Love Beyond All Barriers

Posted by Kate Strathmann • Monday, September 6. 2010 • Category: Crossing Cultures
I recently read an article in the New York Times entitled “In India, Castes, Honor and Killings Intertwine”. Over the six years or so since I made my first journey to India, I have recounted to friends and acquaintances at home some of the anecdotes (I wince to use this word – as if abuse of women should ever be relegated to a mere anecdote) I have encountered in first, second, or third person regarding the ways in which women are abused, maimed, or sometimes killed, as in the case of the young girl in the aforementioned article. I always want to defend or make excuses for the country that I love. It’s true, there hasn’t been a case of sati [immolation of widows on their husband’s funeral pyre] in years (though I hasten to point out, there has been in my lifetime), but I recall reading of daily “kitchen fires” in the police blotter in the Bangalore newspaper years ago; and discovering that this was a twisted and polite allusion to an intentional act of violence often resulting in homicide, not an indication that the country needed to examine safety standards of stovetop ranges.

This article spoke of a recent case in the state of Jharkhand in which a young woman who had fallen in love (to a boy outside of her caste and community) while studying in Delhi, became engaged, and then had been found dead under mysterious circumstances while visiting her parents’ home. It was later discovered in the autopsy that she was pregnant.
 
This case for me hit the nerve at which I have witnessed so many clashes between “new” India – the country of tech capitals, call centers, and a population overwhelmed by youth (half of the over one billion people have yet to reach their 25th year) – with the poverty-ridden and tradition-bound country of sages, saris, and sati.

A Tamil mother and her daughter posing in front of a Hindu temple in Tamil Nadu

To quote the article: “In the letter, the father acknowledged that such marriages were allowed under India’s Constitution, but argued that the Constitution had existed for only decades while Hindu religious beliefs dated back thousands of years.”
 
Countless journalists and travelers have noted this clash; it has been happening for decades, yet has accelerated with unimaginable furor as the tech boom has grown. Western culture, wealth, technology, and countless other modernisms have become familiar and reachable, while at the same time the India of thousands of years ago still very much exists – in customs, attitudes, infrastructure, and punishments. I know that I read such articles with a greater degree of personal interest and investment than the average New York Times reader – we all gravitate to stories that connect us with our personal experiences. If you travel or live in India long enough, you will encounter the mingling and clashes and marriage of the new and the old.
 
As much as my gender increases the challenge of living and traveling in India by at least ten-fold, the trade-off is that I get to connect with women. I also feel a deeper recognition, and stomach churning, reading about honor killings – mostly as I connect these remote-sounding stories to my own experiences with female friends and acquaintances struggling to find their places within tectonic cultural shifts.

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I found myself in a strange and problematic artist residency on the outskirts of Delhi a couple of years ago. This is a story for another day, but after packing and leaving under the cover of darkness one night, my primary gain from this experience were the beginnings of a romance and a couple of close Indian friends. One friend, an Indian woman a year my junior – smart, sensitive, and worldly, having traveled and studied in Europe – was experiencing an anxiety of epic proportions over romantic prospects. She, the older of two daughters born to doctors, had recently requested that her parents arrange a marriage for her.
 
I was flummoxed as to why, given that her parents placed no such expectation on her, she would request to marry a stranger. She claimed, at 24, that she was getting old; her time to marry and start a family was running out. For myself, a woman of an American and non-traditional upbringing, feminist persuasion, and independent nature (I had, after all, quit a stable and prestigious job in well-regarded contemporary art museum to do that ‘India thing’ for what was then the second time…), her thinking was outside the realm of my comprehension, as much as any of the strange, incomprehensible encounters that comprise the day to day in India (my pet saying: “You see the weirdest shit every day!”).
 
Women from a village in Uttar Pradesh

But while it is easier to see the dizzying confusion of the streets through the enraptured eyes of the traveler encountering the new, to be relating to a woman my age, as a confidant and friend, rendered her situation all the more incomprehensible to me. I found myself confronting my own beliefs about Indian culture; I had encountered arranged marriages in older generations, in poorer or less Westernized communities, in all of those cultural nooks and crannies that were so vastly different from my own, but never as a request from an otherwise “liberated” young woman.
 
Soon a guy who worked in a large dairy operation in Merced, California was on his way to meet her for the first time. I had the opportunity to shake his hand, and found his grip unimpressive. Moreover, the potential to move across the world for someone you had barely met, a stranger, to start a new life in a new country (and Merced, from what little I know, does not adhere to the fun and free spirited image of Northern Cali) seemed intensely scary and a bit insane. Plus he worked for a commercial milk operation – and basically tortured cows for a living! (On a personal note, I later would move across the world in some small or large part for another person that I did know well… So, I will stand by making crazy choices for matters of the heart, and perhaps, as an extension of that, find that this choice seems less crazy in the rear-view mirror.)
 
We talked about her future and her pending decisions often, and I would always preface every utterance of my own by saying “I can only give you American advice; I can’t give you Indian advice.” This naturally ran along the lines of “24 is not old and I don’t think you should do this.” Our conversations deepened to the point where I discovered her true motivation behind all this anxiety and wringing of hands: she wanted to get laid for the first time.
 
Clearly, there should be more accessible ways of accomplishing this. And clearly, to me anyway, as a last resort the world’s oldest profession presented a better solution than a limp-wristed milkman – but again, my personal advice.
 
In any case, my friend decided to drop the topic of arranged marriage. Prior to my next trip from the U.S. to Delhi she requested that I bring her a vibrator and soon found herself in a relationship with a man she had known in college. I wish I could say they were later engaged and married, living happily ever after and pregnant, but they eventually broke up. And I have a feeling she will stick with dating for now.
 
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Living abroad, no matter the country, inevitably leads to confrontations of prejudices and nonsensical ways of seeing and believing. No matter how open-minded and -hearted I believe myself to be, I sometimes shock myself in my own beliefs. I feel embarrassed admitting this, but at some point I realized that I had this sense that Indians don’t have sex. I find myself shocked to discover that young, unmarried people in this country “fool around” at all. Intellectually, I have seen the erotic temple architecture; I have hung out in enough big-city clubs to know this is patently untrue (the oldest profession goes hand in hand with the oldest creative act of humans after all). Still though, I have found myself experiencing a shocked confusion when I hear Indian friends speak of sex. Really?? bubbles up from somewhere inside me.
 
Upper class India partying

This past December I spent an evening on a high rooftop in Guwahati, Assam, listening to another smart, upper class young woman’s pain – this time talking about the boys she had used and been used by. I was shocked by her cavalier words (“well at least I got some sex out of it” she shrugged when speaking of the emotionally abusive ex) that barely concealed the pain she felt and what I intuited was a desire (that really, we all share) to be loved and cared for. This type of speech, posturing, and attitude is not peculiar, new, or particularly noteworthy, except that you find it in young women in all countries – there being few places on the planet where women have not been suffering at the hands of men for eons. Of course this sort of casual and open talk of sex is more typical in the West, and certainly prolific in our exported media. I would far rather export vibrators than our own prevailing attitudes about sex, as male dominant and twisted as they are. How about sending Bust Magazine over instead of Maxim?!
 
Of course I write all this from my American coffee shop, newly situated in a working class neighborhood, drinking an expensive Americano and marveling at the 20-something hipsters that indicate a wave of gentrification. I was dumped by a guy I liked an awful lot via a terse and poorly-worded email a week ago – it seemed ridiculous and painful at the time, but really just indicates to me how strange our modern day mating rituals are the world-over. My female friends occasionally, and with enough mock-irony to stay on the side of safety, fantasize about an arranged marriage: how easy and uncomplicated! None of the angst-ridden decision making to contend with; to be able to foist the leg-work of finding a suitable mate on someone else! Of course, we know that this is untrue: love and family are complicated in every corner of the world and have been for all eternity, no matter the rites and traditions.
 
As I speak to some of my mentors and wiser friends – American, European, and South Asian – I find some who have managed to maintain relationships for 25 years or more. And no matter the inception of the story – fate, arrangement, bullshit dating ritual – they all express a mystical and bemused confusion for having arrived at the other end of a journey that suddenly does not seem so long. So I suppose there lies the hope in these words…
 
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I don’t wish to forget where I began this brief essay, with the alleged murder of a young woman over falling in love with the “wrong guy”, or intimate that my own stories of cultures clashing are somehow the same. I am wary of speaking of such horrors, because what we read in the papers never seems as real or immediate as what we encounter in person, and I risk turning something personal and tragic into some sort of symbol of this or that in a culture that is not my own. I have encountered such unspeakable violence in person, and I feel protective of those young women and resist speaking of them here. I also expect to read of more violent clashes between the thousands of years of tradition and the newly created ones as India struggles to reconcile old and new.
 
 
Reference:
http://www.nytimes.com/2010/07/10/world/asia/10honor.html?pagewanted=1&_r=1&hp
 
For an interesting side note, you might like to read this article on Pakistani brothers who have a profitable fetish-wear business in Karachi:
http://www.nytimes.com/2009/04/28/world/asia/28fetish.html
 
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The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Knowledge Must.

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