Author Archives: Sanjana Manchala

White Dresses At Weddings…Or Not?

Item:

“When I was growing up, my mother told me that the worst thing to do at my wedding was to wear white. This struck me as odd, because I went to a Catholic school, and I saw all of the young Christian girls planning their weddings with these beautiful white gowns. Although I was surrounded by these girls at school, I realized that I wasn’t like them, because I came from a traditional Hindu family, in which the color we wear at weddings is a stunning shade of scarlet. It immediately registered in my mind that this was one of the many major cultural differences between me and them. But more importantly, I couldn’t wear white because for us, white is the color of death, mourning, and widowhood.”

Context:

The informant related to me the setting of her experience with this superstition: “I was sitting on the floor of my bedroom while my mother sat on the bed, clipping the tops off of haricots verts. I was doing the very stereotypically feminine activity of flipping through a bridal magazine and selecting my future wedding dress. The moment she saw me linger on the white wedding gown, she gasped and then warned me against wearing white at my wedding.”

Analysis:

In the belief system of Hinduism, as the informant mentioned, white is not an auspicious color at all. It symbolizes infertility, death, funerals, mourning, and widowhood. Two of the above characteristics are highly undesirable in a wife – infertility and widowhood. Therefore, the color white does not bode well for a new bride in the traditions of Hinduism. In addition to this, things which have an association with death, in Hinduism, are avoided like the plague, because they are considered highly inauspicious. Therefore, white, in a Hindu wedding, is not a color traditionally worn by the bride.

The Wonder That Is The English Language, or “Let Us Not Arg.”

Item:

“Two gentlemen are at a museum of modern art, one Indian and one American, and they are both looking at a very strange and indeterminate painting, trying to figure out what it is all about. You know, what people do with art, especially with modern art. So the first man proclaims his opinion on the work – ‘This painting is very vayg-yoo.’ The second man, although agreeing completely, is supremely annoyed at the first man’s butchering of the word ‘vague’. He attempts to clarify – ‘Look here, sir, in English, we do not pronounce the ue at the end.’ The first man nods, understanding, and benignly responds – ‘All right, all right, friend. Let us not arg.'”

Context:

The informant actually came up with this joke due to his fascination with the English language and its janky mechanics – “I came up with this joke after watching the film Chupke Chupke, which is, essentially, a questioning of the jhameli (ruckus) that is the English language. In the film, there is a line that perfectly sums up my fascination and confusion with this language – ‘Agar T-O “too” hai, aur D-O “doo”, toh phir G-O “go” kaise hua?’ (If T-O is pronounced ‘too” and D-O is pronounced “doo”, then how does G-O become “go”?) And so various other confusions came to my mind, namely the selective silencing of certain syllables. I thought this little anecdote was in perfect conjunction with this question from the film.”

Analysis:

English is a very weird language. It takes elements of every language by which it has been influenced and scrambles them up into an interesting but utterly confusing potpourri. The informant’s joke is, therefore, the perfect exploration and depiction of the non-native English speaker’s constant battle with the odd language. In India, especially, where Hindi is the most widely-spoken language, every syllable of every word is pronounced exactly as it is written in the native scripts. Therefore, when confronted with a word like “vague”, one can understand the confusion of the Indian man at the silencing of the last part of the word. Also, in a country where the rules of languages are fairly constant, one can also sympathize when the man does not understand that the rule of dropping the “ue” does not extend to every single word, and is instead a case-by-case situation. Interestingly, this joke gently pokes fun at the strange formulations of the English language while also not sparing the Indian man’s ignorance of pronunciation.

Seven Circles Around A Fire

Item:

“In a Hindu wedding,  a non-negotiable component is the saat phere, or seven rounds around the sacred fire. What happens is that the bride’s dupatta (scarf) is tied to the end of the man’s scarf, symbolizing their bond, and they walk together around the fire seven times while the priest prays for their union and blesses them. It is so emblematic of a marriage that people who elope consider themselves married, without an official ceremony, if they have walked around a fire seven times. I think the religious significance in Hinduism is that people who get married are supposed to stay together for seven lifetimes.”

Context:

The informant told me what sparked his interest in this tradition – “I had seen this happen in so many Bollywood movies that I was very intrigued as to what it actually meant. So when I was getting married a few years ago – no, actually more like seven…no pun intended, ha ha – I made the mistake of telling my mother that I didn’t want to spend so much time in circling the fire so agonizingly slowly seven times. I…really shouldn’t have said that. Amma was so scandalized that she didn’t speak to me for the rest of the day, at which point I was driven to find out what was so special about this tradition. So I did.”

Analysis:

This wedding tradition has deep roots in the Hindu faith – the ‘tying of the knot’ between the bride’s and groom’s scarves symbolizes their bond and the seven circles around the sacred fire are emblematic of, as the informant said, the belief that two people who are married will be reincarnated as literal soulmates for the next seven lives. This is reflective of the deeply-entrenched Hindu principle of the rebirth of the aatma, or soul, into several lifetimes. In addition to this, the number seven has particular significance in Hinduism and folk religious practices, playing out not only in the tradition of weddings, but also in astrology – the Saptarishi (Pleiades) constellation, meaning seven rishis or saints – as well as in proverbial phrases, such as “Seven steps with a stranger and you become friends. Seven more, and you are indebted to one another.”

Sitareh

Item:

“Instead of growing up on Cinderella, my sisters and I grew up hearing the tale of Sitareh. The story is very similar, but for some reason, I just didn’t enjoy Cinderella as much as I did Sitareh. So here goes. Once upon a time, Sitareh, the young daughter of a courtier in the Shah’s palace, lost her own mother at a very young age. Her father, the courtier, deciding that she needed a new mother, went ahead and married another woman, who had two daughters of her own. Excited to not be alone, Sitareh was eager to meet and live with these three women. Unfortunately, while they were very sweet to her in her father’s presence, the moment her father left on a trip to a neighboring kingdom, they began to show their true colors. In a quick succession of events, Sitareh becomes essentially their maid. They take advantage of her kind nature because her father isn’t around to do anything about it, and she submits to it quietly, waiting for her father to return. So, obviously, as is normal in these kinds of stories – the Shah has a young son, the Shahzad (prince), who is around the same age, maybe a bit older, than the three girls. One day, the Shah decides that his son is old enough to get married, because people got married really young in those days. Like at sixteen. So the Shah arranges an event, not a ball, exactly, but more like a talent show of all the eligible bachelorettes in town. Of course, this includes Sitareh and her stepsisters, who decide that the poor girl isn’t to attend this event. The stepmother, evil as she is, supports this decision. Because she sucks, and she knows that Sitareh is more beautiful and talented than her daughters, and would snap up the Shahzad in an instant if she were to attend. Sitareh, however, really wants to go – if not to marry the Shahzad, then maybe to just get out of the house and stop doing so many chores. So she begs and begs until her stepmother gives her a chance to go, with one caveat. She has to complete this impossibly long list of chores, just like in Cinderella, and find suitable clothes to wear. The stepmother obviously doesn’t think that the girl can do it all in time and find herself an outfit among the rags she has to wear, because her horrible stepsisters have stolen all her pretty clothes and jewelry. Against all odds, though, Sitareh does finish these tasks – I don’t remember exactly what they are – and manages to, in the time she has left, put together an attractive bedlah outfit, with a pretty veil of many colors, which she constructed out of her variety of rags. However, in a jealous rage at how beautiful she looks, the stepsisters lock her into the house and go to the event themselves. Sitareh, upset, turns to her sitar (a string instrument) and begins to sing on the terrace of her house to express her feelings. The Shahzad, who is bored with the party and quite frankly appalled at the girls who have come, happens to have escaped the party and is passing by her house when he hears her voice. Completely entranced, he is pretty disappointed that he can’t see the singer’s face. He calls out to her, and in her embarrassment, Sitareh runs from the terrace and retreats back into the house. As she does, the wind snatches up her multicolored veil and sends it fluttering straight into the Shahzad’s hands. By the next day, he hasn’t decided on any of the girls who attended the event, and instead has his heart set upon the mystery girl with the beautiful voice. He tells his father, who agrees reluctantly, and goes to return the veil to the girl. The stepmother and stepsisters, getting wind of his plan, shut Sitareh away in her room and decide to claim the prince as one of their own. The prince arrives at the house, eager to find the girl, but is disappointed that she isn’t there. However, Sitareh, clever as she is, starts to sing her song from the previous night, upstairs in her room. Hearing the strains of her voice, the Shahzad quits the living room and runs up the stairs, bursting into the room to find the beautiful Sitareh clad in her rags. He gives her back her veil and asks for her hand in marriage. She, obviously, agrees, and they get married. Out of the kindness of her heart, she forgives her stepsisters, who in turn get married to the sons of two ministers. And everyone lives happily ever after!”

Context:

The informant revealed the reasons for her affection with this particular story – “I like this story more than Cinderella for two big reasons. The first is that it reminds me of my Arab heritage and my roots because of the setting and the various elements. Also, more importantly, the version my grandmother told me was very empowering, in that Sitareh accomplishes everything independently in the story, without taking the help of a fairy godmother, or any magical elements. I think she told it to us in this way because she wanted us girls to feel like we could have everything we want in life simply with our own efforts. That’s what I really like about this story. An interesting note is that this story is one of the many tales told in versions A Thousand and One Arabian Nights, which in the legend are told by the queen Scheherazade, who, like Sitareh, created her own opportunities and came out on top.”

Analysis:

This story is, very obviously, a version of the “Persecuted Heroine” taletype, of which the Cinderella story is the most popular and famous example. One can see a lot of Vladimir Propp’s 31 story functions appear in this story, including the smooth opening, the absentee parents, the problem for the heroine, her confinement, her subsequent escape, and the eventual resolution of the problem. However, this version retains a lot of elements of the culture from which it sprung, including such components as Sitareh’s veil (standing in for the ubiquitous glass slipper of Cinderella) and the sitar which she plays. What is interesting, as the informant mentioned, is that Sitareh doesn’t seem to receive help from any external magical entities (one of the more prominent Propp’s functions), instead accomplishing everything due to her own efforts and her singing voice, which engineers this story not only into a märchen, but also a moral story with a powerful message to young women, regardless of whether or not this was just a characteristic the version the informant’s grandmother told her and her sisters to encourage them to achieve whatever they want to by themselves and for themselves. An intriguing parallel is drawn by the informant between the heroine of the tale, Sitareh, and the heroine of the larger legendary narrative, Scheherazade. Both of them are clever and strong young women who take a unique talent, for Scheherazade, her story-telling abilities, and in the case of Sitareh, her beautiful singing voice, and use it to get exactly what they want, all through their own efforts. The themes explored by this story, therefore, are pretty empowering and progressive, especially in the time at which they were supposedly told. Of course, if Scheherazade was the one who told the tale, one would expect the tale to have a strong female heroine much like herself.

Donuts, Donuts, Donuts!

Item:

“You know this is my favorite joke ever. Because it’s hilarious. And also because I’ve probably told it to you a million times. So this young guy, who comes from a minority population and speaks pretty limited English, starts working at a donut joint. At this point, he’s told to say ‘Donuts, donuts, donuts!’ to customers with questions. So the first day of work, this customer comes in and asks ‘what do you sell here?’ The guy who works there does as he’s told and says, ‘Donuts, donuts, donuts!’ But he says that to every other question he’s asked, which are ‘How much to they cost?’, ‘Are they fresh?’, and ‘Should I buy them?’. Supremely confused, the customer leaves. So the manager tells the kid to say ‘Twenty five cents’ when asked how much they cost. Then another customer comes in with the same questions – ‘What do you sell here?’, ‘Donuts, donuts, donuts!’, ‘How much do they cost?’ ‘Twenty five cents.’, ‘Are they fresh?’, ‘Twenty five cents.’, ‘Should I buy them?’ ‘Twenty five cents.’ The manager, an understanding guy, tells the kid to say ‘Very, very fresh’ when he’s asked if the donuts are fresh. And so, naturally, in walks a third customer. The same suite of questions is asked, and instead of answering ‘Yes!’ to ‘Should I buy them?’, the poor kid answers, ‘Very, very fresh!’. Obviously because he doesn’t know any better. Now starting to get fed up, the manager tells him to respond, ‘Do it before somebody else does!’ to the question ‘Should I buy them?’.

And so, now that the kid’s finally got everything down, guess who comes in next? A guy dressed in black who’s obviously robbing the joint. The exchange goes like this:

Burglar – Whaddaya sell here?!

Kid – Donuts, donuts, donuts!

Burglar – How much you got in the register?

Kid – Twenty five cents.

Burglar – Are you acting fresh with me?!?!

Kid – Very, very fresh.

Burglar – That’s it! I’m gonna shoot you!

Kid – Do it before somebody else does!

And so, you can probably guess how the story ends.”

Context:

I was reminded that I already knew the context of this story, but I asked the informant to relate it anyway. “This is our family’s favorite joke. Ever,” he said. “You know because I’ve been telling it since we were kids. It shows you how a nice guy with a limitation in his knowledge of the English language, of which he is benignly unaware, gets in trouble because of his blissful ignorance.”

Analysis:

This joke takes on more than one form. It can be seen as a blason populaire against non English-speaking minorities, a darkly comedic cautionary tale against the disadvantages of not knowing the English language, and gallows humor. It is made apparent at the very beginning by the performer that the kid in the story is unfamiliar with English, and this is what ultimately ends up getting him shot by a burglar. In a rapidly globalizing society, the importance of the lingua franca is highlighted at the end of the sordidly humorous tale. Confused and dissatisfied customers might not be that big of a deal, but angry, armed pastry bandits? Nuh-uh.