help to have a bit more cultural background knowledge. It may actually be fruitless for my purposes, but I have been interested in reading it for awhile.I’ve never been a huge fan of epic poems in general, but they do give one a better understanding of culture. I finished watching the movie Gandhi last night. I’d seen it in 9th or 10th grade, and I didn’t remember it at all. I watched it with some doubt, not sure of its accuracy, and so I looked up a lot of aspects of Gandhi’s life as I watched, and it’s pretty accurate.I was also amazed by how persevering Gandhi’s wife Kasturba Gandhi was. It’s sad that she does not get more recognition, as she was also an effective (wifely) leader with Gandhi.I seem to remember being taught at one point or other that Henry David Thoreau came up with this idea of civil disobedience, and then when I was reading the intro to the Gita, I read that Thoreau brought a copy of the Gita to Walden Pond. Gandhi’s autobiography is going on my reading list — what an inspiring human being. I often get into this early summer/post-teaching funk — but it doesn’t take long to get out of it when I see how challenging so many people have it. And I realize — Damn! I’m lucky. I’m going to Yoga class and eating well.As I prepare for this class on Mukherjee, I have a feeling I am going to be looking up a lot of references (and sadly missing a few), but I am very excited by the prospect of it. So even if my reading of the Gita isn’t particularly helpful (Because I suppose this is like reading The Odyssey before reading the body of work by a white westerner), it is at least getting me ready to undertake the work I am about to do.

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Farewall to Vonnegut

Here’s the New York Times obituary for Vonnegut. I’m not sure why, but I was very surprised to hear the news. I heard it early Thursday morning as I was getting ready for work. I asked my sleeping husband if he had known about it, as Vonnegut died the day before, and Sujal seems to know news as it happens. He said that it sounded familiar — how long ago did he die?

I told Sujal he just died the day before, to which Sujal acknowledged he thought maybe he’d died several years ago — much like deja vu for me when Ford died. I’d forgotten he was alive. Nonetheless, in his sleepy state, Sujal tried to make a pun, and English teacher joke, if you will. He said, “I guess he Caught 23.

With that, I fell into laughter and replied, “That’s Joseph Heller.”

“What number book did Vonnegut write?

“Slaughterhouse 5.”

“Oh, but that’s not so funny,” said my sleepy husband. Some people just cannot pull off English teacher jokes, not the way English teachers can. And man, do we think we are funny!

I’ll be rereading some Vonnegut soon. I remember reading Bluebeard, and even though he was poking fun at the abstract expressionists, that novel sparked my love of Mark Rothko. I read it right after I finished Sirens of Titan, which I loved. I recall that Vonnegut was a topic of conversation between my very first boyfriend and me. He was Jim Wylie, and we dated in 8th grade. We didn’t talk Vonnegut then, but we both read him in eleventh grade. Eleventh graders still love him!!