We’ve been surprised at the degree of American influence most places we’ve traveled. Our music, our movies, and our clothing have a great impact all over Asia and arguably in Australia and New Zealand as well. Though vestiges of Western culture pop up every now and then, India seems to march to the beat of its own distinctly Eastern drummer. We are in the southeast, the same quadrant we inhabit in the US, and if Tamil Nadu (the state) is truly representative of the country, Indians have little use for things American. True, many young urbanites are rushing to learn English so they can work for Indian-based outsourcing firms, but most Indians, including the ones we’re currently sharing a house with, have little idea what life in the West is like, nor do they care to emulate it.
I didn’t realize just how different this country was until I got into some serious conversations with my housemates. Women here are addressed either as “Auntie” if they are married (or old) or “aka” (sister) if they are not. Wherever I go, I am bombarded by calls of “Auntie, look!” “Auntie, me!” “Auntie, my playing!” It’s certainly an endearing moniker and I’ve taken to using it when addressing the senior women in the house. A few evenings back, Meena Auntie, the oldest member of the household, and I were sitting at the kitchen table discussing our lives. I asked her about her marriage (she is widowed), specifically, whether it was arranged. She replied, “Of course.” Shockingly enough to most Westerners, marital unions here are not the result of love but the product of carefully constructed business dealings by family members. Love often results but is certainly not a factor in matchmaking. Marriage is expected at a young age. Families choose suitable partners based on a variety of factors, including financial status, caste….yes, caste…and appearance. Brides must provide a dowry, which Meena Auntie explained could be paid with gold, cash, or in some cases a motorbike. Marriages entered into based purely on the feelings of the bride and groom are known as “love marriages.” After we had covered her life with her husband and the dowries she provided for her daughters, she looked me in the eye and said, “Your marriage was arranged, no?” The thought that I would choose my own husband was just as foreign to her as was the idea that she would agree to wed a man she had never met to me. The fact that he was her first cousin who lived in another state only adds to my bafflement. Worlds apart.
Marriage is only the tip of the iceberg, To be a woman in India requires attention to an intricate set of rules. Clothing is critical. Most women still wear the traditional sari, a long piece of fabric wrapped around their bodies covering a skirt and tight fitting top. When not in a sari, they don the churidar, a long tunic top, over billowy pants. What matters most when it comes to costume in this highly traditional and sexually conservative society is that a woman’s form is concealed. Tight-fitting clothing is considered immoral and elicits hardened, disconcerting stares and often times unwanted groping from the opposite sex. Though we haven’t had a first-hand experience with this yet, we met one of Tom’s work colleagues last night who explained how on her flight from Frankfurt to Chennai, the Indian man in the seat next to her worked desperately to get away from her asking more than five people to switch seats and explaining to the stewardess that he was “very uncomfortable” sitting next to her. She was baffled as she is a clean, well-groomed, polite person and had done nothing overt to offend him. Apparently the man could not abide close proximity to a Western-clad woman and was visibly shaken by the prospect.
While in Chennai, I have worn only churidars so as to show respect for the culture in front of the children and to avoid any undue attention, which as a foreigner, I attract anyway. I have not, however, worn the churidar into the pool or the ocean when giving the kids swimming lessons. The other women here take the plunge fully clad since swimsuits fall into the provocative and therefore forbidden category. I wear a T-shirt and board shorts over my suit, an acceptable compromise in the understanding eyes of the staff.
In addition to dressing properly, I also try never to look a man I do not know directly in the eye. Doing so can be viewed as a sign of promiscuity and an invitation to intimacy–a bizarre notion to the American sensibility but perfectly logical to the Indian one. As an adult, I can chalk this and the other differences in the treatment of women up to thousands years of divergent cultures. My kids, however, are less willing to forgive the seeming inconsistencies in Indian custom. The four oldest among us have attended one of South India’s most popular movies, Pokkiri. It is a tale of good prevailing over evil but there is an awful lot of killing along the way. Its heroine struts across the screen in tight fitting aerobics gear while the villainess wears halter tops, miniskirts, and stilettos and tries to corner the hero into a compromising position on a pool table. This confused us, given what we had been told about female fashion rules and the absolute ban on displays of affection in India. Our confusion was only compounded when after sitting through a few more Tamil movies on DVD with the staff, we invited them to watch an American movie. McKane picked one of his favorites, She’s the Man, a popular teen movie based on Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. The first scene features teenagers, both male and female, playing soccer at a beach. They are wearing swimsuits, and the main characters play kissy face for a minute or so at the conclusion of the game. Oops. One of the women who had taken us to the racy Tamil movie left the room because she was offended. We immediately switched to a different movie, but had a hard time reconciling the difference between the two pictures.
We’ve been asking around ever since for someone to explain why a swimsuit is worse than a sleazy halter top and why women in the movies (and some in the mall) can wear Western clothes while most cannot. After some serious thought, one man provided the closest thing to a reason we’ve gotten: “The movie’s not real. What it shows is not real, so it’s not offensive.” Why the logic doesn’t extend to the American movie, perhaps we’ll never know. I’ve explained to the boys that sometimes things just don’t make sense and for the sake of sanity, you simply must accept them. Worrying about injustice or shortcomings in logic won’t change them. I’m sure we’re all guilty of some sort of inconsistency–Americans are obsessed with democracy, but most don’t vote. Here even shanty dwellers and squatters wield political influence by voting in blocks. If we can espouse the virtues of democracy but stay home on Election Day, then the Indians can scorn bikinis but expose their bellies through their saris.
To be a woman in India is no simple task, but I’m working on it. I’m not sure how I’ll fare after I leave my closet full of churidars and once again don my travel togs. Maybe since Asher has taken to wearing her big brothers’ T-shirts, I’ll have to start wearing Tom’s.