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.

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23 Responses to “Heeding Cultural Memory”

  1. Pallavi October 1, 2009 at 1:11 am #

    As always, such a beautiful post, OJ!

  2. Nino's Mum October 1, 2009 at 2:02 am #

    As far removed as I am, I heed this memory too: but only because you straddle memory and reality so well, you pull me along, a transporter, a conjurer, a narrator.
    And I stand still, and soak it all in.
    Dare I say it… I’ve never felt this immersed since Rushdie?

  3. anil October 1, 2009 at 3:38 pm #

    “culture is a little like dropping an Alka-Seltzer into a glass … you don’t quite see it … but it does something.”

    I didn’t say that but I know what you mean.

  4. Orange Jammies October 1, 2009 at 6:36 pm #

    Pallavi: Thanks, Pallu. And that book you gifted MM, the Boy has it. It’s fun! 🙂

    Nino’s Mum: Someone sure loves me this week. Within a span of seven days, I have been mentioned in the same sentence as Rushdie AND quoted between Arundhati Roy and Aung San Suu Kyi. Don’t nobody wake me up just yet!

    anil: And I’m glad you do. 🙂

  5. wordjunkie October 1, 2009 at 8:22 pm #

    Rushdie-fushdie, roy-shmoy… Dahling, it’s only a matter of time before you get a sentence all your own.

    Awesome post, as always.. and loved your letter to MM too…

  6. Aunty G October 1, 2009 at 11:26 pm #

    Thank God for different cultures
    Including ours (to be eaten by vultures)
    Its good to heed
    Can’t deny we need
    Our roots — they supply rich mulchers!

  7. sukanya October 2, 2009 at 1:35 am #

    and yes, we will not wake you up ..not yet…these are sincere compliments coming your way girl…you oughta be proud of your self. i dont know about others but you have found yourself a lifetime fan of your writing in me.

  8. Amrita October 3, 2009 at 10:11 pm #

    That was lovely, OJ!

  9. dipali October 4, 2009 at 10:45 pm #

    The comfort of the familiar,
    Of phrases ‘our own’,
    ‘our community’, ‘our people’.
    However much we disown them
    Without them we’d have grown
    tediously, boringly, monochrome.

  10. Orange Jammies October 5, 2009 at 1:32 am #

    wordjunkie: Amen to that! Missed you and the Imp at the meeting.

    Aunty G: One of my favorite family cracks is my granny telling my uncle the vultures would have a good feast on her and him replying that when they got to her (replaced artificial) knees, their beaks would break. Yes, very cheerful, I know. 😀

    sukanya: Thank you, I humbly accept.

    Amrita: Ams, how have you been, girl? 🙂

    dipali: Oh but my quarrel is with those who’re tediously, boringly monochrome because of them!

  11. Mom Gone Mad October 5, 2009 at 5:38 pm #

    Speechless at utter awesomeness of post. So whats Rushdie got that you ain’t? huh? huh?

  12. Orange Jammies October 5, 2009 at 7:51 pm #

    Mom Gone Mad: A beard, a Booker and several million extra dollars. 🙂 I met him once at grad school. Very interesting.

  13. dipali October 6, 2009 at 10:14 am #

    It always ends up being about finding the right balance of the various influences in our lives.
    Orange Jammies glowing against a neutral background:)
    (Though Parsiana seems most exotic and unneutral to me!)

  14. Orange Jammies October 7, 2009 at 9:05 am #

    dipali: And me! And that’s actually a liberal publication, you should take a look at the Parsee Voice. My first response is running shoes.

  15. the mad momma October 10, 2009 at 1:19 am #

    “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. 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.”

    do we accidentally belong to the same community?! beautiful post as usual OJ

  16. Orange Jammies October 10, 2009 at 1:06 pm #

    the mad momma: What can I say, hon. We be of one blood, ye and I. 🙂

  17. Mamma Mia! Me a Mamma?!? October 10, 2009 at 2:43 pm #

    A post rich with feeling and imagery. As always, a lovely, absorbing read.

  18. Orange Jammies October 11, 2009 at 12:43 pm #

    M4: Just mirroring my inner life. 🙂

  19. Anindita October 14, 2009 at 11:30 am #

    Beautiful post…much enjoyed.

  20. Chips October 29, 2009 at 6:00 pm #

    Lovely post!

  21. Orange Jammies October 29, 2009 at 10:50 pm #

    Anindita: 🙂 Glad.

    Chips: Thanks, Chips. You are well, yes?

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