Archive for June, 2010

I should probably preface this story by saying that I’m not a princess.  You can use a lot of other choice words to describe me, but “princess” would hardly be accurate.  I rarely flinch at the sight of a cockroach or moldy fruit, and if the only “bathroom” in sight is two pieces of cinderblock atop strangers’ decaying feces, I’ll hold my breath and make do.

My relatively relaxed, sab chalta hai (everything goes), attitude has been very handy when traveling throughout India.  It’s allowed me to sample delicious peanut chutney in northern Karnataka, freshly ground in what I decided were “clean enough” conditions.  It’s allowed me to stubbornly complete surveys in a Delhi slum during monsoon, when the air was dripping with rain, flies, and the wafting smell of clogged sewer pipe.  It’s even allowed me to keep smiling when I realized—ex post facto—that my bath water in a Maharashtran hill station was full of unidentifiable brown particles (the bathroom lighting, needless to say, was sub-optimal).

Once in a while, however, certain events have really forced me to question what is “cool” versus “irritating,” what is “a story for a grandkids” versus “pointlessly miserable.”

Two years ago, I had decided to travel to Haridwar, Uttar Pradesh to practice yoga/meditation in an ashram for a week.  It was a trip I had wanted to take for years, and I was looking forward to temporarily trading my stressful job for fresh mountain air.

I arranged my overnight journey to Haridwar with a travel agent in Delhi.  “The bus will be very comfortable,” the agent assured me, his gaze firmly affixed on the busty Bollywood posters behind me.  “It may not have air conditioning, but—as you can see from this picture—the seats are very roomy.  You’ll be glad the train and all other buses were sold out!”

The guy was a used car salesman in the making. (more…)


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That's me! Or rather, was me.

“Oh right, you’re vegetarian.”  People always seem to forget this about me.  “Wait, that means you don’t eat chicken either?  How about fish?”

“Nope.  Nothing that ever had a brain,” has become my standard reply.  “Eggs are cool, though.  And milk products.  Can someone please pass the salt?”

Wait for it, wait for it.

“So wait, why are you vegetarian?  Have you always been this way?”

The inevitable “have you always been this way.”  Hey kid, nice skin disease, have you always been this way?

For a long time, I was unable to answer this question properly.  I’d fumble terribly, and by the time I’d finish speaking, everyone would look a bit confused and someone would quickly change the topic.  I’d sink into my chair, burning with that feeling you get after telling a joke so bad that it doesn’t even warrant fake laughter.  Meanwhile, the new conversation would, with my luck, sound something like, “So, where do you guys stand on the gender-neutral bathroom debate?  I think it’s important insofar that it allows us to break down the hegemony of the post-performative dialectic.”

I don’t do well with social embarrassment, but I fare even worse with post-modern (po-mo?) discussions.  To avoid both, I eventually decided to rehearse a few solid sounding answers to the dreaded “why are you vegetarian” question.  Thankfully, most seem to get the job done.

In truth, I am sometimes unsure of how to present my vegetarian philosophy to adult audiences.  Unlike most of my friends, my vegetarianism hasn’t quite resulted from concerns for personal health, factory farm conditions, or the environment.  And unlike many Indian-Americans, my religion—Hinduism—plays at best a latent role in my decision to avoid meat.

Rather, I became vegetarian because of a bet I once made with my imaginary animal friends.

Not my parents

My upbringing certainly made it easier to sustain my decision.  My Indian parents have been vegetarian for their entire lives.  They don’t have ardent philosophies against eating meat; it’s just how they grew up and how they continue to live.  Today, they would never cheat on their vegetarianism, but they certainly wouldn’t start handing out “Eating meat killz” buttons to our neighbors, either.

When my sister and I were born, our parents decided that it wasn’t practical for us to be raised vegetarian.  In grad school, my father had survived on a steady diet of uninspiring potatoes and soggy greens, and to him, there was no reason for his daughters to suffer the same fate.  Besides, we were in a new country, with new customs and traditions; who were they to impose Indian dietary restrictions on their American daughters?  My mother would continue cooking vegetarian food at home, but there was no harm in us eating meat outside. (more…)

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Published in The Guardian on June 6, 2010. Read the article here or below

The rejection of sex education by parliament has left Indians relying on a newspaper column for advice on basic biology

Can oral sex lead to pregnancy? Will daily masturbation make me go bald? If my elbow brushes against a woman’s breasts on a bus, will I be at risk from HIV?

These are not questions being asked by innocent pre-teens in a middle-school playground. Rather, they are being posed – and answered – in India’s most widely circulated English-language newspaper. The “Ask the Sexpert” column runs in a daily supplement of the Times of India, with spinoff columns beginning to appear in other major Indian periodicals.

It essentially features sex-related questions from across India, followed by small nuggets of advice. The queries range from the serious to the clueless, from the sympathy-evoking to the unintentionally entertaining. (Some choice, if rather explicit, examples can be seen here, here and here.

To a first-time reader, particularly one with a functional understanding of the birds and the bees, many questions will seem unbelievably basic. How can a society, especially one with a strong cultural emphasis on education, be so ignorant of elementary biology? To put it bluntly, why are so many Indian adults confused about where babies come from?

First-time readers will be further surprised to learn that author, Dr Mahinder Watsa, is an 85-year-old gynaecologist and sex counsellor. Unlike many Indian octogenarians, however, Watsa does not spend his time decrying the decline of family values. Rather, he appears to have largely accepted – and arguably immersed himself in – the concerns and realities of today’s youth.

Ask the Sexpert is far from prudish. Though occasionally antiquated, Watsa’s advice is – for the most part – factual, terse, and at times even sardonic. He regularly calls men “old-fashioned” for seeking brides with intact hymens, and often tells size-obsessed men to simply “learn the art of love-making”. Homosexuality seems to be Watsa’s only taboo topic; all else is fair game.

His column provides a sharp contrast to candy-coated Bollywood cinema, and to Indian society overall. It unabashedly discusses topics that are otherwise brushed under carpets, and boldly uses phrases that are usually only whispered in shy giggles. Most importantly, it does what Indian sex education has clearly failed to do. Indian schools are, by a long stretch, less open about sex than Watsa’s column. While Ask the Sexpert discusses premature ejaculation and G-spots at length, the Indian educational system offers students unsubstantial lessons on human anatomy.

This is, in part, because of a parliamentary ruling that rejected the introduction of proper sex education in schools. Sex education has no place in India’s “social and cultural ethos”, the committee argued, and school children should simply be taught that “sex before marriage … is immoral, unethical and unhealthy”.

Some observers believe that committee members are afraid of sex education leading to “people having sex on every corner”. Never mind that scientific studies around the world have found sex education to both delay the onset of sexual behaviour and to increase likelihood of safe sex. Until the Indian education system recognises its shortcomings, the Indian public will have few options but to continue to “ask the sexpert”.

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