Sep 142007

….asked SR yesterday …… theoretically, he added rapidly. And given that he keeps accusing me of being theoretical (and I suppose that i am) – i was surprised.

Lots’ of things, i said. Theoretically of course.

  • At the core there is my family culture – whatever is my family’s padati (traditions) and customs.
  • Then comes that defined by my caste. I may not ascribe to the caste system, but does it stop defining me? I dislike lthe idea of being defined by caste … especially given that the caste i was born into has traditionally had appalling behavior towards women. But there are so many cultural practices that are different for different castes — that many of us don’t even think about it while practicing it. Food, for one. Festivals that are celebrated, Gods that are worshiped, traditions followed at birth and death…. We don’t think about these… we practise them as matter of course… but just because we don’t think about them doesn’t mean that they don’t exist as a part of our cultural make up.
  • Then there is language. My mother tongue is Tamil (or as we joke- my mother’s tongue is Tamil). And language is a key component of culture. I was born and brought up in Mumbai and am more comfortable with English than any other language … That too defines my culture.
  • Then there is Geography. And, in an Indian context it is more than the part of the country that you come from. Geography itself has history, ethnicity, cuisine,legends, myths, Gods, clothing…. i am someone who has been brought up in Mumbai – with parents from AP & TN. Or to be more precise -from this district called North Arcot that straddles the border of TN & AP. Just like people from Palgat are unique and neither Tamil nor Malyalee, or people from Belgaum are unique – neither Maharashtrian nor Kannada, so too people from North Arcot…… neither from one nor the other ….
  • Then there is this my broad religious identity – hinduismwhich makes me different in terms of my cultural make up from some one who is not a Hindu. If you want further precision – my family’s religious tradition is Shaivite - which is distinctly different from being a Vaishnavite or a Smartha or a Nastika tradition. It many not be apparent – like caste – to most of us, but it is stuff that we have grown up with, and again it defines us.
  • And, then there is nationality – my being an Indian. Which makes me different from someone with my exact background but whose nationality is American.

So which of these is the most important in defining cultural identity in an Indian context? My own guess is geography. Not religion, not caste, not even nationality. But geography. With Geography is linked history, ethnicity, language, heroes, traditions, clothing, cuisine … the works..and it is probably a far more valid parameter of ‘culture’ than more organized social institutions like religion or caste, or even modern political definitions like the nation.
Now, is this how I define myself. No. I define myself as an individual, female, liberal, contrarian ….. But, all those things listed above … all the stuff that that i spent a fair bit of my life running away from … have they helped define me.. I would be deluded to say no…
No wonder SR says i am theoretical :)