Ancient Egyptians believed that upon death they would be asked two questions and their answers would determine whether they could continue their journey in the afterlife.  
The first question was, "Did you bring joy?"  
The second was, "Did you find joy?"

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Family Beds

If you've ever read a guide book before traveling to a foreign country, and I've only ever read a little of one, you will probably have at least skimmed the section on etiquette and what cultural differences to watch out for so that you can know what to be sensitive to while guesting in a strange land.  You know, those social dos and don'ts which might differ from your culture of origin.

For instance, all the books on India mention that it is more than customary to eat only with the right hand because the left hand is traditionally left for unhygienic duties like cleaning up after a trip to the toilet.  You are also not supposed to point the bottoms of your feet at anyone for fear of insulting them.

But in a country like India where there are such major religious players, like Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam, the webs of religious and social practices are woven with layer upon layer of ritual and even superstition and trying to catalogue all the do's an don'ts for the intrepid traveler would require a multi-volume library and months of study on the part of the traveler to even comprehend a little bit of the diverse interplay.

So, after watching Indians masterfully drink water from water bottles without ever letting the plastic touch their lips, I only just found out that it is actually not hygiene that keeps people from touching their lips to the bottle, but some Hindu practice which forbids one person's lips from touching food or drink that touched another person's lips.  Therefore, beggars on the street who have nothing will not take food scraps if someone else took a bite out of the food.

Some people won't even use a ceramic or china cup that has been washed with hot soap and water if someone else ever drank out of it.  It would be like spiritually defiling yourself to risk contamination of someone else's juju.

Many of these cultural traditions have to do with separating yourself from or alienating someone else from or pointing out that you are different from a person from another caste or religion.  One of my favorite people here in Santiniketan is a Santal woman, Munglie, who cooks for Chandana.  Munglie married a man who was from a town and therefore is part of one of the 4 official castes.  Munglie, a village girl, is an "outcast".  When she goes to her in-law's house where they are much more conservative than her husband, she has to be careful that no part of her whatsoever touches anyone living in the house.  If so much as her sari brushes up against her mother-in-law, the mother-in-law runs to the bathroom to clean herself.

These things are strange to me and even appalling, but I've grown used to stories like these.  Caste and religion are elements of this society that aren't shy, they parade themselves around, flaunting their respective lifestyles.

But I recently learned of some parts of Indian culture that seriously took me aback and after I thought about it for a while, I realized that this practice also explains a WHOLE lot about why this country feels so very different from my own.

I knew that in villages, or in slums where people are so desperately poor, that whole extended families often sleep in a single room.  What I now know is that even in middle to upper class house-holds, parents and children, GROWN children, often all sleep in the same bed.  I was told of one man who is in his fifties.  He never married.  He has slept every night of his life in the same bed with his mother.

In India it is the norm for children to stay with their parents until they are married, for men it is normal to stay with their parents even after they are married, though, presumably, if the house is big enough, the married man would move into a new bed with his new wife.  Though not always.  Someone told me of a couple who was having trouble getting pregnant.  No one could understand it.  Then, it came out that the husband's mother had not only been sleeping with the newlyweds, she'd been sleeping between the young husband and wife.

If a young person decides to be independent and asks for their own room or their own (gasp) apartment, like Rei Ganguly did, it is seen as an oddity, a personality quirk.  But, should funds permit and the daughter does move out, it is likely the parents will still fully support the child for as long as it takes for a marriage to happen, at which point, I guess, financial responsibility for a girl child shifts to the husband.

In the case of a boy-child, he might not choose to get married and certainly won't leave home until he has worked enough and earned a sufficient amount to have a wife.  That's why there are so many older men in their 30s and 40s married to barely legal aged girls: boys live comfortably snuggled into house and bed with their parents until they feel ready to get married and to be more grown up, while girl's, who are considered financial burdens to their parents from the minute they are born, are tossed out at the earliest chance.

Once I learned all this, I realized that I might have hit on the source of what I might call a naivete amongst certain groups of Indians of the middle to upper classes.  I've had the sense that many of these Indians are living in a state of permanent adolescence where someone else, either mom or dad or one of the servants, does the laundry and the dishes and makes the meals and pays the rent.  Because this means, too, that the child is unmarried, even into their middle-ages, there is a curiosity and yearning for sexual contact, but it may just be that they are, in fact, virgins.  Think about it, there are 40 year old male virgins marrying, sometimes, 16 year old female virgins.  The emotional and interpersonal learning curve is going to be pretty steep.

In America, of course, living at home with your parents into your 30s and 40s would be severely looked down upon.  Until the economic downturn, I think it is fair to say, we westerners saw it as our duty to be out of the house we grew up in as soon as possible.  18 is commonly when we go off to college, so maybe we come home for vacations, but then we certainly hope to be living independently by 24 or 25 at the latest.

I've had friends who get grief if they let their kids sleep with them past the age of 3 or 4.  We are told to put the child in their crib in their room and let them cry themselves to's good for them...builds that independent spirit we Americans regard so highly.

And virginity past the age of 21 for much of our population is, quite frankly, unheard of.

I hope that this comparison that I am making doesn't sound judgemental.  I make it not to make anyone feel foolish.  I simply point the differences out in order to try and understand a certain chasm in understanding that I haven't been able to cross.

In my world back home, I am surrounded by the spirit of independence, of sexual and interpersonal experimentation.  I, like many, have an easier life because of my parents and the money that they made, but the idea was always instilled in me, and everyone I knew, that I was responsible for myself and my livelihood and my dishes.  Though I would have liked to have found a partner that stuck before now, I live in a culture where serial monogamy is becoming the norm.  Even people who get married often get unmarried and move onto someone new.

I don't actually know which methodology is better.  I told someone here in Santiniketan the other day that one of the reasons my mom loves facebook is because she can keep tabs on my life without being intrusive.  This Indian woman, who isn't on facebook, replied, "Morgan, I'm sorry, but there isn't anything my mother doesn't know about my life and nothing I wouldn't tell her apart from, maybe, what happens in my bedroom."

Of this class that I've been talking about, this woman is one of the most independent women I've met .  She left her first husband to live with the man who has been her unmarried partner for years.  She runs her own business with a gentle iron-fist.  But at the root of it all, she still comes from the single-family-bed mentality, the family is all in this living thing together.  Who's to say that doesn't beat the heck out of the American family system?

1 comment:

Christopher said...

Don't know if you're ever going to scroll back to re-read this old of a post, but I'm just NOW starting into your April entries!

My first thought about this is whether it is simply a cultural adaptation to the fact that India is a very populous country; with so many people crowded into such a limited amount of space, the concept of "privacy", at least as we Westerners think of it, must be very different. As a matter of practicality and circumstance, people have been forced to occupy the same space as many other people, particularly in family units, and so it would seem reasonable that the sort of arrangments you describe would naturally develop out of that.

Additionally, in my extremely limited experience in these matters, Easterners as a general rule seem to be much more doting on their children than Westerners, so the idea of parents indulging/coddling/overprotecting - whatever you want to call it - their adult offspring makes sense in that context. I can think of other extenuating circumstances that might also contribute to this - the commonality of arranged marriages, for example - but yeah, apparently the notion of living an independent life apart from ones parents does seem to be rather foreign.

Which I personally, would find highly constrictive, and undesirable for all sorts of reasons I won't get into here!