Informant is a 19 year old female who was born in Chicago and currently lives in Los Angeles. She is my roommate.
Informant: So ever since I was a kid, I went to this sleep away camp called Camp P________ (name removed by request). Once you reach a certain level at the camp, a lot of people know you, like a sufficient amount of people, and you can get inducted. So the second week, every two week during campfire, everyone who is inducted, which is a huge secret at my camp, like nobody knows about it, they come to campfire, and they say like please stop what you’re doing and follow us in silence. And then they lead you into the woods, and everyone’s dressed as indians. And you recognize them, but you can’t talk to them, they won’t smile and they won’t look at you, you walk, you all sit in this area, there’s like bonfires everywhere, this woman sits in the middle, and it’s like a ritual. The girls and boys are separate, by the way, there’s no boys around. She starts this whole ceremony and she says all of these native american prayers and does these rituals, and it’s all accurate too. And then, everyone has a specific name at camp, so the lady says “Giggling Chipmunk and Mountain Sunrise, come down from the hills and bring us the one that we shall call Spastic Chipmunk.” That’s my name. And they run and they grab you and they drag you from the crowd, and you have no idea if you’re being taken, you’re blinded and you’re stripped naked, they beat you, and then you get this necklace and it’s this hand painted necklace, and every single one is different, and there’s a rock on the end of it, and it’s a symbol that’s specific to you. So like mine is a sunrise, and that’s how we know that someone’s in the tribe. And if anyone asks about the necklace, you’re supposed to just say “My friend made it for me,” just very casual. And you spend the entire night with the tribe, and there’s this party after, and the next day you act like everything is back to normal, and then you, the next year, get to choose people to be part of the tribe. And it all stems from this indian tribe called the Paioka, and the guys do the same thing, except they wear a necklace that’s just an eagle on it, and it’s a representation of the Monotauk Indian tribe, and a lot of our camp counselors have it tattooed on them. It’s a really spiritual thing at our camp, because those tribes used to live there back in the day.
Collector: It sounds like this ritual was very significant to you.
Informant: It definitely was. They always told us that whenever we feel alone or sad, you just touch your necklace and you can feel the voices of the women in our tribe. (Starts crying) Sorry, I’m so emotional. There’s people that wear it year-round. I probably should. It really means a lot to me.
I never went to sleep away camp, so I never experienced anything like what she is talking about here. However, it was very emotional for me to see her reacting so strongly to her memory of this ritual. Because this is something that is very foreign to me and hard for me to understand, it was really cool to hear her describe it so visually. I could almost feel as if I was there experiencing it with her. I also think it’s really interesting how this ritual stems from rituals of previous Native American tribes, and that they still honor them today.
*Note: The informant is an Indian-American student at USC. She identifies with the Hindu religion and is generally in touch with her Indian heritage, though she was born in the U.S. and is thus very Americanized.
INFORMANT: “Hindus have a lot of really specific little things that we can’t do or that are considered unlucky and stuff. Like, there’s a lot. Let me think. Like, we’re not supposed to cut our nails on Friday because it’s bad luck. It’s bad luck to sweep the house with a broom at night. If a woman’s left eye twitches, that means something bad is going to happen to her, but if a man’s right eye twitches, that means something bad is going to happen to him. I don’t necessarily follow all of these, but I know about them. Like, some of them are pretty outdated, but we still know them. I’ve just grown up with stuff like this. Some people may think it’s weird, but all my Indian friends know about it and do the same stuff, so it doesn’t even really seem weird to me.”
These little superstitions and traditions are a good example of folklore that has been passed down through so many generations that the meaning of the tradition might be obscured. At one time, there was probably a clear practical or at least religious reason that Hindu people couldn’t cut their nails on Friday, or sweep the house with a broom at night, but because so much time has passed and so many things have changed, some of these superstitions have no practical purpose anymore, but rather are archaic superstitions carried on because of a sense of duty or loyalty to the religion and the culture.
*Note: the informant is Indian-American and identifies with the Hindu religion. She is in touch with her Indian heritage but she was born in the U.S.
INFORMANT: “And then Hindus or Indians or whatever also have lots of like body language things, I don’t know how to say it, like, gestures. Like if we touch anything with our feet that’s not the ground, say if I touched a backpack with my foot, then you have to touch the thing and then touch your eyes and do that three times. It’s funny, I have a Persian friend who has a similar thing, but for her it’s like if my feet touch another person’s feet, then I have to interlock my pinkies. I have no idea why it’s a thing.
And then we also have this saying, where like, say I’m going to a job interview and I tell a bunch of people about it and then I don’t get the job, they’ll say it’s because someone “put bad eyes on you,” which basically means they didn’t want you to get the job or were talking badly of you and basically put bad luck on you.”
I can’t figure out the context or reason behind the gestures, and neither could the informant, but it’s notable that her Persian friend had a relatively similar tradition. Both have to do with the feet, and not having the feet touch something, so it leads me to believe that these cultures must value one’s feet or see the feet as sacred or something not to be soiled by touching random items or the feet of another. The interlocking pinkies thing brings to mind crossing fingers in America, where someone will cross their fingers if they are lying or if they want something to happen. The saying also seems like it has variants in other cultures – I remember my mom talking about someone giving someone else the “evil eye,” which was first and foremost just a look but also held a sort of bad luck, because that person wished you ill.
The superstition: “If you step over a person, he or she will stop growing. I don’t know why, it’s just something my family does.”
The informant is Indian American. Her parents are both from India, but she was born in California. She’s not very religious, but she considers herself culturally Indian. She grew up hearing this superstition from her parents, so she has always followed it. For example, if she’s sitting on the ground, if someone steps over her, she asks them to backpedal and step the opposite way to undo the act. When I asked her what the origin of the superstition, she wasn’t sure of the cultural significance; it was just something her parents did. For that reason, I don’t know if it’s rooted in Indian culture or religion. It could have something to do with Hindu belief in reincarnation, and someone stepping over you may cut off growth, and therefore ability to be reincarnated.
The superstition: “It’s bad luck to celebrate a person’s birthday before it happens. It’s because people can’t possibly know that they will make it to your birthday, so to celebrate beforehand is the opposite of humble, I can’t think of the word right now.”
The informant is Indian American. Her parents are both from India, but she was born in California. She’s not very religious, but she considers herself culturally Indian. She grew up hearing this superstition from her parents, so she has always followed it. It seems rooted in spirituality, if not outright religion, which matches the informant’s cultural sense of being Indian without being religious. The reason for the superstition makes sense to me, that you’re never sure of the next day, so don’t be presumptuous when thinking about the future–to live every day grateful for simply waking up. It also mirrors beliefs outside the Indian culture, such as Christian prayers thanking God.
The superstition: “If you step on a book or piece of paper, then you have to touch it to your forehead because otherwise it’s disrespectful. It’s because books are like instruments of learning which is next to God and practically sacred so to put it to your feet shows disrespect so you put it to your forehead, which is a sign of respect, to counteract that.”
The informant is Indian American. Her parents are both from India, but she was born in California. She’s not very religious, but she considers herself culturally Indian. She grew up hearing this superstition from her parents, so she has always followed it.The gesture of putting to your forehead to negate it seems similar to another Indian superstition, that people can’t step over you, and they have to reverse their step to negate it. Although the informant isn’t religious, she still follows this religious superstition, since she is still rooted in Indian culture. I imagine education is very important in India and in Hinduism, since learning instruments can be likened to God, and sacred. Both of the informant’s parents are doctors, and she herself is studying engineering and computer science, does a lot of research, and tutors children; so I think it’s fair to say that she takes education very seriously herself. This may also be another reason she follows this superstition.
The tale: “So this monk was sitting on the beach when a kite fly, which I don’t really know what that is, but he saw a kite fly carrying a mouse and the mouse fell on the monk. So the monk wrapped the mouse with a leaf and took it home and prayed that the mouse would turn into a girl. And the mouse turned into a really beautiful girl, and the monk and his wife adopted her, so she like grew up and um, when she was an adult the monk told her that she should get married. And he told her to choose a man to marry, and the girl said she wanted like the most powerful man in the entire world. The monk thought she meant that she wanted the sun, so he went to like look for the sun and he found the sun and asked him if he wanted to marry his daughter. But the sun was like there’s someone more powerful than me…it’s um this cloud that covers me up during the day. So the monk left the sun and went to the cloud but the cloud was like there’s someone more powerful than me too, it’s the…um…oh yeah, it’s the wind. Because it blows me around. So the monk went to find the wind but the wind was like there’s someone EVEN MORE POWERFUL THAN ME, it’s the mountain, because it doesn’t move when I try to move him. So the monk went to find the mountain and the mountain says that the rat is more powerful because he can dig holes in me. So the monk finally goes to the rat and asks him to marry his daughter, but the rat says that he can only marry a mouse, right? So then the monk prayed that his daughter would turn back into a mouse, which God answered, and the mouse and the rat lived happily ever after.”
The informant is Indian American. Her parents are both from India, but she was born in California. She’s not very religious, but she considers herself culturally Indian. When I asked her where she heard this story, she said “The story is from The Panchthantra, which is an Indian book of myths and stories, and I used to have a comic book version growing up.” So the story is clearly a folktale that was transcribed into authored literature, which then became many different versions, one of which was a comic book. It follows traditional oral tradition, the most prominent of which is only two characters in a scene. The monk only speaks to one person at a time. I think the message of the story is to remain humble. The young girl wants the most powerful husband in the world, but it ends up being a simple rat. And even then she cannot marry him unless she is reduced to her original state; so regardless of her transformation into a beautiful woman, and her wish for a powerful husband, she herself is humbled by her transformation and her final choice of husband. I think another message is that power is not where we’ll expect it, and there are many different forms of power. This tale is probably a good one to tell to children who become to over-arrogant.
“Theres a festival every year for the bond between a sister and a brother. The sister will tie a knot on the brother’s wrist so that signifies their bond… its like a bracelet type thing. There’s a certain type of string for religious reasons but it’s really any kind of string. It’s gotten pretty elaborate now but that’s only to make it look good. The ones that I use are just a very simple red band. In our family, all our cousins do it, 9 cousins total. Eight of them are girls so I’ll have eight bracelets on my wrist, and I’ll give them each a gift. In our family, it’s money, so I will give them each $50. So it’s like they give me love and I give them money… It’s not always money but that’s how we do it in our family. The girls also give us sweets, it’s like a ritual to show the love between a brother and sister. So you keep the string on as long as possible and you’re supposed to let it fall off by itself. I’ve kept mine on for as long as a year. The knots are called Rakhi. It’s a certain time of the year, but I don’t remember what the date is. For the actual event, you have a chair and you have a fire that’s lit, and you put a dot on the brothers forehead, you tie the knot, and you feed them the sweet. The the next one comes… Oh, the sweets are just desserts, and there’s usually a variety of them.”
My informant loves the festival, because he likes anything that brings family together. But now there are more generations who don’t care as much. Whereas before, 50 or so people would show up, now only 40 or 30 people come because people are living in different places, and people don’t want to go. He still does it though, but it is hard to get everyone together all at once.
This a festival that is held annually, and each family with host their own. It sounds like each family will have different variations as to who attends the festival, what sweets they have, and what kind of gifts they give.
I think this festival really stresses the importance of family in Indian culture. However, it’s interesting that it is only about the bonds between siblings, and not the bonds between elders and offspring like most other Asian countries. An image of some sample Rakhis are shown below.
“There’s a festival we do for new houses. Oh, that’s just… We go in, we set up a fire. The fire just signifies that the prayers we say get lifted up in the air…. yes we do a fire inside. It’s a box made of wood with a fire lit inside. There’s prayers that are said, I only remember one of them. [Click the link below to hear the prayer that he recited to us] There’s a priest that stands next to the fire, and the immediate family make a circle around him. Then everyone else is outside of the circle. The priest says the prayer then everyone else joins them. Each time you say a certain word, you would put a certain type of offering in the fire, like an almond. It’s like food for the gods. These offerings are provided either by the priests of by the immediate family. If provided by the immediate family, the priest has to make it holy.”
Prayer for Hovan
My informant had no idea what it means. He said it’s different from everyday Hindi, and he only knows conversational Hindi.
The ritual happens when someone buys a new house. This ritual happens in order to bless the house.
There is once again a strong theme of family in this ritual, and is very heavily religious. The fact that my informant knew the prayer, but not what it meant, signals that this was more of a tradition for him, than an active practice of faith. It is an interesting liminal period between homes.
“Chanda Mama Door Ke
Puye Pakaye Bhur Ke
Aap Kaye Taali Mein
Mune Ko De Pyali Mein” (Hindi)
Uncle moon from far away
Is making Puye (dessert) with sugar
You eat in a plate and
give the little child a little plate
This is a lullaby that the informant remembers hearing as a child. His dad mainly sung it to him, although his mom would sing it from time to time too. There was one night that his dad didn’t sing it to him and he couldn’t sleep. The informant said that it reminds him of his childhood now and going to bed. When I asked if there was a deeper meaning to the lyrics, he said that it seemed pretty nonsensical, but he said that it’s significant that you let parents eat first out of respect.
The informant’s parents sung this lullaby to him when he was a child. He said it’s a pretty common song that parents would sing to their children in Indian culture.
When I first asked him what it meant, he said he didn’t know. But when I asked him to type out the lyrics, he started to realize what it meant because he speaks Hindi. I thought this was interesting because the song had simply started to represent a warm feeling of bedtime with parents, rather than what the lyrics actually were talking about.