Tag Archives: india

Use And Misuse Of The Left Hand In India

Informant’s Background:

My informant, SV, is a recent graduate with a Master’s from the University of Southern California. He is 25, was born in Hyderabad, Telangana, India, and moved to the United States to attend a graduate program at USC. Post-graduation he remains in Los Angeles hunting for a job.

Context:

My informant, SV, is my roommate and a close friend of mine. I asked him if he could share some Indian traditions, customs, or folklore with me. NOTE: For this dialogue, I am AT.

Performance:

SV: “So… In India there’s a tradition of eating with your hands, and-which is quite common, and one of the, I guess, major rules or things that may offend someone is if you use your left hand to eat or grab things or get things. And the primary reason for this is it is considered unclean, because in older generations in India, uhm, when you’re cleaning yourself, uhm, after taking a shit… It’s usually using water and your hands, and most people are sort of taught to use their left hand, so that’s one of the reasons why your left hand is unclean, even though obviously you’re going to wash it with soap or gonna wash your hands. So that’s one of the kind of traditions there is that’s kind of prevalent in India.” 

AT: “What if you’re left handed?”

SV: “So that’s sort of a weird, uhm… So the way it started was even if you’re left handed you use sort of- you use your right hand to eat or like you use your right hand to for example, if you’re in a shop or in someone’s house and you’re giving something or taking something from them you’re always taught to use your right hand, or maybe if it’s heavy both hands, but never your left hand. But uhm… Like, I don’t know, I think that maybe in slightly older time they didn’t want people to be left handed for this reason, but I think nowadays less emphasis is placed on this thing.”

Informant’s Thoughts:

SV: “Overall I think like… There’s sort of like some reason-like some reasoning behind it that is sort of valid to some extent. But like I guess like with modern like, uhm, advancements and like stuff like washing your hands with soap and I think now in most urban settings people have a bidet they use to wash their like, bodies once they’re taking a shit. So I don’t think it’s as big an issue, using your left hand, and now being left-handed or using your left handed doesn’t make you any worse than any other person. I think maybe if you were in some more rural areas and you used your left hand I think maybe some people might like be offended. But in general I think this is not very common a lot now.

Thoughts:

I had never really heard of anything like this until now, but I think SV is right in that it maybe seems like fairly sound reasoning in times before advancements in modern day sanitation and cleanliness. Upon some further research, it appears that the left hand is not only used for wiping one’s rear but also for other “unclean” actions as well, such as the removal of shoes, and cleaning your feet. Apparently left-handed activists in India today are attempting to fight prejudice against left-handed people, in schools some left-handed kids are taught to only use their right hand and are beaten for using their left. However overall, as SV said, it seems these practices and prejudices are fading in modern India.

Gendered Dining Customs In India

Informant’s Background:

My informant, SV, is a recent graduate with a Master’s from the University of Southern California. He is 25, was born in Hyderabad, Telangana, India, and moved to the United States to attend a graduate program at USC. Post-graduation he remains in Los Angeles hunting for a job.

Context:

My informant, SV, is my roommate and a close friend of mine. I asked him if he could share some Indian traditions, customs, or folklore with me.

Performance:

SV: “So… There’s an Indian tradition where during uh festival or if like, if you’re inviting guests over, like at a gathering the… women are expected to, uhm, when people are having to eat, the women are expected to be the ones to serve, and the men and children are expected to eat first. The women are not allowed to eat until the men and children finish eating. Only once the men and children finish eating, they usually eat, and sometimes they may not even eat at like, the table, they may just eat in like the kitchen. So… this is kind of like, mmm, sort of a general kind of important sort of hierarchy and level of importance that’s sort of present that even when you’re like visiting a house, or like you’re invited to a person’s place as a guest you’re sort of expected to greet people based on their age, that’s one of the criteria, like the older they are the more important they’re are as people and you’re to prioritize them. And also the men are more important than the women, so it’s like you greet the oldest man first and then go down to the youngest man, and then you go down to the women if you’re greeting someone.”

Informant’s Thoughts:

SV: “That’s uhm, kind of a very… I guess sexist way of thinking. Which… was quite prevalent like in older times, where I think more urban and more modern a setting this is less and less common. And for the younger generations, it’s getting close to being more and more equal for men and women, and there’s no kind of like, oh women have to serve and the men just have to chill and wait to get served. Like my grandad, cause he’s quite old, and he follows these traditions a little more like strictly, like even though me and my sis would both be in the room, he kind of rather expected like my sister to be the one to serve and I didn’t have to do anything, and I used to find that odd. I was like “what’s the difference?” Like they’re our guests, and we can both like, serve if we have to serve them. So that’s my kind of-my personal experience with that. “

Thoughts:

Separation of women and men is common in many cultures, especially historically, but the ways in which these gender groups are divided are changing as we move into the modern world. The rate at which these changes occur of course differs from culture to culture, in this case this is a tradition that would most likely be seen as near appalling by Western audiences, yet in India it is still being gradually phased out more recently, but was still by the sounds of it surprisingly common up until not that long ago. The health consequences should also be considered alongside the social ones in this case, as this tradition has to do with the consumption of food. Waiting until after the men are finished eating could easily lead to the women only ending up with scraps of the original dinner, leading to malnutrition, both in themselves and potentially in any babies that they might give birth to. So not only is this tradition without a doubt considered sexist by today’s standards, as SV noted in the interview, but it also could easily lead to negative health effects as well.

Gifting Desserts – Indian Tradition

Context: 

My informant, AS, is a 19-year-old Indian male who grew up in Mumbai, though he has lived in Southern California for the past three years. His family is Muslim, and he has also had lots of interaction with Hindu culture also. This piece was collected during a facetime call, when I asked him to share some traditions that he has noticed as different between his home culture in India and the US. I refer to myself as SW in the text.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Main Piece:

AS: “So, it is tradition, not just for Indian Muslims but for any Indian, to gift desserts to the people they know, when something good happens to them. Like if I get a new job, it’s gonna be tradition for me to send like a box of sweets to my neighbor, my aunt, my uncle, my friend. It’s just a tradition.”

SW: “So when something good happens to you… then you send stuff to other people.”

AS: Yes… Not just stuff, I have to send like, some sort of dessert.

SW: To how many other people?

AS: That just depends on like… if like, you’re really close with your neighbor you could send it to your neighbor, if you’re not close you’re not obligated to send anything. But like, it could be, just ya know your close family, or it could be the whole fucking world, depends on how close you are with them.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Informant Explanation:

SW: But why do people do it?

AS: I don’t know why they do it, it’s just a thing like the… the saying is like ‘making your mouth sweet,’ that’s what it’s called. Like if you, something good happens to you, it could be anything it could be getting a new job or ya know, getting engaged or something like that. Even getting a promotion or buying a new car.

SW: That’s the reverse of the American thing. Cause the American thing is you send gifts to the person who had something good happen.

AS: Yeah. No, the person to whom it happens has to send. Not gifts, dessert.

SW: I guess like… that’s a way of showing status, right? Cause if something good happens to you, then it’s like well I now have excess to give… would be a way of showing status right?

AS: Not necessarily, no. It’s a… it’s more to do with sharing the joy. Not showing off. 

SW: What kinda desserts? What are we talking here?

AS: Mostly Indian desserts. That’s the tradition.

SW: Like what?

AS: Like… the most common one is (he showed me a picture of kaju katri or kaju katli). That is my favorite fucking dessert. It’s uh… it’s just a sweet. It’s made from like… ground cashews, and you make, like… I don’t know how it’s made it just tastes really nice. 

SW: It looks very good.

AS: Yeah so you get boxes of those, boxes of like, brown balls of fucking sugary flour… 

SW: So is like, Indian culture more focused on like…  ties between, like family and friends than American culture is? It feels like everything is more… 

AS: Ties between family, yes. Like, your… there’s a lot of emphasis on family in Indian culture. Especially Indian Hindu culture, there’s a lot of focus on family and traditions.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Analysis: 

As AS mentioned, the tradition of gifting desserts serves to reinforce family ties and important social relationships. Indian culture places a very high importance on these social bonds, especially between family members, and it is therefore important to have traditions and rituals to remind people of these bonds and their obligations to one another. There is probably also an element of reciprocity that is established – since you are sharing your joy, you can expect other people to also share with you.

Indian Superstition – Leaving the House

Main Piece

Informant: “If you’re about to leave the house and someone asks you where you are going, you have to come back in and sit down for a minute and then tell them where you are going. Basically it’s because it’s bad luck to interrupt someone as they are leaving. You shouldn’t ask someone where they’re going if they’re already on their way out and if someone asks you, then you should come back inside. Or else whatever you were going to do will not get done.”

Background

My informant is a practicing lawyer in Los Angeles, California. She is of Indian descent, and her knowledge of Indian folklore comes from her father. 

Context

This superstition is enacted when someone is about to leave the house and they are interrupted.  

My Thoughts

There is not always a rhyme or reason for superstitions. According to my informant, people follow superstitions even if there is no good reason to follow them. However, there are certain elements in this superstition that I connected with others. This superstition falls in line with the Indian black cat superstition (originally from Egypt, popularized in India). This popular superstition says that if a black cat crosses your path, you will have bad luck. Both the black cat superstition and the superstition told by my informant depict the interruption of a journey. In both superstitions, your interrupted journey will bring bad luck and assurance that whatever you were doing will not get done. 

Ramayana – Floating Stone Bridge

Ramayana is a story how all the gods meet each other and help each other out, you know fight evil. And it is related to one of our festivals. There is the story of Ram. Ram is one of our gods, and basically he was the king of one our capitals called [inaudible]. He was living his happy life and then before he got married his wife was kidnapped by a monster in Sri Lanka called Ravan. What happened was that the monster wanted to show off his powers, and the story goes Lord Ram contacted different gods; he went to the Himalayas; he got the support of monk and built an army. But, you know, Sri Lanka is island, and they had very large land army. So what they did was eventually, they did some prayers and contacted the higher lords or something and did a deal with them. The deal was that, if they write Shri Ram (his name) in on the stones they would float. So when they write that on the stones, and they start to float. So all of his army brought really big stones from all over India wrote his name, and the stones started floating in the sea. And that’s how they created a bridge from India to Sri Lanka. The army crossed the bridge to ultimately kill the monster called Ravan and get back his wife.

Context: If you look the maps you can see the bridge he had build, although it is eroded cause this was thousands of years ago. There is a city called Rameswaram, which is the southernmost city in India, and you can see the bridge is really going Sri Lanka. There’s like temples with And the stones really say Shri Ram. I’ve seen it, but it could be a big scam. The interesting aspect is that this thing exists, right? So what I was thinking is that someone saw the bridge with the floating stones, and on the basis of that created the story so that it seems real, but I don’t know.

Thoughts: I found this story, and landmark, very interesting. There seems much debate online as to the reasons why these stones float. Some suggest it porous pumice stone so it the air makes it lighter than water, while others say pumice would sink after some amount of time in the water. Either way it is fascinating to see the images of the bridge from space, and is a true wonder.