Finding the past and the future in the present
While my folks were here, we went to visit family friends of my dad's, Lata and Parag, in Dadar. On their porch overlooking the quiet area of Dadar, with cars on the expressway whizzing by to our right, we considered the hubbub of the day. If order comes out of chaos, what will India's new order look like? Lata mentioned that the highway had actually made her neighborhood more pleasant. She said the traffic noise had subsided because people could now travel expressly (on the highway) to their destination and were not stuck in a glut of horns and diesel exhaust in front of her home.
Lata and I went on to talk about what Matt and I were doing in India. Taking off from a job, traveling, and not having 100% quantifiable goals is very strange for most Indians (and parents, sometimes). There's a focus on education, tests and overall success, success, success! So I mentioned first our goals and then spoke about our general interest in understanding people and the culture.
Lata furrowed her brow. She thought about it for a moment and then said that it would be quite hard to learn about traditional Indian culture, as fewer and fewer people are practicing it anymore. To which I understood to mean, the old ways. She said, "You can come and live with me and see how I live, but what will you learn?" And more softly, "I don't even go to temple every week." I could tell this had stumped her, as a lot of the time it stumps Matt and I. How can you learn about culture - both old and new - in a new country? What do you seek out? How do you go about it? Does everyday life for the modern Indian give you a good idea about the country itself, its roots?
As much as we'd wish to believe, it's just about impossible in this modern age to find "A Land Lost in Time." Unless you go searching for sea creatures in the ocean (we'll get there!). In some cultures, what's left of any old world customs in only found in books. In others, it's in hidden pockets, those farther away from major roads like the one we were staring at. Tradition is hard to come by, but it's there. In many cases, we have found old traditions to be practices in an approximation, sometimes using modern materials and tools with a modern outlook.
For instance, we met a woman named Marisa in Durban, South Africa who was helping women of the Zulu tribe find a commercial outlet for the fertility vessels they made for use in ritual. Once the ritual was no longer practiced, the vessels had lost relevance. The women, looking for work, sought other trades. The ones who still practiced also found themselves without materials. The reeds the women had used had become victim to increasingly dried up soil. So the women adapted, and when Marisa found them, were using old telephone lines. Marisa engineered new copper wires in many different colors and taught the women how to add patterns and stories to their work. What resulted was a commercial outlet for a craft whose ritual had become obsolete. Some would call this tragic, others industrious.
In other cases, we've observed if the wisdom of a tradition is not taught along with the practices, these adaptations, however subtle, can be detrimental. We've found this to be the case with many customs where missionaries have a hand in helping to "modernize" the culture.
While on the Amazon, our guide on the Rio Negro river cruise, Christof, told us of a tribe he had interacted with who lived deeper into the jungle. In Brazil, the indigenous have different rights than Brazilians, and also are absolved from certain crimes. Christof told us, for instance, so long as a person is part indigenous (down to 1/4 if I remember correctly, i.e. if at least one grandparent was indigenous), they cannot be tried for murder.
Christof told us it was customary in the tribe for grandmothers to pull out the hair of young girls until they were bald. Well, when the government got wind of this, they outlawed it. The wisdom of the custom (however brutal it might sound), was that once the girl's hair had grown back, they were deemed fit to marry and conceive children. So with all the young girls walking around with full heads of hair, they began to get pregnant much younger, which caused all sorts of complications for the women and the tribe.
However small, however difficult to locate, Matt and I are fascinated by this notion of capturing customs while they still exist, in an Alan Lomax sort of way. We want to find these pockets of people going against this current of modernization and observe their old ways. This may seem trivial, impossible, a practice passed its time, but we have to believe it's still worth pursuing. Along the way, we hope we can be open-minded enough for things that come our way.
I could tell Lata had been thinking about our conversation when after lunch, she pulled me aside. She mentioned that it is difficult to study a culture when you have specific expectations. I agreed. Especially in India, things are evolving all the time. Kids are moving away from the old ways, as are adults. You can read about "static" time periods all you want in literature and history books, but even they rarely encapsulate what was going on at the time. History books, commonly, have the same failings as travelers: they look back on a time from the perspective of now. What would we want the traditional culture of India to look like? Quaint? Agrarian? Magical, mythical, grand? Is that what we will look for?
Lata and I may have felt differently about some things, but we could agree on one. You can't try to control your exploration of a culture, you can only guide its course. You can learn as much as possible about the ways of old and where things came from (language, history, ancient practices, arts, etc). You can put yourself out there, your energy, your mind, your feelers (what have you), but at the end of the day you have to take the moment as it comes.