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Heeding Cultural Memory

1 Oct

I came across this phrase in the last book I greedily guzzled from my library and it struck a deep, sonorous chord too personal to ignore.  It implied that every culture disseminates its core values and practices deep within its holders, where it is sometimes held dormant like a capsule, and even though we may outwardly reject the mores of our milieu, there comes a time when we subconsciously succumb and are drawn to the very acts we shunned. It may not be as extreme as a vegan reverting to his lassi-chugging Punjabiness, but second-rung beliefs and commonly practiced routines often heed this siren’s call. And, surprise surprise, we find ourselves walking in the footsteps of our forefathers.

Some weeks before this concept popped out at me, I had the opportunity to meet someone who has given me a lifetime’s insight in a matter of hours. And in the course of seeing life patterns emerge before my very eyes, I have had it pointed out to me how much a product of my socio-ethnic culture I really am. And for all my rebellion against the values my parents in particular and my community in general hold dear, I am, inseparably, a composite part of both.

It’s the little things, really. Insignificant details that ought never to govern a life but they do. Nudge it, at any rate, and prod it in the direction their owner wishes to move. The firm belief in wearing slippers in the home (or else you’re a ghata-ghariya who deserves to curl up and die.)  Knowing more people at a western classical music concert that any other congregation on earth. Growing up hearing about the “good old” (i.e. Raj) days. Wearing Queen Elizabeth in your ears. Watching grandmothers hold office jobs and balk at cooking. Recognizing aunts thrice removed by their uniform of bobbed hair and sleeveless frocks. Dancing the Birdy Dance at weddings and singing Chaiyye Ame Zarthoshti amid raucous uncles down several Parsi pegs. Taking pride in the family gara. And kors. And vintage pearls. Smiling indulgently at Duke’s raspberry, an insider secret the community still holds close to its chest (and there, I just let it out.)

Putting education first. Especially if you’re a woman. Tasting brackish water from ancient Gujarat village wells. Sticking a fravarshi on the back of one’s car (and sometimes the front as well.) Being aghast at the merest hint of dishonesty. Being aghast at another Parsi not being aghast at the merest hint of dishonesty. Guarding your Sunday dhansak with the zeal of a Rottweiler. Always, always going back for seconds. Snapping “ovaryoo” at inauspicious talk and basking in the fragrance of lobaan, never mind that the smoke kills your tonsils every time. Dwelling in high-beamed homes where your grandfather grew teeth, the ones in which you could tricycle to dinner. Listening to your neighbor play Chopin and willing her fingers to fly across the ivory.

Tossing your head with cosmopolitan pride, declaring you have no Parsi friends, generating conversations across time zones and immersing yourself in the 21st century globe, but that tug, that teeny tiny tug, on hearing the accent only you fully understand and no one can replicate, nodding in agreement over disciplining children, cooing over plaid dresses and understated frills on display at Bambino, eyeing lemon tarts at RTI, coveting familiar cuckoo clocks and wanting to be that charming Aunty Hilla 40 years down the journey.

This is my cultural memory and whether I’m ready or not, this I know: the heeding has already begun.