From the window to my left I can hear the ongoing wave of an Indian rainfall, from the window to my right I hear the loud chanting from the nearby Hindu festival, which is intermittingly interrupted by the sound of firecrackers spawned by the same. This is the end of our second week in India, and I am not quite sure we know much more about this mysterious culture amongst whom we have been living.
In Sudhir and Katharina Kakar’s book The Indians, they describe the culture as one built upon “an ideology of family and other crucial relationships that derives from the institution of the joint family; a view of social relations profoundly influenced by the institution of caste; an image of the human body and bodily processes that is based on the medical system of Ayurveda; and a cultural amalgamation teeming with shared myths and legends… that underscore a ‘romantic’ vision of human life.”
On Friday we visit the local NGO Attra where many of these concepts are explored. Yatra is at once an after-school program centered in the arts, and a community awareness campaign bolstered by the Bollywood-inspired filmmaking of its founder, Srini. Srini and his colleagues have realized that one cannot educate a child without paying attention to where he or she is coming from. And that place is modern India where questions about the environment, about alcoholism, about the social fabric of the joint family are all being called into question. Working in the local villages, Srini sees what his students are facing and works to educate them and their families about how they can begin addressing the issues that both globalization and traditional practices have raised.
According to Sukant Khurana, Ph.D. on the site Mouthpiece for the Youth, “Simple economic, age, gender and professional dimensions that define alcohol consumption patterns in small homogenous western nations are insufficient in a multilayered society like India. Despite adoption of western lifestyles, middle class in urban India has yet to entirely do away with the old mores and values. For few in the big city, the old values are still the core of their identity, while for others they are suitable pretences [sic], resulting in schizophrenic environment where youngsters grow up absorbing the worst of both the eastern and the western influences.”
As India struggles with the its movement from a relatively closed economy to a rapidly open one, similar shifts have also been taking place culturally, particularly in the areas of social norms and engagement. But much like alcoholism and closed caste systems, they are still battling old ideas even as new ones emerge.
Later in the afternoon, we learn about another challenged sect of society: the gay, lesbian, and transgender communities. Not surprisingly, a society who holds such rank as the main component of their identity also has trouble accepting alternative lifestyles, which is why hearing from Ganesh, the founder of Puducheri’s LGBT organization, the Sahodaran Community Oriented Health Development (SCOHD), was so moving. A transgender him(her)self, Ganesh has been cast out from his own family because of his homosexuality. And he is not alone. As homosexuality is still illegal in India, Ganesh’s work is as subversive as it is important. SCHOD’s mission is to “minimize the prevalence of STI/HIV and AIDS among the MSM (men having sex with men)/transgender community and to provide quality services for their sexual health needs as well as ensuring their rights and dignity.”
As much as India is a romanticized place, the hard reality is they suffer from the same intolerance and inequality as the rest of the world. I wish I could say that they were any different from what I know from my own home, but as Srini shows us a video in which the elder family members argue that they do not need to change their behaviors to help the environment, I lean over to a friend and say, “That’s like my family in Texas,” and when Ganesh talks about how difficult it is for transgender peoples to find work, I think of my transgender friends in the US who have faced the same discrimination. Though the poverty might be thicker here, the problems are sadly the same. Now, we can only hope that together we might start finding some solutions.