Eating With Your Hands

By Sam McKeown

Upon an aluminum plate sits a fragrant mélange of bottle squash kootu, vegetable curry, and seasoned rice. My belly rumbles from the scents of mustard seed, onion, turmeric, and coriander powder that perfume the air. My colleagues and I sit patiently upon the wood floor awaiting the completion of the prayer. Under the supervision of Devi, head of the Life Education Center, we’ve prepared our meal with careful consideration for the three doshas—pita (fire), kapha (water), and vhata (air). In traditional South Indian cuisine, each meal is meant to combine ingredients that help balance the dosha within the body, thus attaining both physical and spiritual balance.

By participating in the preparation of our meal, we’ve not only exchanged laughs, techniques, and stories, but also a small piece of our personal culture. For some, cooking represents a reflection of the self, a means for us to share small, non-verbal pieces of information of our personal journeys. Where did you learn to salt the water before you boil it? Why do you cook the onions first? Why do you use sunflower oil versus olive oil? For others, cooking is a source of anxiety, an exploration of opposing elements that threaten at any moment to taint the flavor of your meal and thus your self-representation. In a broader sense, cooking is a codification of collective values that has been and is continually reinforced generation after generation. Regardless of what cooking means for you, it can unanimously be considered a form of communication. An equally important form of non-verbal communication, however, is eating.

Upon my aluminum plate sits a small, plastic spoon. I glace around the room and notice that our Tamil hosts aren’t eating with the spoons, but rather their hands. Despite having eaten with my hands several times during the course of my stay in Auroville, there’s always a brief moment of anxiety before I begin. Being American and having seen a few different parts of the world, South India has been the first time I’ve experienced the culturally normative practice of eating with your hands. But what drives the fear behind this interaction with food? Is it fear of being thought of as messy, as I inevitably get rice on my nose every time I eat with my hands? Is it that most Western cultures have effectively created an implicit fear to the sense of touch in eating through reinforcing the use of utensils? Or is it simply a fear of trying something new? Perhaps it is a combination of the three. I take a breath and dig my hand, specifically my right, into the rice that has been doused in curry and kootu, scoop, and eat. The texture is both foreign and familiar at the same time, a texture I expected but still can’t necessarily put into words. It’s not slimy; it’s not hard or rough; it’s possibly a little sticky and creamy.  I glance around the room again and realize that not a single person has reacted to the rice that has clung itself to my right nostril. What has seemed to me a personal victory of overcoming neophobia to others is the simple act of eating.

When interacting with cultures inherently different than our own, eating is a meta-lingual exchange that can reveal an underlying dialogue. By picking up the spoon, I’ve reinforced my own culture and therefore my otherness from my hosts. By eating with my hands, there is the removal of a small but noticeable barrier between my cultural subjectivity and acceptance. The flavors of the meal are strong but complementary, subtle hints of spice balanced with the tangy acidity of tamarind. Before I’ve  realized, my plate is completely empty, my belly is satisfied, and my doshas presumably balanced. A collective lull has settled over the group, one that seems to transcend conventional cultural boundaries—the ubiquitous satisfaction of a good meal.

Why come back to Auroville?

By Lory Martinez

As our time here comes to an end, I think a lot of us are asking ourselves questions about how Auroville has changed us, whether we will translate the environmental consciousness we learned here to our lives din Paris and beyond, but I’d like to add another thought to that…

Will we continue to think about our own self development in the same way?

I’m not talking about Spirituality per se, I do not know enough about  The Mother’s teachings to put forth her philosophies, but there is something  that happens in Auroville that happens in few other places: self – development, a questioning about our role as humans and what we can do to better ourselves in a transforming  world. This role can be anything from documenting bird sounds, to teaching greener waste practices to inspiring healthier eating through permaculture farming and so on.

There are many reasons to come to Auroville, but they all have one thing in common: a development of both the world and the self in one.

In this program we are all at a point in our lives where we wanted to make a change- turn left instead of right and continue our studies to learn more about what we can do as citizens of the world. For those of my peers who wish to go into the field of development,  there is a desire to create change on a global scale, but , at the same time achieve a  kind of self realization: to ultimately do a job that fulfills you, in any way. And we all feel that way.

This is a place where people have the opportunity to discover what they can do to contribute to a community. It is a place  where families have the time to be with their children while still trying to achieve their dreams of more sustainable living. It is a place for self-discovery.

The people I’ve met  here come from a number of different backgrounds, but they all do work they love, that they are passionate about, that makes them feel fulfilled.

And yet, many people come and go from Auroville: Guests and Tourists circulate this intentional community regularly. And even Aurovillians leave .

In fact, I’ve spoken to many Aurovillians who have left for many years only to decide, that Auroville is ultimately where they’d like to live.  Many leave for the same reasons people everywhere leave small towns: wanting to see more of the world, to discover who they are in a different space etc .

But the difference is, the ones who return to Auroville come back for the same  reasons- to find themselves, to discover who they are, whether they have changed for the better over time, whether  they have in fact had that moment of self-realization.  The difference is, Aurovillians who return understand the spirit of Auroville is not just an example for a better world within the sphere of sustainability, but also an example of the best self we can put forward to a world that needs our help.

And that’s why coming back here, whether it’s a year from now or ten years from now, isn’t such a bad idea. And even if we don’t come back, I’d like to think that we carry that spirit of changing ourselves for the better with us even as we fly back to our lives in Paris this evening.

Gender Sensitization Orientation

I will preface this by saying that this is written in the style of a participant observation. Though it’s not the most invigorating writing style, the content has value. I believe in practicing respect and tolerance for all cultures while searching for understanding, meaning and a connection. Leave your thoughts at the end. I am very curious to hear other points of view.
Gender Sensitization Orientation (Participant Observation)
31 December 2015 2:19 PM- 4:50 PM
-Approximately 30 couples comprised of married men and women and unmarried boys and girls * (description given to me by the organizations employees)
-Event held by Adecom, local NGO that works in ‘women’s rights’ ‘gender equality’ and ‘gender sensitization’ predominantly amongst rural Dalit populations in the Tamil Nadu region
-The Dalit are the suppressed “untouchable” communities in India’s ‘former’ caste system that are still systematically discriminated against.
-The interaction took place in the Tamil language with interspersed comments in variant local languages. One of the male employees served as my translator.

Walking into a gathering of formally dressed young couples with the males wearing button down shirts, dress pants and sandals and the women wearing saris I get curious stares as I walk past them and into the office to meet with my boss. She is sitting at the table between two people I have not met before. I am introduced to a man who I am told is a teacher of gender sensitization, he stands and informs me he has been recognized by the president of India for his work, I politely smile and shake his hand. The woman on the other side I am told is an activist like Lalida, my boss, she simply smiles at me and shakes my hand across the table.
As I walk back outside the chairs are being put back in order and everyone is getting settled mostly male and female partners together intermingled. The man that I was introduced to before sits in front of the gathering and speaks to them in Tamil he asks a question and two males respond a couple minutes later a woman responds, a dialogue starts and everyone laughs. All seem to be avidly paying attention.
My translator tells me he is giving them an example of a 17 year old boy with a 13 year old girl who fell in love and had relations and now the girl is pregnant. He is asking the couples what their view is on the incident. I am told here in India majority is at 18 years of age. According to the marriage act in India a male should be 21 and a female at least 18. The couples are asking what the circumstances are surrounding the situation. According to the Marriage Act the male should be sent to a juvenile home. The “important man” asks the couples what should be done about the girl. He suggests she be sent to school. He tells them the boy will be sent to the juvenile home for 2-3 years and then he will be released and he will be fine. The female will be affected more. One male distractedly looks around.
In another case a school going girl child was pregnant, she was taking an exam, she leaves during the exam births her child, throws it out the window and returns to finish the exam.
He asks how the men will take better care of their wives. They respond we will take better care of them, we will help with the dishes. He asks the women what they expect from their husbands? The females choose not to respond. One of them says she will respond later.
…everyone claps, jokes are being told, people laugh.. occasionally someone glances my way both the males and the females seem curious about my presence.
He asks how the couples got married, one couple responds they fell in love and with the consent of their family they got married. Everyone claps…
He asks the males what are you doing in favor of your wives? The women respond. He asks if there are any males willing to come forward and respond. No one is willing…Lalida speaks..one husband responds “I am doing all the household chores.”
One of the girls states she observed her fathers behavior with her mother and she understood she should be very tolerating in her family. Everyone laughs. She continues stating she is wondering if her husband will be like she is, if he will be tolerating. Her future husband responds he will be tolerating and he will help her. She states when she is having a child she will not show discrimination in a boy or girl.
Another woman speaks up and states that when she is not feeling well her husband will do all the household activities and cook for her.
A man speaks up telling the crowd he is a follower of Ambedkar, my translator explains Ambedkar is an Indian philosopher, he says Ambedkar believes there should be no discrimination between a boy or a girl and we should not hurt our ladies. He states he is doing the same.
A female stands next to the “important man,” he explains she is a worker at Adecom and he asks her to explain how her family is going on, how she fairs in her family and how her husband is helping her? She explains that after coming to Adecom she learned that women have rights, her husband had been beating her but after learning he acts better. Everyone claps. Now he is helping her by cooking and washing the clothes. Everyone claps again. She tells everyone her mother-in-law had also hurt her many times. Women interact with her, ask questions, and make comments. There is some laughing. She says many problems arise from her mother-in-law. A male employee films her speech. Everyone claps. When she is done she sits.
Another female employee stands to speak. She tells about the behavior of her mother-in-law, telling them that she will support her own daughter but not her daughter-in-law. She says her husband is so cooperative with her he helps her in all ways. She addresses the couples and tells them that the husbands should help their wives. Most females clap. Some males clap.
Lalida speaks…a female responds…she is telling it is better when her husband is taking decisions he should tell his wife, ask her opinion… theres clapping
Lalida speaks
My translator tells me he also does not understand all the words he speaks Malayalam he is from Kerala in the south of India. He tells me I can look on a map to find it. He notes I also write down our interaction, I respond its part of what is going on.
The ‘important man’ speaks again, he is telling them our aim is the equality of women with men, for that we assemble here, for that we are speaking. He is telling them to join us in that goal. He is telling them if there is no equality ‘normal society’ will not join.
A male speaks, my translator tells me he is speaking in a fully colloquial language and he does not understand. He listens quietly for a while then tells me the man is telling them we should not go for abortion of girl child, in family the male should help the ladies in household chores, there should be no discrimination between boy or girl.
The ‘important man’ gives another example telling them that at the time of marriage it is customary for the girls mother and father to give her husband a car, it is registered in the husbands name. He is telling them the money is from the brides family and the car should be registered also in the girls name. He continues stating that normally when naming the child we give the initial of the fathers name so there also the mother does not have a role, he tells them that when naming the child they can put the father and the mothers name.
Some suggestions for girls/ladies..
Ladies should respect their husbands
They ask for someone to read the women’s suggestions formulated by the group earlier in the day in a workshop that they did.
A woman stands off to the side and reads off a piece of paper
-When a decision is taken in the family, women should be involved also
-Ladies should not kill the girl child at the time of birth or before birth. They should look after girl child properly
-By telling all this I am not against the husband, with the husband I will fight for the empowerment of women and I will work for that..
^My translator asks what I am studying?
-I respond political science and international affairs
^He asks what I will do with that?
-I respond I will work for an international NGO with human rights or maybe emergency humanitarian response.
^He states that if I am doing international human rights every country has its own rules and regulations.
-I tell him that why I am here in India, to observe and learn how and why people are different.
^He asks me where I am from?
-I tell him I am from the United States
^He tells me everything must better in the United States, that we can do everything just with our phones, as he holds up his own.
-I laugh and tell him it is not necessarily better just different and I agree with him that we can do almost anything with our phones
^He asks where I am studying?
^Where my parents are?
^How long my program is?
^Will I go back to the US when I am done?
-I respond that I am studying in France but my parents are back in the United States. My program will last a little over a year in a half and whether or not I go back to the US will depend on if I can get a job somewhere else or not.
^He silently contemplates this…
^He tells me he has family in the US in Florida and New York
Another male worker comes and sits by him and they speak to each other in Tamil.
^He then turns to me asks me what the official language of the US is?
-I tell him there is no official language, people can speak whatever language they want but English is the common language and most people speak English
^He asks me if I like India
-I tell him I do but it is very different from what I am use to
^He tells me that if I stay in India for a year I will get use to it
Feedback from the couples;
After coming here they also start to think about the empowerment of women and how they can favor their wives.
Clapping
There is a couple that has had a “law marriage,” Lalida is asking them directly to provide their feedback. They choose not to respond.
I ask what “law marriage’ means and my translator explains Law Marriage means the couple chose to marry by law without their parents opinion or approval. They took their own decision he says. He then tells me an Arranged Marriage means the parents chose and approved.
^He asks me if I know of arranged marriages
-I tell him I do but that it is not something that I practice
^He asks me if I am married?
-I respond I am not
^He asks when I will marry?
-I tell him I don’t know, maybe some day in the future but not any time soon and it is not something that I am actively searching for
^He asks me my age?
-I respond I am 27
He reads my notes and laughs
^He tells me that what he asks me is personal and I do not need to write it down
-I tell him its part of my assignment and is not for anyone to read

Lalida is telling the couples she is a follower of Ambedkar, she is motivating them.
I am conscious of how I am sitting and that the bottoms of my feet may be showing, I shift positions. My legs are starting to fall asleep.

My translator is looking over my shoulder reading what I am writing so I get a bit self-conscious and stop writing.

The conversation continues for a moment, the ‘important man’ speaks the couples come to the front individually and gifts are given to all the couples and a female employee thanks them for coming. Everyone stands and starts saying their goodbyes. They wish everyone a Happy New Year and a Happy Pongal (harvest festival in Tamil Nadu) They stand in groups and take pictures slowly they start to leave 2-3 per motorcycle.

After they are all gone the Adecom employees gather around in a circle, my translator joins them. They speak in Tamil with interspersed English words. They seem to be discussing how the day went, giving feedback or maybe what they’ve learned from the session. The ‘important male’ seems to be the lead speaker at one point one of the female employees seems to be talking to him and his phone rings while she is speaking, he answers his phone and she falls silent quietly waiting for him to finish his conversation. He finishes talking on the phone and addresses the male sitting next to the female who had been previously speaking. Another female speaks and the ‘important man’ interrupts her, she continues to speak and one female claps when she is done. Nandi, a female employee, begins to speak. I understand the words ‘gender sensitivity’ and ‘gender equality’ spoken several times along with the word “couples”. The ‘important man” speaks I understand “communication training” “the invitation” “in the reading” “background material” “reading material” “it’s a learning” “communication activity” Lalida’s husband responds and a discussion ensues, it sound like they’re arguing I hear the words “budget constraint” there is finger pointing and speakinf with hands a little aggressively. The ‘important man’ continues to speak with his hand but he smiles as he speaks. I notice he has a wedding ring. He gets up and everyone claps, he grabs bags with the gifts he was given earlier, speaks to Lalida’s husband and then he leaves. A female follows him out, she sits side saddle on the back of his bike. Lalida speaks, 2 other male employees speak (no rings), another male employee speaks, he has a wedding ring, he speaks firmly. Lalida’s husband’s phone rings and he answers. Lalida begins speaking “new place for learning,” a female speaks and Lalida seems to mouth a silent “thank you.” They seem to continue to give their observations the conversation seems to get more serious/intense. Nandi begins to speak very passionately and ends up excusing herself and leaves visibly upset. My translator says a few words and then Lalida begins to speak more quietly. Nandi returns and joins the circle..

***Thoughts:
I found the interaction to be incredibly interesting. It is clear to see the very delineated gender roles in the society I was observing. From the moment I walked into the gathering and the ‘self-important male’ dominated the introductions and later the conversation I began to question teaching gender equality and gender sensitization in an environment that is more self aware but still very much male dominated. I wondered if the use of a prominent male speaker was intentional and if the organization felt it was easier to get their message across through him because he would be better received and the couples would be more receptive to his words. I found correlations with previous classes and studies, where I learned that in societies with systematic and internalized suppression of women, the older women will perpetuate the cycle of oppression even when the younger males seems more open to equality within the roles. It is also clear that the discrimination against women is deeply rooted and unconscious to the level that unless they are being directly confronted with examples of what should be done, when and why the gender roles are not even questioned. I quickly realized through my translator’s questions that neither he nor any of the males there would know what to do with a female such as myself; opinionated, independent, stubborn and very strong willed, very rarely submissive and not at all interested in marriage or a male protector/caretaker. I question whether I would be that person if I had been born here or in a different environment. I also found interesting the societal relationship to marriage and the fact that through their own description a woman and a man are married while those who are unmarried are described as girls and boys. I caught myself thinking that they just needed time to be educated and to advance into a more evolved society where the concept of gender equality did not need to be preceded with concepts of what a male should do and what a female should do. As if a man doing the dishes suddenly makes everything equal. I began to think of them as children that needed to be taught better so they could do better. This brought about mixed emotions on my belief that different does not necessarily mean one view is better or one view is wrong. While I did not feel I actively passed judgment the difficulty of silencing ones own biases was very apparent. I thought back to my paper on cultural relativity in human rights and began to question the feasibility of applying concepts of universal human rights to societies that cannot even begin to understand the concepts embodied within the CEDAW (Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women). In their brochure they refer to the ‘Dalit’ as the backward class, I cringed at the term but momentarily saw a parallel in the way their culture functions to suppress women. I reprimand myself for passing judgement. If a 16 year old girl with a child and a loving and caring husband that values her and treats her as his equal is happy and feels she has a purpose and is contributing to not only her family but her community, who am I to say that she must do otherwise? Should her perception of the world change to include mine simply because I perceive that there is something lacking? Should her world be morphed into something that is unrecognizable to her and potentially makes her miserable so that I can have the satisfaction of saying that women are equal to men and that we have succeeded in ensuring every child has a basic education and everyone’s human rights are being respected? I think on the fact that I must filter the information I am receiving through broken English and a translator who does not fully understand and who is influenced by his own biases, his view of me as an outsider that may or may not judge his culture and his obvious discomfort with me writing down everything he said. I reflect on the parts of the conversation that where not translated to me and am aware that my level of understanding through gestures, tone and expressions may have been simply perceived understanding from interjecting my own views and making assumptions from my own expectations. I believe there are things that translate across cultures… feelings… emotions… basic needs. I am not sure if I should look at the world as evolving and as some peoples more evolved than others or as if there is some end game to which we are all evolving. I feel as if that train of thought presupposes there is a “right way” to be, or a single idea of “right” towards which we should all strive which further complicates my feelings towards a universal human rights declaration. I question everything and feel that I find no answers but only more questions…

Lina Reyes

The Role of Sexuality in Indian Society

Britain came to India in the 17th century. For over 300 years the British ruled India, exerting enormous influence over the economy, the laws, and the ways of thinking of one of the world’s oldest civilizations. Then they just up and left (more or less).

Now India has had to live with that colonial influence and Western way of life while still trying to hold on to their own culture, which has played out quite interestingly in the rights of the Indian population to be homosexual or transgender.

It is legal to be transgender, but illegal to be homosexual.

The legal acceptance of transgender stems from that fact that it is not viewed as sexuality, but simply a matter of gender: male or female. However, just because the law has made it so (even going so far as to declare transgenders to be a third gender) does not mean that society has accepted transgenders with open arms.

Homosexuality is an entirely different matter. It is a subject that is quite sexual in nature and simply a question of being either of the male or female gender. Intercourse between two men is considered to “against nature;” a violent act; and therefore even a consenting adult can be put in jail for up to 10 years simply for having sex with someone of the same gender.

In the Indian Penal Code, the 377 law, established during the British colonial era in 1860, criminalizes homosexuality as “carnal acts against the order of nature.” The LGBT community in India saw a hope for their rights though in 2009 when the Delhi High Court ruled that this law was a violation of fundamental rights. The victory was unfortunately short lived though as four years later the Supreme Court reversed the lower court’s decision, citing that it was a matter for Parliament to decide and not the justice system.

So besides being a taboo subject, since being homosexual is illegal it is therefore very hard for organizations to even form to help those in need. To provide information on safe sex practices, a safe space to simply discuss, or even just a place to be where someone doesn’t have to hide who they are. An organization we visited here in India, Sahodaran Community Oriented Health Development Society (SCHOD), is trying to do just that though.

At the moment SCHOD focus is to educate the LGBT community in regards to safe sex practices to lessen the cases of sexually transmitted infections and HIV/AIDS. However, the ultimate goal is the rights of the minority community they belong to. Our presenter, Sheetal, formally Rajesh, provided us with an eye-opening story of her life and her freedom of being able to transform from the male body she was born into to the female she was meant to be. However Sheetal and her organization have a long fight ahead of them.

So, in a nation determined to be still developing, though it claims to have the world’s largest democracy, where is the line drawn on what the government can and cannot tell its citizens they are allowed or not allowed to do? Should individuals of a country stand by and allow a government to tell us who we are and are not allowed to love?

Love is Not a CrimeThe Independent

This subject though is really an issue of fundamental human rights. I cannot imagine how frustrating it must be for people of one country to look at those of another and be envious of the rights afforded to them (I am specifically thinking of India and the United States, though the US is by no means perfect). It is a complex problem of allowing each country to uphold its own traditions, customs, culture, etc. However, there are certain fundamental human rights that should globally be the same.

If you would like to read more on the subject, check out these articles.

 

– JLH

Tamil Culture: A Talk by Meenakshi

Om or "aum" (Image c/o Daniella Capote)

Om or “aum” (Image c/o Daniella Capote)

We sat inside the dim auditorium at the Auroville Town Hall, where we had been fighting our eyelids all morning to stay awake, and prepared ourselves for our next talk. It was about Tamil culture. Actually, we had been anxiously awaiting to attend this particular lecture—to learn about the people whose language we can’t understand, whose culture is so foreign to us, and whose home we are inhabiting for four weeks.

We were greeted by Meenakshi, a well-known Tamilian poetess and educator. She stood in front of us, in an earth green Sari (which we later learned is 6 meters long!). Her demeanor is strong yet quiet, and wisdom radiates from within her.  In her quiet she commanded attention.  At the same time she is humble with kind, thoughtful eyes.

Her male colleague was seated cross-legged on a long bamboo mat in the background. Next to him there were two tables, one with some medicinal plants from the Tamil Nadu region, and on the other table, a statue of a dancing god. Beneath the table was a burning oil candle. The light symbolizes compassion. Meenakshi says that,

“Once there is compassion, problems can be seen in a different light”.

As dutiful students, we came equipped with questions: What does the head bobble mean? How do Tamilians deal with conflict? How do they interact with Auroville? Do Tamilians like Auroville? As we asked our questions she turned back to her colleague, who then scribbled something on the palm of his hand.

She giggled a little, then digressed. Meenashki spoke to us about the ancient Tamil culture, and the root of its rich traditions.  Tamil culture is inherently spiritual, even in the formation of the language.

Tamil is not only spoken in India, but it is also spoken in Malaysia, Sri Lanka, and Singapore. The whole language is built from the sound “a” or . The vowels are linked with the soul, and the consonants are linked with the body.  All Tamil sounds are linked to the energy centers of the body, and like this, they are like living letters. Meenakshi’s friend is chanting the different sounds as she explains the meaning of “sum” (oneness and unity), and I can literally feel the sounds’ vibrations even though he was a generous distance away.

Meenashki says, “Nature is our God”, and the giant Banyan tree, which grows from the tiniest seed gives Tamilians faith in God. Like the Banyan tree, whose branches eventually become its roots, we are constantly growing. Meenakshi showed us beads and stone tools, dating back thousands of years to illustrate the antiquity of her culture. The growth of Tamil culture was temporarily stunted by Europeans who colonized their land. Now they work to bridge this gap. Along with a group of Tamilians, Meenakshi realized the Tamil Heritage Centre (THC) in Auroville to help bridge this gap. She says they feel a connection with the Aurovillians, who in a sense worship a “mother goddess” at the Matrimandir, like Tamils do at temples.

-Daniella Capote