Homes and Hospitality

The India’s Identities gang outside of Sundari’s house. Sundari and her daughters are pictured here with us.

During our time in India thus far, we have been fortunate enough to spend time in the homes of Amy and Brian’s dear friends. While we were in Chennai Sundari, Amy’s cook from her sabbatical in Chennai last year, invited us into her home for dosas (Indian crepes made with rice-lentil flour) with the best sambar (lentil-based soup with lots of spices) and chutneys we’d tasted. All twenty-two of us sat together on the floor of the single room of Sundari’s house as we heard stories about Sundari’s marriage to her late husband, the worries she has as she supports herself and her children on her own, and her recent conversion to Christianity. We met her family, who all pitched in cooking and serving food, and cuddled her sweet baby niece. Outside her house in the narrow dirt lanes, children played and dogs ran freely, and neighbors poked their heads out of their houses to wave hello.

Our group outside of Sunil’s house. Sunil and his son Navaneeth are second row right; his wife Suganthi is standing above them.     

On a subsequent day we visited Nataraj and Sunil’s houses, both of whom Amy met during her first stay in India as a college student. Nataraj served us drinks and fresh fruit as we chatted with his daughters, one of whom is in her final year of college as many of us are. Afterwards we moved to Sunil’s house for arguably the best food in India; his family had woken up at three-thirty that morning to chop vegetables for various dishes, such as grilled cauliflower, potatoes and chickpeas, green beans, and a vegetable coconut dish characteristic of Kerala, where Sunil’s family is from.

After eating all that we possibly could and then some, we took some time to explore the neighborhood. We climbed up to Sunil’s rooftop to look out over the neighborhood of small, brightly painted houses. As we walked through the neighborhood, people smiled and said hello, and some friendly neighbors invited students into their houses for tea.

Many of the spaces we have been invited into are far more modest than our own houses back home, where we are used to having the luxury of our own space, the comfort of all of our furniture, and the convenience of appliances and our various technologies. When we encounter people who have much less than us, we often feel pity and the urge to somehow help them rather than allowing them to get to know us on their own terms. These feelings are completely valid and often very important, but I think they sometimes overlook other people’s capabilities and unique identities.

The beauty of a course that is designed for us to learn about various lived identities in modern India is that we meet others as people rather than as causes or charities. One student reflected that these interactions have helped her gain different perspective on what living with less looks like. Another student expressed her immense gratitude towards the family who woke up early to prepare food for us, and the people who have gone out of their way to make us feel welcome in their homes and in their country. As a class we are considering these perspectives as we are also discussing ways in which we might be able to put together a fund to offer assistance to those who are struggling, in response to the people we’ve met and things we’ve seen so far in India.

We are so incredibly fortunate to have experienced the hospitality of these families, and to have learned about their lives through their own stories. Studying abroad is certainly about seeing sites and observing cultures, but perhaps more importantly it is about building relationships and creating friendships that broaden our perspectives and expand our knowledge about this colorful corner of the world.

–Anya Fredsell

Anya with Sophie Zinn at the 7th-century rock monuments in Mahabalipuram, Tamil Nadu

An Unlikely Friendship

Sarah, at left, waits for her banana a leaf to be filled with a variety of Keralite delicacies during our visit to the Jewish area of Cochin 

One of the perks of being a student at a liberal arts college is that you learn to make connections everywhere, even in the unlikeliest of places. I can’t tell you how many times I received confused looks and furrowed brows from people after telling them that I, an American Sign Language-English Interpreting and Deaf Studies major at Maryville College, was going to India to participate in a study abroad course focusing on religion, caste and gender. What a pair, right?

Despite these reservations, I was determined to find the parallels between Indian culture and my majors. It all came together when our group sat down on Saturday morning to watch a woman’s Bharatanatyam performance. Bharatanatyam is a dance form which makes religious myths and themes accessible and aesthetically pleasing to the common man. Its heavy use of storytelling, facial expressions, and technical movements not only makes it distinctive from other dances, but also makes anyone who is versed in American Sign Language (ASL) spring to attention.

Like Bharatanatyam dancers, the Deaf community in America strongly values storytelling in ASL; proficient signing is often equated with one’s storytelling skills. In order to communicate the narratives, Bharatanatyam dancers are trained for years to have large repertoires of specific gestures. However, these gestures are not symbolic on their own; they have to be understood in context. This idea can be seen in the ASL world as classifiers. For example, a flat B/extended handshape can be used to show a book, a mirror, a window, etc. This use of contextualized hand movements is key to both these practices and brings stories to life.

As the performance began, I noticed that the dancer had meticulous and meaningful facial expressions and eye-gaze throughout the hour-long performance. This made me think of the concept of role-shifting in ASL. In this process, the signer relays a conversation by acting as the characters through a series of changes such as shifting shoulders, adjusting eye-gaze, and so on. The signer must become the surrogate role of whoever they are depicting in order to (more or less) act out the part. In addition to this, ASL uses non-manual markers, or facial movements to convey grammar; without them, utterances are monotone and misunderstood. If the dancer had remained expressionless throughout the show, not only would it have been less enjoyable, but we also would have lost our ability to understand the story.

While I could geek out for hours on the many similarities that my mind keeps going back to, my time as a guest blogger is almost up. On this trip I’ve made some unexpected friendships, but none have been as unlikely and unexpected as the union I’ve seen between ASL and the Bharatanatyam. It has been a rewarding connection to see, and with two weeks left, I can’t wait to see what new friendships will be made on the way.

–Sarah Gregory

Sarah, standing at left, rides the public bus in Chennai to go to our friend Sundari’s house with the India’s Identities crew

We’re in Cochin! 

(Eating in Sunil’s village)

After a few days that were relatively off the grid, we’ve arrived in lovely and historic Kochi/Cochin on India’s western coast in the lush state of Kerala. In the interim we traveled to Kerala by overnight train, were treated to warm hospitality in Sunil’s village, and crossed… 


(Morning nature trek in the tea estates)

…back into Tamil Nadu for the Pongal festival. We enjoyed the splendor of the Western Ghats (mountains), one of the eight most biodiverse regions in the world, where we saw wildlife, discussed ecology and conservation efforts, and stayed on a manicured tea estate in colonial-era bungalows. 

(Dinner time on our overnight train) 

Today we visit Cochin’s beautiful synagogue, get further acquainted with Kerala’s coconut-laced cuisine, and consider colonial contact through visits to the Dutch Palace and St. Francis Church. We’ll end the day with a Kathakali performance, Kerala’s inimitable classical dance-drama form. Students are happy, excited, and full of interesting commentary and reflections on their interactions and experiences with a range of contemporary Indian identities.

Hope you enjoy these pics from our last few days — keep up with us Instagram (indiasidentities) and Twitter (@ElonIndia) where Sophie Zinn is posting more pics!

(A stroll through Sunil’s village; class time under the tent in the village)

Ascent in the Western Ghats

Yesterday we left Sunil’s village near Palakkad, Kerala for the tea estate in Valparai. We left around 7:30 am and we were told that it would be between a four and six hour drive. We were told before we left that it would be a very windy road, and those of us who get motion sickness should sit in the front. Lucky for me, that isn’t something I struggle with. The first bit of the ride wasn’t too bad; just a little bumpy. Sunil’s family had made us to-go breakfast boxes that Brian handed out early on in the drive. Trying to balance a plate of idli and chutney with a bag of sambar, all while eating with your hand, is a little tricky in a bus. But we all managed. After trash was collected, I decided to get a nap in. 

About an hour later…. “OH MY GOD. OH MY GOD. OH MY GOD.” I wake up suddenly, thinking that something’s wrong. But no, there were just about 12 monkeys sitting on the side of the road. They were pretty cute, just sitting there. As I’m looking at these monkeys, I realized that we are up on the side of a lush, green mountain. The view is breath taking. 

We make our way higher and higher, winding our way back and forth. Some of the turns were so tight that we had to stop, back up, and then go around. Our bus was not small and the roads were not wide, so it was definitely an interesting combination. As we were going around a bend, there was a marker that said “Hair pin turn 11/40”. Yikes… that’s a lot of twists ahead of us. 

After a long journey, we finally made it to the tea estate. We drove up a long windy one-way road and saw this beautiful set of bungalows looking out across the tea fields. Everyone was amazed by the rolling hills covered in greenery. It was definitely worth the interesting drive. 

-Katira Dobbins

Off the Beaten Path

Yesterday we arrived in Mahabalipuram, a town just south of Chennai on the coast. We visited sites of 7th century stone carvings; artisans hand-carved images of deities and pictures depicting religious myths into large rock formations. Although the sculptures have been weathered by time, stories of the goddess Durga slaying the buffalo demon and the Ganges descending from the heavens still stand out dramatically from the rock face.

The Goddess Durga slays the buffalo demon Mahisasura (7th century panel) 

After we observed a few of the ancient sites of temple carvings, we proceeded to the busy street of shops where artisans sell smaller versions of carved elephants and deities and other little trinkets. After visiting countless shops that each had very similar products to the last, I (Anya Fredsell) ran into an artisan named Dilip who had sold Iliana a trinket earlier, and who told us to visit his shop on a different road. The main road is too expensive for some artisans, so they have to go out and tell tourists where their store is and hope that they are interested enough to walk a few minutes away from the main road.

With some doubt, a group of four of us followed him to his shop, which was tucked away across the lain from a park with more ancient stone carvings. We sat inside his store and looked at some of the most carefully crafted marble and stone carvings we had seen all day.

Many artisans in the area have been part of the community for generations, and the work has been passed down from father to son. This sort of work created a caste of people who crafted both religious figures to be consecrated in temples around the world, and later smaller figurines to sell tourists in order to support the economy and the craft.

Dilip, on the other hand, was a first generation stone carver who learned his craft from studying at the local college opened in 1957 by the government. He told us that his brother, who also attended the college, makes the large sculptures of deities while he makes the smaller figurines. Although his brother makes more money, Dilip is worried about him because the dust from the marble gets in his lungs and he wakes up every morning coughing.

We sat in Dilip’s store for nearly an hour and a half, looking at all of his finely carved sculptures and chatting with Dilip about his work (and collectively using up all the cash we had on us for gifts and souvenirs). It was interesting to hear about how the ancient religious tradition of consecrating stone sculptures in temples interacts with the local economy; artisans take pride in the work that they trained for in years of college or from growing up in this community.

                           –Anya Fredsell 

PS — please follow us on Instagram at indiasidentities and on Twitter at @ElonIndia

Anya enjoying breakfast with Sophie Zavada.

“guest is god”

Just a few photos from our visit to the houses of our friends Nataraj and Sunil, where we were extended warm welcomes and served delicious food. We enjoyed playing with children, visiting neighbors’ homes, and hearing about their family’s backgrounds. These are the everyday Indian identities we came to learn about and we felt humbled to be treated to such incredible hospitality!

A lecture from a lawyer and legal expert

img_5382Today we had a presentation from Ms. Ramaseshan, a well-known advocate for the High Court of Madras with over 30 years of practice. Ms. Ramaseshan ’s presentation highlighted a range of issues in contemporary India, such as abortion, civil rights, and marriage.

Ms. Ramaseshan talked to us about family or personal laws, which deal with matters like marriage, divorce, custody, and inheritance. This set of laws varies for each religious community, meaning that Hindus, Muslim, and Christians all have a different set of family laws to follow. A present debate is focused on these laws: should personal law be the same for all religious communities, or should everyone have the same basic civil rights with varying religious laws for matters that pertain to such things as marriage and divorce?

When we discussed Ms. Ramaseshan’s talk later in class, this point became relevant to today’s world where people have the mentality of “you do you” and everyone has their own way of living, yet we like having a uniform legal code that everyone lives by. We see the same kind of debates in Europe, where, for example, a law passed in France focused on preventing Muslim girls from wearing hijabs in any public or government areas. While this French law is written to forbid display of all religious symbols, it was put in place specifically to stop Muslim women from wearing hijabs.

An example of personal law difference is seen in what is called the “triple talãk” whereby a Muslim man can divorce his wife by saying “talāk” three times. Although the divorce must then be certified by a Muslim legal specialist, India is the only country in which triple talāk has legal validity. This law shows how India’s legal code attempts to accommodate everyone’s religious practices but doing so makes having a universal code that everyone follows difficult.

Ms. Ramaseshan also talked to us about laws pertaining to abortion in India, which became legal in 1976. Women seeking an abortion don’t need any approval from their husband, and they can get an abortion if their child will have a genetic disorder, they are not financially able to care for a child, or if having a child will cause mental distress. Although parents can test for genetic diseases, the law forbids doctors from giving any information about the sex of the fetus to prevent the abortion of female fetuses by parents who desire a male child.

Another current issue in India is marriage and divorce. The marriage ages for women and men are 18 and 21. There are many, including Ms. Ramaseshan , who think that the marriage age should be the same for both genders. But this leads to this question: Do we decrease men’s age, or increase women’s? As far as divorce goes, Ms. Ramaseshan described how the process works and what some of the mitigating factors are in legal judgments.

I really enjoyed Ms. Ramaseshan’s talk because she was able to help us see how India’s law codes are different than America’s. India is more legally advanced regarding abortion, but it also has a way to go on improving its Uniform Civil Code and figuring out how to deal with religious laws. In addition, it is still challenged by the prevalence of minor marriages and the disparity in the marriage age of men and women. Ms. Ramaseshan highlighted how important religion is in Indian culture through showing us how the country is struggling with having the specific family laws alongside a Uniform Civil Code.

–Catherine Colbran