Baa Baa Black Sheep Have You Any Sacrificial Flesh

December 24th, 2007

My brother in law just came to visit us from London, and his gift to me was a book on Al Qaeda- because he thought I should know everything about “their” culture. While I don’t think that’s exactly the kind of literature that will help me feel like one of the gang here, I must say that I think I’m getting there.

I say this because we just celebrated Bakr Id in full form here. With the Qurbani (sacrifice) of two goats right below our balcony. I must be getting used to India because it didn’t phase me quite as much as I thought it would. Or maybe I’m actually becoming Muslim.

2 days prior to Id our family started to arrive. Akbar’s grandparents, his aunt and uncle and cousin. It’s interesting when family comes. On one hand, the amount of work that has to happen is quadrupled. With just a few extra mouths to feed there is suddenly an extraordinary amount of effort that goes into preparing lavish meals from scratch. So everyone (especially and mainly the women) are exhausted the whole time. When Akbar and I first got here our mail focus was to lessen the work load. We made simple suggestions like toast and herbal tea for breakfast instead of idlis or dosas made from scratch- for which my mother in law spends an entire day washing grains and grinding them into batter to use for 3 days. But these suggestions went unheeded. Quality of life here is directly measured by the food you eat. And that means nothing less than lavish full course meals that cause back pain and fevers for 3 days afterwards. On the other hand though, without any work the women in my household have nothing to do. Their dedication to full time motherhood and wife-dom leaves no time for dabbling in personal interests or hobbies. Low levels of formal education means reading or writing are out. And not having much disposable income leaves them pretty much tied to the house. So when there is no work they alternate between watching tv and just sitting around, mostly re-telling the same stories.

So anyway, we were prepared to be exhausted by this holiday. The celebration of Bakri Id starts from the tenth to the twelfth day in the Islamic month of Dhu’l Hijja, and marks the anniversary of the day when the Quran was declared complete. On the Id day, all the men in our household go to the mosque. Akbar’s grandmother makes her prayers in the house, starting at 6 am.

After the Namaz, Qurbani (sacrifice) is performed. The animal sacrifices made during Bakri Id are mainly to provide food to the poor and to commemorate the noble act of Ibrahim.

During the week of Barkr Id the streets of Hyderabad become lined with sheep and goats for this sacrifice. Only the wealthiest of households can afford to participate in this ritual. The animals are painted yellow or green and their horns are decorated. They range in all sizes. Obviously the bigger the animal to sacrifice, the greater the blessing. Akbar’s uncle in Bombay performs this Qurbani with 4 goats that cost 40,000 ruppees ($1000) each. That is about what a middle-class family could live on for 4 months. These goats are brought up from birth specially to be sacrificed. They are fed milk and yogurt every night and sleep on a bed with silk sheets. They are fattened and groomed for years to be worth the prestigious status of Qurbani. The ones Akbar brought home for us weren’t as fancy, but they were BIG. Two large goats were tied to the post in front of the downstairs apartment, where we normally park the car. A large tent was put up to give them some shelter and grass laid down on the ground for them to munch on.

We went down to look at them that evening. I think they knew they were going to die the next day. They were both very still. They made no sounds, showed no fear, and would not look at us, no matter who approached. They gave no signs of a nervous animal in a new place. It was like they were resigned to their fate.

It is said that every true Muslim who possesses wealth equal to or more than 400 grams of gold or is capable of affording two square meals a day, is expected to sacrifice an animal. A goat or a camel or a sheep is slaughtered during one of the three days of the festival and the meat is then distributed. One third portion of sacrificial animal meat is given to poor, another third to relatives and remaining for self and family. The story behind this ritual is that apparently God asked Abraham to sacrifice his child to prove his love for the lord. Not willing to back down, Abraham lifts his knife to sever his child’s head, and just as he is swinging his arm God replaces the child with a goat. And so now the ritual is to sacrifice goats. We can argue if it’s right or wrong or barbaric, but it sure is better than sacrificing your own kids.

No Offense, but You’re Offensive

December 14th, 2007

“No offense” and “none taken” are a common exchange in the US.  People say things all the time that might be taken the wrong way, and usually are able to sense their mistake pretty quickly and say “no offense”.  And more often than not, the response is “none taken.”  And the whole thing ends there.

            This is certainly not the case in India.  In my experience here, people fall into three categories.

1.      The Offender: this is the guy who has no self-awareness and offends everyone constantly with no remorse. The Offender is a difficult personality type to recognize in oneself, but almost everybody knows an offender.    

2.      The Offended:  This is the person who is always, constantly and unendingly offended.  Over what?  Anything and everything.  It takes very little to send this personality type into a fit. 

3.      The Afraid-of-Offending: This is the person who is perpetually afraid that they will say the wrong thing to the wrong person at the wrong time and get caught up in a whirlwind of drama. 

Given the right context I think it is possible to portray all of these behaviors at different times.  Surely all of us have been in each of these positions.  But I also believe that most people fall into one category most of the time and default to this dominant style in new or unfamiliar situations.  For example, suppose you are predisposed to take offense.  If you are invited to someone’s house for the first time you are likely to feel offended by something.  Maybe the host is not dressed well enough to receive you, or the food is not up to your standard, or you were not greeted with enough respect.  If you are looking to be offended, surely you can find something to set you off.

Where does this come from?  One idea is that is comes from the externalization of personal value.  If we expect our sense of self, dignity and personal satisfaction to come from another person, there will be many instances where we are left unfulfilled, and hence the predisposition towards taking offense.  On the flip side, if we understand that people around us need to pampered and made to feel special and important based on our efforts, we will naturally work hard to please and worry that we will be unable to do so- because it is next to impossible to fulfill someone who doesn’t feel whole intrinsically.  And what about the offender?  This is the guy whose sense of self-importance comes from superficial positions or possessions, and so can choose to ignore the feelings of others.  In fact, by flaunting his/her ability to be callous towards others they are able to further strengthen their sense of personal worth.    

Jiddu Krishnamurti the renowned philosopher said “What is important is … to observe what is actually taking place in our daily life, inwardly and outwardly”. To move from the common externalized sense of self to an inner understanding is quite difficult, but results in a much more stable personality – confident and inwardly peaceful.  If we look outwardly for personal recognition we lose all control of our own happiness, and surrender to someone else the ability to make us angry, sad or happy.  Anger directed toward the faults of others, is truly a waste of time, yet it is an easy way to avoid our own.  It doesn’t hurt for each of us to regularly take a hard look at our own actions and think about what makes us truly happy.  Where do we get our sense of personal value?  Wayne Dyer, the self-help guru and best-selling author advises us to live independently of the good will of others.  If no one were around to comment on where you go, what you wear or what you do, will you feel fulfilled?  Would you know what you liked without the approval of others or looking at the price tag?

How Nanni Got he Groove Back

December 14th, 2007

How Nanni got her Groove Back

Akbar’s grandmother is a freaking rockstar. She is my favorite character in his whole family scene. One reason is that she really likes me. She doesn’t care if I can understand her Urdu or not (I have a 25% success rate in conversations with her), she just loves to have me sit next to her and have a chat. She is a very pious woman. She has made the journey to Mecca called Hajj, a considerable feat for a woman of her age. Mecca is considered the holiest place for Muslims. It is mentioned in the Koran as “Al Balad Al Amin”, the Holy Land, The Sacred Land. Centered around the House of Allah (the cuboid structure called Kaaba), it was built by Abraham and his son, and subsequently repaired by Prophet Mohammad (peace be upon him- you have to say that) and others. The Muslims pray 5 times a day in the direction of the Kaaba. And they perform the small pilgrimage or Umrah (7 times around Kaaba and 7 rounds between Mounts Safa & Marwah). It is forbidden to do any evil in makkah, since it is a holy land and every good deed (or prayer) is worth 100,000 rewards in Makkah. I’ve attached a few pics.

So Nanni is STACKED with good karma, as the Hindus would say. Nanni made so many Umrah that she broke her ankle and came home in a wheelchair, which would have bummed out a delicate traveler like myself, but only made the experience more holy and worthwhile in her eyes. She is a Rockstar. Not to mention that all this elevates her position in her society. She is living proof that even in a small village someone with no gold, no property and no formal education can find power and status. She is consulted on all levels of problems. The most recent case she is fighting for is the alliance (or arranged marriage) between her niece and a guy who is only 2 inches taller than her. The family fears the height difference is not enough, but Nanni feels his good job and property make him stand tall enough. She argues that had he been taller he would not be willing to marry this girl at a bargain dowry rate. In fact, this weekend she is going to view the boys’ property to give her final say.

So Nanni is the heroine of this month’s story. All of us (Akbar, his mother, my two sister-in-laws, their kids, Akbar’s aunt from Bombay her two kids, and our driver – who as you may recall from last months’ episode is named Malla Reddy) piled into a jeep and drove 10 hours to Ponnur. No AC, no shocks, no seatbelts. No problem. Normally when we go there we stay with Akbar’s aunt, who is my choti saas (little mother in law). I love her but can never understand her village dialect. Nanni and Nanna (Akbar’s grandfather) live across the street and complained last time that their grandkids don’t stay with them because their house is small and they have been abandoned by the family. So this time this whole load of cranky travelers descended on my nanni’s 1-room flat. There were 11 of us in total, plus Motti Nanni (which literally translates to fat grandmother), who actually lives downstairs but doesn’t sleep there because she sees ghosts in her apartment. In fact everyone in Ponnur believes that this particular building is haunted with saithans (ghosts) and many people have seen floating figures in the windows and trees. Nanni says it’s all bullshit. See why she’s hardcore? More to come on that later.

When Akbar and I first moved to Berkeley we lived in a studio apartment, and we often felt suffocated, like there wasn’t enough room for the two of us. But here, with 11 people and about 635 mosquitos in Ponnur’s mid-day heat, we were all comfortable, cool and relaxed. We never once felt cramped. The main reason is that in villages homes are build with the central idea of letting the outside in, rather than keeping the outside out. This means that there is always a cross draft, there are two doors and 4 windows in this one room, which are always open. The outside space on this rooftop apartment is just as spacious as the inside space and is used just as much. And their modular furniture could give Ikea a run for it’s money. It is so versatile- the table becomes the bed becomes the deck furniture, becomes the fort for the kids becomes the place to entertain the 35 guests who constantly drop by to say hello to us and stare at me, the American Hindu wife of the Hyderabadi software engineer. Yes, 2 years later they’re not done staring.

The sleeping situation is that straw mats are rolled onto the floor and everyone just lays down and sleeps. The first night I was pretty uncomfortable, and the second night I got the best sleep of my life. So go figure. In the middle of that night amidst the orchestra of snoring we hear loud thumping on the door. Everyone woke up and the room filled with fear in 30 seconds. Why? Because everyone had brought all of their gold in bags to Ponnur. Why would all of us from big cities and foreign countries travel 10 hours in a broken down car with thousands of dollars worth of gold? Because if you can’t show off your material wealth in the form of gold to these villagers then what’s the point of your life, that’s why. As word travels fast in the village, someone had obviously heard of our visit and come to rob the house. It was either a thief or a saithan, either of which would have much practical use for the gold. So here’s the scene- there are 11 of us plus Motti Nanni and NanaNanni laid out in a row on the floor, gripped with fear. No one moved. People were whispering saithan… chore (thief).. and the pounding just keeps on going. And finally Nanni has had enough. She jumps up and screams “KHONU!” “KHONU”! BHOL! BHOL!(who’s there! Who’s there, tell, tell) but unfortunately she was screamed in a stretch without giving the saithan/chore space to answer, and we heard nothing but the continued pounding. Finally she throws the door open to find… a little shrunken nanni (grandmother) from downstairs . She was there because they had just received news that a relative was getting married in a distant village, and in order to make it on time they would have to take a 4 am bus, and she wanted Motti Nanni to go with her. She screamed all of this, out of breath and excited by the pounding. Why didn’t she answer Nanni? Because she’s totally deaf and didn’t hear the questions. Why didn’t she call? Because no one in India uses the phone when you can just walk up some uneven narrow steps in the dark in the middle of the night and pound on the door, regardless of how many people sleeping in a row on the floor you would wake up with the pounding. For the next hour the whole household made fun of each other for believing in ghosts or thieves. Interestingly no one mentioned that as the only strapping young man in the house it should have been Akbar that went to the door and not the 70 year old grandmother. So I feel it is only proper that I mention it here, to all of you.Nanni and Nana