Monday, April 22, 2013

Appeasing the Gods.

As I mentioned, I wrote a story in my literary memoir class this semester about my experience at the Kali Temple in Kolkata. I want to share it with you because I'm pretty proud of it but also because it accurately describes that temple and sacrifice experience. That being said, I'm not sure if it as vividly describes the horror as my friend Simon did in his post, so if you're feeling particularly bloodthirsty, go check out what he had to say about Eid al-Adha here.

Now, I present my micro-memoir (a piece of creative nonfiction in 500 words or less), "Appeasing the Gods".

Warm sunlight drips down on me like melted butter, tinting everything yellow-gold, making my skin sticky and glistening, yet the air is cool playing with a gentle breeze. The morning is still fresh at the Kali Temple in Kolkata, the Indian air not quite as oppressive in December as it will become August. Though early, the temple is far from peaceful. In fact, this temple is the least peaceful of any I’ve been in over the past four months. Yelling men peddle flower garlands for offerings, bells clang from towers, and prayers I can’t comprehend are shouted in Bengali. All around me, the cacophony of lost souls pierces my morning.
I stand with a cluster of other foreigners waiting for our companions to make their way through the temple’s halls. Tiny, feral puppies roam the cobbled stones searching for food scraps and affection that I can’t provide. I hate animals, but they are so precious it hurts not to tangle my fingers in their mangy fur.
We’ve been warned that each day a live kid is sacrificed here. We were told on entry that the time had already passed, but suddenly the clanging gets louder, the shouting more fervent, and we are informed that the slaughter has just now taken place. Some of my companions hurry off to witness this strange ritual. I am rooted, unwilling to observe the brutality. I wait. The courtyard settles back to its previous level of chaos.
Someone abruptly warns us not to look and my eyes are instantly drawn over her shoulder, where I don’t see the man as much as I see what his hands are holding: the left, a pair of hooves by the ankle; the right, a scruff of hair from which dangles a head complete to just under the jaw. He walks in lurching, laden steps, the rump of the kid dragging, smearing the blood that drips from its neck, its hind legs standing straight up until another man steps in behind him and lifts them so the rump doesn’t drag, leaving a spotted trail behind them as they round the next corner.
After this parade has finished its procession, the puppies tumble in to lick up the bright jewels left behind just as the birds ate the crumbs Hansel and Gretel dropped. Kali is satiated now, appeased by the blood of an innocent animal, licked clean by the tongues of simple creatures. As we leave the temple, someone tells me its cries sounded human, sounded like his own young sons crying, as they brought it to the altar. I am left thinking about the cries of God. The cries of Jesus as he walked himself to the altar. My tongue licking up the drips of blood he left behind that day, finding nourishment and love in this world where nobody else makes contact.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Twenty-six Hours to Kolkata.

The next leg of our journey involved a twenty-six hour train ride to Kolkata. Yep. It was a doozy. The good news is that the views were really lovely for much of the ride and we had pretty decent neighbors in our compartment. As in, they didn't stare at us the entire ride. We actually had some shared a compartment with several young men about our age and at one point during the ride had a sing along time where they would sing Hindi songs for us and then we would sing (mostly Christmas songs) for them. It was December, after all! Then they demanded that we sing them "My Heart Will Go On" because everyone in the world is obsessed with Titanic. Truly. The leader of their group, who was kind of an Indian version of a guido, even had it as his ringtone. And then, to enhance the awkwardness, that guy demanded that I start the song because apparently I look like Celine Dion. It was super uncomfortable. But luckily our director Kirk knows all of the words to it from a previous experience abroad when he would sing it to the children in his host family. Like I said, the entire world.

Pretty blankets for sale on the street.
Kolkata was a big city. Surprising, I know. I didn't stray much from the few streets that we were staying on because it was completely overwhelming. But the few streets around where we were staying were pretty manageable and interesting. So it all worked out just fine. We stayed in the YMCA which was really cool. One thing that I loved about it was that it came from the British occupation period and the architecture style was so comforting western! That's probably terrible, but it was a nice change in accommodations for me. And there were really thick wool blankets on the beds because at night Kolkata is cold (relatively speaking for India)!

One thing we got here was Kati rolls, which are kinda like a fajita but the Indian version and (in my opinion) way better. The wrap is a paratha or other flat bread and there is spiced meat inside with fried onions and a squeeze of lime juice. It's hard to explain, but it is basically heaven. You can read the wikipedia explanation here. But I'll just say I ate like three or four during my two day stay in Kolkata.

Kolkata is also famous for their chai. Really, all of India kind of is. But in Kolkata you buy it from people with stands on the street (instead of just jugs of tea on the back of their motorcycles, which is what they had in Coimbatore) and it comes in little clay pot cups (instead of disposable paper ones)! It's great. The idea is for the clay cups to be disposable, too; that you smash them on the ground and they dissolve. Biodegradable! Eco-friendly! I was kind of excited to do that, but when we bought ours the vendor had a bucket where you could put your cup to be reused. No smashing...bummer. But the chai was super tasty all the same!

I tried lassi for the first time here. Lassi is a drink make of whisked yogurt. It's almost like a danimals or something, except it's not necessarily cold because they kinda heat it up to make it. You can get sweet or salted lassi. I liked lassis made with fruit (particularly mango, which blends up really well with the lassi and is the national fruit of India), but the one I'm drinking here is just plain yogurt without sweet or salt added...I think. But I didn't drink that whole thing myself! Two or three of us shared it because it was huge!

From the pictures, you might think all I did there is eat. But that is not the case! We did lots of things, like visit a place called Sari Bari. Sari Bari (sari as in the clothing and bari meaning "home" in Bengali, the language used in Kolkata) is a business where women who leave the sex industry can work so that they don't have to work in that industry any more. I think it's a pretty unique approach to this issue in that they encourage the women to keep their beds in the red light district. That is, Sari Bari is a place of work, but the women keep living in the brothel they call home. This is because a brothel is a business, too. If they have empty beds, they will work to fill them. So if women are leaving the brothel, they will be replaced. If women are leaving the sex industry but staying in the brothel, the woman doesn't get freedom at the expense of her replacement. Sari Bari was probably my favorite NGO that we visited (even though I don't think it counts as an NGO because it's a business, not an organization...) partly because the woman who talked to us while we were there was a twentysomething American Christian college graduate. Basically, she could have been me. And she was out in Kolkata, doing this. It was really inspiring. If you want to learn more about Sari Bari, you can check out the website here.

We also saw some of the "sights" in the city. One was St. Paul's Cathedral. The outside was lovely, though the interior fell flat a bit. It wasn't really very impressive. Honestly, I like the one in Minnesota more. People in India seem to often favor functionality over beauty when it comes to interior design. That's fine, but the twenty suspended ceiling fans weren't really doing much for the aesthetics, in my opinion.

Just down the street was the Victoria Memorial, this gorgeous structure that was built during the British occupation (duh). Honestly, we weren't sure why the Indians have kept it so long even after their independence considering the fact that it was built essentially with slave labor of their own people and with money collected from their country, in order to glorify their oppressors. But....whatever. It was beautiful.
Sidewalk chalk art outside the Victoria Memorial. Photograph © Randy Cronk.
We also visited the Kali Temple. Kali is the goddess of destruction in the Hindu faith, and this temple in Kolkata is her temple, the main one for worshiping her, I think. It was the least peaceful temple I've been in, basically mass chaos. I think that's partly because it's such a huge tourist destination; that kind of takes some of the silent reverence out of it. While we were there, some of the people in my group witnessed a goat sacrifice. Yikes! I didn't see the killing, but I saw the headless goat being dragged by afterwards. It was intense. And it reminded me of reading this post that my friend Simon wrote about experiencing Eid al-Adha in Palestine. It really makes you appreciate the whole "Jesus died" thing we have in Christianity. I wrote a story about my experience there that I'll post soon.

So there's Kolkata in a nutshell. 

Friday, April 5, 2013

On Caste.

As I mentioned in my last post, while we were in Hyderabad we had a talk with a man named H.L. Richard, who is a specialist on contextualization and syncretism especially in India. I wanted to take the time to delve a bit into a few of the points he made during this lecture because there were some really interesting things that he commented on that I found helpful for reflecting on my semester abroad.

Much of the conversation about contextualization and syncretism went over my head. (Or maybe I just wasn't that interested in it? I probably should have been, but sometimes it's hard to make yourself pay attention to things. Especially when the people talking about them are experts in the field being discussed...conversation tends to get pretty deep/complicated pretty fast in those situations.) He did talk about one thing in this area that was really interesting though; at what level do we have to denounce our own culture and subscribe to the culture that the Bible seems to call us to? Now, Jesus was counter-cultural in many ways during the first century. He called us to follow his teachings even when they are considered abnormal by societal standards of the times. In many ways what we view as part of Christian tradition is really just part of Westernized tradition. There is no reason that worship has to be hymns played with an organ, yet when Christianity came to India, that is what the missionaries taught. That's not necessarily fair; there are plenty of parts of our culture that we incorporate into our religion.

Now Christian Indian women will often refuse to wear a bindi (the red forehead dot) because they consider it to be a third eye, a gateway to the soul in the Hindu tradition and they refuse to take part in the practices of a non-Christian religion. If they're not comfortable, then that's fine, but as Mr. Richard pointed out, there are few if any Hindu women who will claim that's the reason they're wearing it. For them, it's a part of fashion, a part of cultural tradition and not spiritual at all. In situations like this, Indian Christians feel compelled to renounce practices that really aren't an issue for their spirituality.

During our discussion, H. L. Richard explained the only two matters that he feels are imperative for Christians to conform to (particularly in an Indian context). They are abstaining from idol worship and loving your neighbor.

Idolatry is an important topic because it is such an ingrained part of Indian culture through Hinduism. Many people who practice Hinduism don't have any problem adding Jesus to the shelf of idols (also known as "dolls"...creepy) that they are already worshiping. But according to Jesus himself, there is only one way to God and it is through him. Worshiping Jesus and Shiva and Brahma and a thousand other gods isn't devoting your entire heart and soul to Jesus, and it's just not going to cut it. Clinging to the idols of one's childhood religion, like in the story of Jakob's wives, isn't honoring to God.

Loving your neighbor is a pretty standard response to what it means to be a Christian. But in the Indian context, it means something pretty different than in America; it means that they need to get rid of the caste system. When it was created, the caste system was about everyone fulfilling a role in society that they were born into. Apparently the original intent was to simplify and people didn't have a problem with it. Over thousands of years, however, the caste system has become a way for people who are logistically no different and definitely no better than other people to have and maintain control over other people. There are the different levels of caste, and then there are even the "outcastes," also known as dalits. These are the people whose role is completely below the caste system. They are the people who sweep the streets, who pick up people's trash, who live in slums, who can't even eat in the same restaurants. These are the neighbors that India needs to learn to love in order to embrace the message of Jesus Christ.

For some Indian Christians, caste isn't really a thing anymore. One of our closest non-American friends in Coimbatore told us early on when we inquired about his caste that he's a Christian. To him, that means that he no longer belongs to a caste system that finds its roots in Hinduism. But for many other Christians I spoke to (all less directly than with that one friend), caste system still factors greatly into the decisions of their everyday life. The girls in the hostel told me that when they are about twenty-five, their parents will round up a selection of five men from the same religion, caste, and socioeconomic class as they are and from those five options the girl will choose one that she wants to marry. Okay, there are a few reasons other than the caste factor that I don't like this situation, but that is beside the point. What really matters is the fact that caste even comes up in the marriage search. These girls were going to a Christian college and were all really involved in churches and youth group things, yet their families were still subscribing to the caste system.

This sort of attitude is the problem Dr. Richard was talking about when he said that the contextualization that needs to happen is for Indians to renounce the caste system. As Christians, we should view everyone as an equal child of God without discriminating against certain people because of a made-up role they are "supposed" to fulfill in society. It was hard for us to learn about this totally foreign phenomenon that had little to do with socioeconomic class and was completely beyond the people's ability to change.

I feel like I have more to say about this but I'm not sure how to articulate it. The caste system is such a huge problem in India in terms of equality and living out Christian values for those who profess to be Christian. But it's also become this integral part of society, which is just really really sad.