After the first monsoon rains are over, me and mom go foraging for mushrooms in our backyard which seem to blossom overnight, similarly when a girl or boy comes of age in India there are a lot of people who seem to appear in their lives like these monsoon mushrooms. It is almost like you are graduating in life from a learner’s license to a real one and you are somehow starting to figure out which way to go but suddenly one day, you are shoved off in a hurry from the driver’s seat and they take over and drive off seemingly having discussions and arguments among themselves. You just end up being a spectator of this strange dance.
Back home we collectively call them uncles and aunts, not that our parents have so many siblings, its just a polite way of addressing a disparate group of people united by the single most aim of getting you into that wedding dress. They include real uncles and aunts, neighbors, your friends’ parents, your postman, the person who comes to read the electricity meter at your home and in a lot of the cases an astrologer.
An astrologer and I have a lot in common, we both are keenly interested in the motion of the moon and the planets. While my interest is more curiosity driven and includes a lot of Python programming, an astrologer gives out more of a Prof. Trelawney vibe. “You have the GRIM Harry arghhh”, not exactly that, but you get the picture, right?
Depending on where your parents stand on the atheist-religious-theist scale, a visit to an astrologer can have lasting effects on one’s life. A lot of my friends were married off at the age of 21 because otherwise their planets aligned only when they were 32 which is of course code for too old to to be in the wedding market.
When it comes to matters related to religion my father is a firm believer in everything and my mother is also somewhere around that ball park. Since I am 28 and as single as a person can be, they decided to take my horoscope to our family astrologer (yes we have one). He told my mom outright that “your daughter is having a lot of sex”.
Now, this is no joke for my parents and a lot of Indian parents for that matter. When you look beyond the glitz and glamour of westernized big urban Indian cities there are a lot of places where dating is still not part of the vocabulary, where talks about sex is always done in hushed tones and sex before marriage is still a taboo. Virginity is a measure of a girl’s honor and worthiness. Almost all religions celebrate delayed gratification and in this case a girl who can’t wait to have a husband for sex is deemed loose and if she has had more then one sexual partners then by all definitions of that word a ‘whore’.
My mom didn’t even ask me if I was in a sexual relationship with someone, she just assumed I was not. Because I was raised to be a good girl and good girls never dare do anything out of the behavioral checklist that society shoves on them.
Should I tell her that I stopped being a good girl a while ago?
I have been living abroad for four years now and these are some of the questions that I get asked a lot, they are entirely my views and opinions, not of the whole country. India is a big country that is multilingual, multireligious, and multicultural, hence it is almost impossible to give answers that fit all. So keep that in mind while you read. If I made factual errors let me know in the comments section, but be nice.
Q: Are you a Hindi? Do you speak Hindu?
A: You might have gotten that mixed up, don’t worry the words are so similar. Hindi is a language and Hinduism is a religion. I will wait while you rephrase the question
Q: I thought all Indians are vegetarians
A: Not all of us but a lot of us. To a great extent it depends on religious beliefs, we do have a very wide range of yummy vegetarian and vegan dishes, though. Detailed explanation here
Q: What is that dot on your forehead? Does that mean you are married? And, why is it black not red?
A: It is called a bindi. I am not good with definitions, so will let wiki do the job, “The word Bindu dates back to the hymn of creation known as Nasadiya Sukta in Rig Veda.Bindu is considered the point at which creation begins and may become unity. It is also described as “the sacred symbol of the cosmos in its unmanifested state….[keep reading]”
Now that you know the theory I will tell you what it means for us individually, today it has become more of a cultural symbol than a religious one, so you can see people from all religions wearing a bindi and in all possible colors and designs you can imagine. It might not be an indication of someone’s marital status either. Personally, it is something I have grown up doing and still do it because I love how it makes me look.
Q: Why do you eat beef? I thought it was banned in India
A: 24 out of 29 states in India currently have various regulations prohibiting either the slaughter or sale of cows, because cow is very much respected in Hinduism (needs further explanation). I come from a state that does not have any such regulation. Also, India is a secular country, there is a place for every religion and belief system and most importantly because I believe a nation state to not dictate my eating habits or any personal choices for that matter.
Q: You speak good English…?
A: English is one of the official languages of India. It isn’t my mother tongue but I learned it as a first language in school ( generally you have the options to do schooling in English, the official language of the state, or in Hindi) meaning all my schooling and university education was in English. But no, I don’t speak it at home. It isn’t the case everywhere, to give you a very questionable percentage it is 10% of the entire population that use English in some form.
Q: Why don’t you have an Indian accent?
A: I really do have. Maybe this needs a bit of an explanation. Because India is a very multilingual country, Indian English accents can vary from region to region and from school to school. Our mother tongue can have a huge influence, also on the fact that how early we start using English as a spoken language. Don’t be surprised if we all don’t sound like Rajesh Kutrapalli 😀
Q: Will your parents choose the groom for you?
A: Oh boy, where do I start! India is a big country and the difference in ways of life in urban and rural areas are monumental. Arranged marriages are still a thing, but the approach to the topic varies. Some parents prefer their children to find their partners on their own, we call them love marriages. Then there are love arranged marriages, that is when people find their partners on their own but then spend time convincing their parents why this might be a good match. Then purely arranged weddings, where you resort on newspaper adverts, matrimonial websites or the now outdated wedding brokers. Speaking very very generally parents rarely force kids these days and you almost always have the room to say no (there are very brutal exceptions to this of course), but they tend to get worried as we age since marriage is still a norm in the society and sometimes we might be made to make some difficult choices.
Q: All Indians speak Hindi, don’t they?
A: No we don’t.
Q: I thought Hindi was your national language.
A: So did I until a certain age. Then internet came around and I realized it was not. India does NOT have a national language. There are two nationally recognised official languages, English and Hindi. It is very commonly spoken in the northern states, but it might not be the case in the north-eastern states and the south. I come from the south and never have I ever spoken in Hindi when I was home, I learned it in school as my third language.
Q: Why do you celebrate Christmas?
A: There are now around 24 million Christians in India. In some states, there are larger percentages and hence the spirit of Christmas can spread beyond the boundaries of religion. In my state, we have ten days off from school. Mine was a Hindu household with a star, a crib and a Christmas tree fashioned out of a mango tree during Christmas and of course awesome food:)
Q: Are your weddings so grand like in the movies?
A: Movies tend to take it a bit far, it might not be as well choreographed as you see. But they can be very colourful and a hell lot of people. It is not so uncommon to have 500- 1000 guests to a wedding. It is not that people are always able to afford such weddings but somehow it has become a thing of pride which I sincerely hope will change soon.
Q: Do you like Bollywood movies?
A: Yes, I do. There are a lot of good movies in Bollywood, you might have to look a bit beyond all the glitz and glamour. But India has a number of regional movie industries, which produce tons of awesome movies year round and I watch movies in my mother tongue (Malayalam) more than Bollywood. If you want recommendations ask me 😀
Q: Do you ride elephants?
A: No. It is possible but it isn’t as common as the media make it to appear.
Q: Have you played with snakes?
A: NO! Where did you learn that from? :O
Q: Is it really hot everywhere?
I will get all technical now, the southern and northern extremes points vary roughly between 6 and 36-degree latitudes, so the temperature varies a great deal. We have places that have snow year round in the north, so the answer is it isn’t hot everywhere.
Q: Do you all practice yoga?
A: No, not all of us
Q: Do you think it is cultural appropriation if I wear a saree, or a bindi, or henna….?
A: Here the answer is entirely personal*, I think the whole thing of cultural appropriation needs a blog post later on. I absolutely love when a non-Indian person wears a saree or a bindi or henna… Saree is a beautiful piece of clothing and please do wear it more often and whenever you want. I can name at least ten outstanding henna artists (@bella, @joey,@maple..) who are not Indian by birth, they have contributed a lot to the craft , so please do it just make sure it is safe and naturally made and free of dangerous chemicals.
*and I am almost sure a lot of us will feel the same way