Monday, August 27, 2007

20 August 2007: Rain, Icons, and Prostitutes

Today is the first rain I have seen, which is pretty good considering that it is still monsoon season in south India. Usually the heaviest rains are in July, but last month it just didn’t rain in Bangalore (sound familiar, Angelenos?). Meanwhile, of course, floods are devastating sections of north India and Bangladesh. I was heading back “home” in an auto when the rain started and I realized that they do not have windshield wipers! It wasn’t raining that hard, so it was ok. Now I am back and it is raining much harder – perhaps this will help with the dust on Hennur Main Road. Also, they did lay down a bunch of rocks today – maybe that is preparation for paving? Whatever it is, the auto driver was very unhappy with me as his vehicle lurched around, turning around to tell me “double the meter!” because of the road.

On the way into town today, I witnessed a touching interaction. As I’ve seen in Mexico and Argentina, there are people in busy intersections selling small items or doing acrobatics or juggling for money. The common thing for sale here in Bangalore is a set of those glow-in-the-dark stars that you stick on your bedroom ceiling. One of the people selling these sets today was a boy of maybe 12, and my auto driver stopped him and offered him water, and chatted pleasantly with him while he eagerly availed himself of the water. It was a small gesture, but very kind. After we started driving again, the driver turned around and asked me if I am a Christian (I said yes). “I am a Muslim,” he said, which I had known from the cap he wore. We both smiled.

So I’ve got to figure out how to answer these questions about my religious affiliation. I’m an atheist and an ex-Catholic (even though Frances Kissling keeps trying to tell me that there’s no such thing!), but even in the U.S. I’ll give different answers to the question, depending on the circumstances. For example, I worked for a faith-based pro-choice organization for many years, and in that context I would always introduce myself as ex-Catholic (which many then interpreted as UU). If the situation feels “safe” I’ll admit to being an atheist. Yet, I’m certainly culturally Christian. As a child I loved Vacation Bible School and would go to all the churches around where we lived. I went to Lutheran school (Missouri Synod if that means anything to you) K-2, and Catholic school 5-12 where I had all the sacraments through confirmation. I’ve read the Bible, well probably most of it, and can still recite John 3:16 from memory, King James version. (As I type this, Revita comes in and asks if I mind if she prays and lights the lamp, as the altar to Krishna is in the room where I am staying.) I started having my doubts about God in the 8th grade when a classmate was killed two months to the day after confirmation, and most of the nuns and priests dealt with it by saying “God wanted to bring Jessica home to Him.” Bull shit! I became an atheist in the 9th grade. The final straw was when my Old Testament teacher, Brother Paul (who was also the first anti-abortion protestor I ever met) couldn’t answer my question of why God favored David, who had – it says it right there in the Bible! – 300 concubines and thousands of slaves – whereas Moses couldn’t enter the Promised Land just cuz he got a little frustrated – 40 years wandering in the desert! Give the guy a break! – and struck a rock with his stick. So, I don’t believe in God, or that Jesus was the messiah, or in heaven and hell, or transubstantiation or original sin. But I do have an altar of sorts of Catholic items, especially Virgin Marys, and I buried a St. Joseph in the yard when we were trying to sell our condo, and I keep a St. Christopher in the car. So maybe the accurate answer is “Catholic but not Christian”.

Today I was able to change my Bangalore – Kuala Lumpur flight a few days earlier so that I can spend a few days with my new Malaysian friends before returning to LA next month. I’ll be very happy to see them again, and to spend more time in KL than just one afternoon.

Then I spent a long time on the internet, catching up on email, tracking down contacts, and updating my blog so you, my dear readers, can stay up-to-date on my exciting adventures (watch Rosemary re-pack her bags! hear her make phone calls! see her read!). Since wifi has been elusive, I can only go online through internet shops, and given that I crashed my flash drive before I left LA and neglected to get another, and that I only brought a few CD-Rs with me, I’ll probably just upload my blogs once a week or so.

Since I’m always writing about food (you’ll see I take lots of pictures of food, too!), thought I’d share that I’ve done my part as an American Food Ambassador and introduced Rethy’s kids to peanut butter and banana sandwiches, which they very much enjoyed. (They had all the ingredients on hand – I just suggested the combination.) This after I sent my sister-in-law and niece back to France with one jar each of good quality peanut butter, which is hard to find there. Maybe I should hire myself out to a peanut butter company as their international spokesperson!

I leave in two days for Belgaum and Bagalkot district in northern Karnataka. Perhaps now is a good time to explain what exactly my research is about. I am researching contemporary devadasis, who are a hereditary group of women who are dedicated to the temple as a girl; “married” to the god or goddess, they do not marry men. Traditionally, devadasis were ritual specialists, including dancers and musicians, who enjoyed an independence not experienced by other Indian women, and within the history of Bharatanatyam, they are spoken about almost mythically. Though the devadasis filled an auspicious role in their communities, they were also decried in some circles as prostitutes because they were allowed to have sex outside of marriage. In the late 19th century, reformers, comprised of British missionaries and doctors as well as members of the lower caste “self-respect movement,” began a campaign to abolish temple dancing. At the same time, another movement sought to rescue what they regarded as the sacred dance from its soiled context; this "revived" dance was sanitized, codified, and re-named Bharatanatyam, which has since come to be hailed as the national dance of India. In the end, devadasis were thrown out of the temples, and with nowhere else to turn, many devadasis did indeed turn to sex work to survive. Dance scholars have attempted to locate historical devadasis (or traces of them) in the contemporary performance of Bharatanatyam, but rarely have they looked to the women who still call themselves by that name, many of whom live in the northern part of the state of Karnataka. These contemporary devadasis are universally described in public health literature as sex workers, often in relationship to HIV/AIDS. I am looking at the space of the disconnect between these two narratives to see what might be found. The idea is that the research I do here this summer will guide my Ph.D. work, which begins this fall.


John said...

I like your blog, it’s always fun to come back and check what you have to tell us today.

Pain said...

We have a St. Christopher in our car?...


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