Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Road trip to Chennai, part 1

No writing for the last few days because we took our first road trip of our stay -- driving to and from Chennai, allowing us to see a bit of rural Karnataka (not much) and Tamil Nadu. Many things to say on all fronts here, from news that occurred while we were there (the NSG waiver for India) to why we went (Sub's grandmother died, so we went for the 13-th day rituals) to observations along the way (rural Tamil Nadu looking like it is benefiting from the boom, lots of Catholic churches and Islamic mosques and connected schools to both). I'll try to tackle several of them today. This posting will address the first two, later today I'll try to post comments on the trip itself and what we saw, which was really interesting.

First, on the news front. Saturday was full of special programs on Indian television about the "Indian victory" in obtaining a waiver from the Nuclear Suppliers' Group to be able to engage, legally, in nuclear-related technology trade. The headlines included things like: “End of Nuclear Apartheid”, “nuclear isolation ends”, “victory in Vienna”, “Nuclear gold for India”. For those who don't follow this (like me, generally), India is now the only country that hasn’t signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) who has this right. This is a huge deal here, with loud voices on both sides. There are many many articles one can read on this that can be easily found. In general the critics argue that the negotiation within India wasn’t done by consensus, and has been highly divisive; that many assurances given by the Indian government don't seem to be correct, or at least conflict with statements by the US government; and perhaps most seriously, that the deal is bad because it crimps India's strategic ability and limits its foreign policy options, compromising India's sovereignty. Both right and left disagree with the deal. Why are folks positive about it? They argue that it allows India access not only to advanced nuclear technology, but also other dual-use technology that had been limited before; that it formally brings India into the nuclear club and negotiating table; and that it (along with the accompanying 123 argreement still to be ratified by the US) heralds closer US-Indian relations -- itself one of the negatives cited the critics too. I'm not a non-proliferation expert, but I certainly see the risks of the NSG and the US saying okay to India while harassing others. On the other hand, any kind of power, including nuclear, is so important for India to develop given the constant shortfalls, that bringing more of this trade out into the open, as opposed to under the table where I have to believe it was taking place, is probably positive. Again, I'm sure I will have more thoughts on this going forward.

Next, the family stuff. We were in Chennai to attend the 13-day ceremony after Sub’s 96-year old-grandmother’s death. She was the first person in Sub’s family that I met, as she came to visit him in Pgh in the early 80s before I met his parents, and before I came to India. She was a tough lady, who had lived a extremely privileged and luxurious life in some stages, and a difficult life in others. She lived under Japanese occupation in Malaya, where her husband had been invited by the Sultan of Johor to build the causeway across the Strats, along with many of her children. My mother-in-law, however, had been left here in India with her grandparents, and the war cut off information as well as people flows between the two regions – both then part of the British empire. Her life would be a great movie – born into lots of money, living the high life as part of an earlier Indian migration of a skilled emigrant than now, hiding in the jungle from the Japanese, saved by virture of the fact that the Japanese needed to use her husband's engineering skills for themselves, living well again, but then returning to India after independence and losing much of the money. She was used to having her own way, and imposed her will upon her children throughout their lives. She had been in a vegetative state for the last 7 years or so, so her death is not as sad as it might be otherwise.

Treatment of widows in India varies greatly, and has changed a great deal over the years. She wore white saris after her husband died, but I don’t think considered the much older tradition of sati (where the wife threw herself, or was pushed, onto her husband's funeral pyre). The movie Water tells one story, and I heard lots of stories about how widows are not allowed to eat food other than rice, not allowed to go out, and basically not allowed to live. This puts my interpretation of my father-in-law's 1000 moons ceremony, where my mother-in-law wore clothes similar to those of a bride, as it was her good fortune to have a husband who survived this long, in perspective. Anyway, as usual, there seemed to be many interpretations of the "correct" way of doing things and living. This many interpretations approach extended to the answers I got when I asked about a lot of the rituals that were occuring around us.

The day after she died, her body was burned, with the electronic pyre lit by her son. For the next 10 days, what he and the family could and could not do was determined by tradition that no one seemed to be sure of, other than the parade of priests who would show up on their motorbikes (see photo below).

Most of the burden seemed to fall on the son, who couldn't eat certain things (or at all some days), and who had to sit with the priests and listen to the chants and prayers. I didn't see this, but supposedly one priest is supposed to be the one housing the dead woman's spirit, and he eats a ball of plain rice with nothing to drink everyday for 9 days. Then on the 10th day (or maybe 11th), the ball of rice doesn't even have salt, as salt is what binds us to the earth (is it?) . Needless to say, someone else is doing the cooking related to the priests. After the rice with no salt, some necessities -- ghee, honey, rice, and a few other things -- are wrapped in one of the dead woman's favorite saris to accompany her soul to the other world and put in the sea. Somewhere along the line her ashes are put in the sea too. This is where folks go to Banares, especially in the north, but I don't know where they go here -- the really polluted Adyar River, or the really rough Bay of Bengal that is at the end of the street? -- but getting these things into water seems crucial. Then on the 13th day, the priests purify the entire family, as well as new clothes, and the family is allowed to end the serious mourning period and recommence life. When one prays in this community, you pray to three generations before you, and on the 12th-13th day, the dead person becomes part of the past generation, not the present. First fire and incense are lit. Then water is poured over the principal mourner (the son in this case, see photo), and then sprinkled on the rest of the family. Close family members pay their respects to the main mourner and receive new clothes.
As part of any Indian ceremony, there is a namaskar (sorry if I'm butchering the language), or bowing at the feet, of the someone important/older. After such a salute, a new set of clothes is given, here symbolizing life moving on after death.

Here you can see Sub's uncle bearing the marks of the ceremony, in his traditional garb, including the thread. I wanted to take more pictures of the ceremonies themselves, but (in a very Western way) felt like it would have been disrespectful.

Afterwards, everyone eats, with food similar to that served at a wedding (see the photos). I'm sure I've missed important parts of this, and grossly misinterpreted others, but I didn't get the same story twice when asking for explanations, and most folks said they didn't know exactly what everything meant anyway.

Buckets of food, waiting to be served. The extended family (not even so extended) attended -- about 75 or 80 people).
You need to be sure to have enough rice for South Indians. Most of this huge bucket actually got eaten!
The living room of the house in normal times.

The living room converted to an eatery. Note the banana leaf plates.

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