India’s Double Standard (May 29, 2010)

Instead of jumping right in to make my argument, allow me to relay a personal anecdote which I believe crystallizes the issue.

On Thursday evening, my sister, a connected member of Chicago’s local media, called me as I made my way home from the gym, to relay the first reports of the bomb exploding beneath a packed passenger train in northeast India. The coach was headed for Mumbai, where my in-laws reside, and my thoughtful sister figured I might like to check up on them. As it was 5:00 AM local Mumbai time, I assured my sister that there was no danger of my family being on that train, but the moment I finished that thought, I had another, and it went something like this: “Crap, I am going to have to listen to a three hour diatribe against jihadists this evening.”

Because rightly or wrongly, my initial assumption was that the act of terrorism was the work of Muslim extremists. My husband, an Indian national who has very strong feelings on the long running India/Pakistan conflict, and isn’t shy about sharing them, was likely to be set off anew with this latest crime against humanity. Though he has friends of the Islamic faith, and our beloved brother-in-law, a devotee, is the embodiment of all that is pure and good, Eddie has a tendency to paint the world in broad strokes when incensed.

When he reached home later in the evening, my husband made the inevitable beeline to the computer to get the scoop from his favorite newspaper, The Hindustan Times. I puttered around the house in order to give him a few minutes of breathing room as I braced myself for the verbal onslaught. So imagine my surprise as he emerged from our office, relatively calmly, and headed for the porch to have a cigarette.

Naturally I asked Eddie what was up, and he relayed to me in a composed fashion more or less, that there was nothing to worry about. Because it hadn’t been jihadists who blew up the train after all. No this time, it was the work of the Adivasi National Liberation Army, a fringe, right wing group of Hindus. He relayed this news in a nonchalant fashion, as if reporting that our naughty, but beloved cat had just broken a precious vase. Because you can’t stay angry with your own pet right?

As I felt righteous indignation welling up inside me, I took a moment to gather my thoughts. I then posed one question to Eddie: so it’s OK to ready your war cries against Pakistan when under the impression that they are responsible for the murder of innocent Indians. However, upon learning that the destruction is the work of the majority Hindu population, you feel comfortable shrugging your shoulders and adopting a “kids will be kids” attitude? That was wrong on so many levels I hardly knew where to start.

Eddie is a highly educated man who has lived in the U.S. for eight years. He comes from an upper middle class family that travels the world and could hardly be considered sheltered. My husband follows global headlines, has an inclusive group of friends, and is a fairly forward thinking guy. Yet in the blink of an eye, he downshifted to the tried and true double standard that runs rampant in the highly populous third world nation. Hindus call the shots and Muslims are second class citizens.

And herein might lie the reason, beside the overpopulated cities, unfortified infrastructure and first world economic aspirations, that India is such a frequent target of violence by Muslim extremist groups. The message since long before Gandhi’s time, has been clear. Though there are more Muslims living inside India’s borders than there are in the rest of the Arab world (between 165 and 220 million), Muslims who have lived and died fighting for the nation and its progress, they are, by and large, treated as outsiders by the dominant Hindu majority. This thinking is so ingrained, so institutionalized that a man like Eddie, who has been exposed to much, can’t resist the stereotype.

But even more insufferable to my mind is the idea that, had Thursday’s bombing been the work of anyone else, there would have been a loud baying for the heads of those responsible. Instead, upon discovering that the destruction came at the hands of the Maoist Adivasi National Liberation Army, Eddie launched into a lengthy justification of their behavior, on the grounds of their extreme poverty and frustration with the government. Say what? Pardon me, but we have tons of disenfranchised poor right here in the U.S. These folks do not go about wantonly destroying, and if they did, I hardly think Americans would excuse them on the grounds of their poverty.

But such is India. On the one hand, the nation is growing, economically and socially, at the fastest pace in the world (China gets demerits for atrocious human rights). Yet on the other hand, there is a damaging laissez faire tolerance to the work of backward thinking Hindu groups that sends absolutely the wrong message to minority enclaves. I told Eddie that it was now more than clear to me why Muslims chose to secede and found Pakistan in 1947.

My point is this. My husband is quite representative of the thoughts of Indian citizens, and if anything, he leans farther to the left than most due to his education, experience and residency within a major Western City. Though newspaper reports have described the Adivasi as a “little known militant group,” Eddie tells me that, in fact, these people have been allowed to run lawless, murdering innocent citizens at will for quite some time. Why? Because it is considered politically unpopular to put down a movement, no matter how violent, of the “true” Indians, i.e. Hindus. Why is that thinking acceptable?

Mummy Dearest (July 8,2009)

The month long visit is over. I am depositing Mummy at O’Hare for her Air France flight back to Mumbai at 3PM this afternoon. I am worn out, mentally and physically exhausted, and yet, I have more mixed feelings than I expected. In many ways, I feel Mummy, Papa and I have made great strides in our relationship over the course of the last 30 days. The one thing I am most proud of, that I will take way, is that I made these people love me for me.

When I married Eddie in Raipur, India in December of 2007, I am not ashamed to admit, I didn’t know myself very well. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that I was very comfortable in my role as an insecure social chameleon. Because of the rejection and loneliness I endured in my own childhood, I was so eager to become part of a loving family, to finally “belong” somewhere, that I was willing to erase any parts of myself that my new family might not like, in order to make myself more suitable. The end result was that Boop felt like someone’s Barbie doll, a miserable person, unsure who she was anymore, and feeling very much like a fraud.

I have been seeing a great therapist for the last 9 months (who, incidentally, feels I have made so much progress that she’s about to cut me loose) to work out these issues. How would I learn to hold onto the important parts of myself, the very essence of me, and not deal these traits away like a bad hand of cards, depending upon whom I was trying to please? I strategized internally that it would be different when they came to my home in Chicago. I am going to be part of this family for many years, and I just have to be myself. It’s in everyone’s interest in the long term. And for the most part, I have done exactly that.

My in-laws are now not quite sure what to make of me: a girl who wears her mangulsutra every day without fail, but no other jewelry (Jen could also tell you what a big deal ornamentation is in Eastern cultures), a women who feels absolutely fine bumming around the whole day in sweatpants and a ponytail, a lady who doesn’t cook, doesn’t pray daily, and who has these wildly feminist ideas about not being ready to rent her womb out to the next generation. At the same time, I have been kind, flexible, dutiful, attentive. I have cleaned, done laundry, drove them around, run errands, given up my bed. Mummy and Papa have wanted for nothing and have not relaxed so much in many years.

In short, even my in-laws have developed a more complex picture over the last month over what it really means to be a good daughter. It is not only about rituals and traditions. They know very well their son is far from a traditional guy himself. For this, I am proud. I am additionally pleased that I held onto my Boopness. It’s not something I am willing to relinquish anymore.

This visit has made me feel more at ease, about future stays, either them here, or Eddie and I over in Mumbai. That is not to say I don’t need a long break before the next one. But it’s no longer this scary idea, this vaguely threatening prospect that keeps me up for nights in a row (such as I experienced in the lead up to this trip). Mummy and Papa are goodhearted people. I had them up on a pedestal, these perfect and wise people who had the ultimate power to decide my value. I have come to realize that they are learning as much from me, as I from them. Pretty cool actually.