Crash course in Bengali familial relationships

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My Religion

What’s my religion? First I’ll need to provide some background.

My father was raised Orthodox Jewish. In college he rebelled and converted to Christianity. He chose a particular blend of Jewish-Christian called Messianic. My mother is Jewish by heritage but she was raised by Christian parents. My parents met for the brief moment in time when their religious beliefs overlapped. They had three kids and meanwhile the marriage was going sour (to put it lightly). They divorced and several years later my Mom decided to abandon Christianity and follow a very liberal version of Judaism called Reconstructionism. My Dad continued with evangelical Christianity (that means tries to convince everyone to agree with him).

I tried being Christian: said the prayer where you accept Jesus Christ as your savior. I was baptized. But it wasn’t working for me. I tried Hebrew school but I wasn’t motivated and couldn’t concentrate. Neither of my parents tried very hard to push me. I was never bar mitzvahed.

I became obsessed with reggae music in high school – particularly Bob Marley. I learned about Rastafarianism. I grew my hair into dreadlocks and traveled to Jamaica. I became a vegetarian. I tried to live a more natural life. But I couldn’t pray to Haile Selassie.

In college I was terrified of death. My mom gave me a book on Buddhism. I liked their ideas about karma and suffering. I liked their approach toward death and rebirth. But I couldn’t find solace in reciting mantras.

Even if I wanted to I don’t think I could pick a religion. I’d have to draw a separation between myself and my mom or my dad or my relatives. So I went and married a Hindu. We had a priest and a rabbi co-officiate at our wedding. We picked and chose customs from both religions and attached our own meanings as necessary. Among our 400 guests we had Jews, Christians, Muslims, and Hindus. Now that we’re married we celebrate Passover, Chanukah, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sarswati Puja, Diwali, Durga Puja, Eid, Ramadan, Christmas and Thanksgiving.

If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? If I don’t tell you my religion does it mean I don’t have one? Do I have to say the word “Jesus” or “G-d” or “Buddha” or “Allah” to mean the same thing? Isn’t language a man-made construct that artificially limits a meaning to make it more digestible? Does the word “love” fully encompass its infinite variations? If I don’t say the word “love” does it mean I don’t love you? If I can’t put it into words does it mean I don’t feel it? Does it make it less real?

I don’t need a religious text to tell me it feels right to be good to other people. I don’t need a person in a robe to tell me when I’ve done something wrong. I don’t need to choose sides when people kill each other because they use different words to describe the indescribable.

No one wants to make the wrong choice especially if it means burning in a fiery pit for eternity. If you still want to know which religion I am: it’s the right one.

Follow up – What’s in a label? Snowsuits, globalization, and my slight inferiority complex

I’d like to think that I am a moral human-being. I know that sounds simple-minded and I’m very very very far from perfect, but I try at least to be an ethical consumer. I recycle, I support local businesses and buy cage-free eggs. So it is with mixed feelings that I write this follow-up post regarding the snow pants I bought for our northern California trip at the end of last year.

Here is one photo J took from our trip:

Tahoe
Just one month before he shot this, this other photo was published on the Reuters site:

Garment Fire What is the connection between these drastically different photos you ask? In the top photo you have a snowboarder quietly enjoying the serene atmosphere of the mountain, and below you have crowds of angry women screaming. These women are protesting the dangerous and unfair conditions inside many Bangladesh garment factories — which produce snow pants like the ones worn by the person pictured above. And now, with China stepping down (due to higher-pay demands by Chinese workers) as the world’s leader in garment manufacturing, many big businesses are going to Bangladesh, where workers are the least paid in the world.

Let me backtrack . . . After three days of snowboarding in approximately 10 degrees Fahrenheit in the mountains of Lake Tahoe, I can now confidently say that regardless of previous doubts, Bangladeshi hands make some kick-ass snow pants. As a novice snowboarder, I fell on my paacha plenty of times but the pants created a solid barrier against the cold snow and I stayed warm and dry the entire time. The ridiculously cheap $25 Climate Control snow pants I bought from Modell’s served me so well that I didn’t even need to take out the $180 North Face ones from my suitcase.

But I feel sick to my stomach as I write this because, folks, $180 is the amount of money the seamstress in Bangladesh who sewed those pants makes in about six months. It is money that she uses for her bare necessities and sends back to her family in the even more rural and poor parts outside of Dhaka. And I used a part of my disposable income to buy one pair of snow pants with that same amount of money. So you’ll have to excuse me that instead of being content with the bargain I scored, I am experiencing a lump in my throat and major ABCD guilt. It is a guilt that comes from seeing people from your country of origin struggle, and later experiencing first-world comforts at their expense.

I read about the 111 garment workers (mostly women) who died in the fire at the Tazreen factory in November and was horrified to read about their unsafe conditions and what their families had to experience.

This part in the New York Times article really spoke to me:

In the end, analysts said, the conflagration was a tragic byproduct of an industry in which global brands and retailers, encouraged by hundreds of millions of consumers around the world, are still primarily motivated by the bottom line. “We as consumers like to be able to buy ever-greater quantities of ever-cheaper goods, every year,” said Richard M. Locke, deputy dean of the M.I.T. Sloan School of Management. “Somebody is bearing the cost of it, and we don’t want to know about it. The people bearing the cost were in this fire.”

I have to disagree with you Mr. Locke, I do want to know about it. If cheaper priced clothing for me means paying such a huge human price, then I want no part of it. I don’t mind paying the extra money, but I need and want to know that the money is going to the workers at these factories and not just fattening the wallets of some exec at Walmart, Sears, Gap or H&M. I know that worker abuse happens all over the world, but with this story I felt a connection because the factory was just a few miles from where J and I went with my family last winter in our trip to Bangladesh.

Nowadays, Western consumers are becoming more and more aware of aligning their money with their ethics, a la local tomatoes, free-range chicken, grass-fed beef, etc. It is time that we become aware of where our clothing comes from and how the workers are treated. Just like the food industry has labels for free-range, local and organic products maybe the apparel industry can do the same. Some sort of seal of approval that lets the consumer know that the higher price they are paying on an outfit is going towards better safety standards and wages for the person at the bottom of the chain who stitches a hood on a jacket in 90 seconds. Interestingly enough, J did a quick Google search for “cruelty-free clothing” and it brought up results relating to animals and not to humans. He thinks this is a new concept for most people.

Earlier tonight I returned my unworn snow pants to the store and got my poisha back. I plan on putting that money towards something good . . maybe I’ll  donate it to some international labor rights organization. If you know of any such organizations, please include the name of the organization in a comment below. 

Related sources:

Infographic of Garment Industry in Bangladesh
New York Times: Bangladesh Fire Exposes Safety Gap in Supply Chain
Financial Times: The Lesson of the Bangladesh Fire is a Wake Up Call on Prices
Process Flow Chart of Garments
Clean Clothes Campaign
Sign this Petition!

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What’s in a label? Snowsuits, globalization, and my slight inferiority complex

“Made in Bangladesh”. That’s what was stitched onto the back of a $25 adult snowsuit I bought last week at Modell’s. I buy clothes made in Bangladesh all the time – seems like half the clothes at H&M are made from the mothaland. But this time (snowpants made in Bangladesh?) the label made me (I’m embarrassed to say this) not trust it.

snowsuitI mean, what do people in Bangladesh know about cold weather? And even less, snow?  The country lies on the freakin’ equator. When the weather would drop to 50F in Dhaka and Kolkata, my mashis and pishis would say, “Amar sheeth korey” and wrap on a shawl. When in Bangladesh last December, I noticed people riding on motorcycles in earmuffs, large woolen shawls, scarves, heavy-knit sweaters and winter hats even though the Fahrenheit was in the mid-50’s.

Decisions decisions. On one hand the suit might be cheap crap, but on the other hand, if it keeps me warm and dry, it is a steal for $25. The tag had a picture of skiers on it, but no waterproof guarantee. I bought the snowsuit even though I was suspicious. We were planning for a snowboarding trip in Lake Tahoe and I needed warm and waterproof clothes.

But then a few nights ago I started thinking,

“What if I am stuck on top of a snowy mountain with no stores nearby (or highly-overpriced ones for tourists) and these Bangladesh-made snowpants suck?”

“What if they end up not being waterproof and I get hypothermia?”

So in the last minute I caved and walked into the overpriced, but well-reputed North Face Store and asked the sales lady to point me to the snowboarding pants. She brought me over a few styles and I tried them all on in the fitting room. These $180 snow pants felt just as warm and were equally as unattractive and made my paacha look as huge as the $25 ones. But the one difference was that the tags said, “Waterproof, Durable and Breathable 100% guaranteed.” Oh, and it had the North Face label, which I have to say, after owning a few of their other products, I trust completely. Again, out of curiosity I checked the manufacturing label . . . and again, it said “Made in Bangladesh.” But this time I did not feel suspicion, I felt – proud. Globalization can make the world feel so small. I always associated “Made in Bangladesh” labels with cheaper, and cheap-quality clothes made of thin cotton and sold at Walmart, Old Navy, Marshalls, H&M, and stores like that. Clothing that you wear for fashion, not function. But to see clothes made in Bangladesh, and especially winter clothes, sold at a nice sporting goods store whose mission statement is “Never Stop Exploring” made me realize how much the garment industry in Bangladesh has come. Yes, I know about the abuse and political corruption that occurs around the factories. But the truth is, garment factories are not all sweat shops like the American news media sometimes paint them to be. They provide thousands and thousands of people with jobs. Yes, some of them are children. But if it weren’t for these jobs, many of these kids would be begging on the streets. Its not like they are working at these factories instead of going to school. School is not even an option for them. Many Americans don’t realize that not every country has free and compulsory education. So the garment factories provide a chance for upward mobility for workers and their families.

Back in the North Face store, as I stared back and forth to the “Made in Bangladesh” label, juxtaposed against the $180 price tag I thought about all of this. My hope is that with Bangladesh-made clothing becoming more expensive, the workers in those factories are receiving at least some of the added profit and not just the corporations that do business with them.

I couldn’t give up the waterproof guarantee so I handed the nice sales lady my credit card and left the North Face store $180 poorer. When I hit the slopes in Lake Tahoe, California today, I’ll have to see for myself which “Made in Bangladesh” snowpant is better, the $25 Climate Control brand or the $180 North Face brand. Follow-up post will be coming soon.

 

 

 

What’s the point of Durga Puja?

This morning as my mom was getting dressed to go to Durga Puja I overheard her apologetically say to her friend, “I wore this sari to my niece’s wedding.” Her friend, who was also getting dressed, consoled her by saying, “It’s a beautiful sari, what does it matter that you already wore it once?”

My mother’s sentiment (of feeling like something is missing without a new outfit for the holiday) pretty much sums up what Durga Puja has turned into in my community. Going through the yearly motions, people have lost sight of what this holiday is about.

For those who are unfamiliar, Durga Puja is a Hindu celebration of goodness over evil, along with a commemoration of the autumn harvest. Many regions in India, particularly Bengal, celebrate it.

Growing up as a Bengali kid in the States, I always struggled with what Durga Puja meant to me. It felt like a yearly fashion show meets class reunion. Mashis decked out in new saris fawn over you in the new salwaar you received as a puja gift and talk about how big you got. If you are a student they ask you, “how is school?” If you are in your 20’s, “have you met someone yet?” or “where are you working?” Everyone is carefully stacked up against the invisible measuring stick.

In the rented school cafeteria-slash-gymnasium we meet new members of the community, whether they are newborns or a peer’s serious boyfriend or girlfriend and remember those who have passed. There is always kichoori and mishti for the grown-ups and pizza and brownies for the kids. Lots of conversations are floating in the air. In the meantime, the small pandal of Ma Durga, imported from India, is in the background and a religious few throw flowers at her feet and join their palms in a Namaste. To be honest, it feels like any other social event. I always wanted the holiday to be more meaningful to me and was disappointed at the elders in my community for missing the point – the spiritual part.

On the other side of the globe in Kolkata Durga Puja has become something like Brazil’s Carnival meets America’s Christmas. For one week, Kolkata turns into New York City – meaning it doesn’t sleep. It has a different significance to different people.

For artists and community organizations, it is a time for them to collaborate and showcase their talents and creativity and generate income through the creation of pandals. A pandal is basically a large, life-size recreation of the image of the goddess Durga slaying the demon Mahishasura. You know those plastic Jesus Nativity scenes they sell at Walmart that people place on their lawns? I guess its sort of like that, but not mass-produced or sellable. Last time I visited Kolkata during Durga Puja in 2004, I saw dozens of varieties of puja pandals, some traditionally made out of clay, cloth, paint and bamboo, and others created with out-of-the-ordinary materials, like thousands of homeopathic bottles. Some theme pandals make a socio-political message. One I saw had Mahishasura replaced with bin Laden and instead of Durga holding the traditional weapons, she held AK-47s.

Walking around day and night visiting the various elaborate structures is called pandal hopping. Durga Puja is also a time where parents in India relax the rules on their children, curfews are lifted and young people like to hang out with their friends and check out members of the opposite sex. Many teenage romances begin during Durga Puja.

On the business side, it has become a time that retailers depend on (just like Christmas) because businesses have pushed people to believe that it’s a time to wear new clothes and buy friends, relatives and house-help new clothes. Indian Magazines are extra thick and feature the new styles and carry the excitement of Vogue’s Fall Fashion issue. What this has to do with good over evil or spirituality I’m not sure, but traditions in India are dutifully followed and rarely changed or even questioned. Besides, it seems like every organized religion has their one commercialized holiday — Christians have Christmas, Jews have Hanukah and Muslims have Eid. So why should Hindus be any different?

So I started celebrating my own way. In my own head. Every year I mark Durga Puja in my head as a time for looking inward and asking myself questions.  Autumn to me is a time of change and reflection. As my ex-hippie-dippy-holistic-healing roommate taught me, “Spring is a time of growing outward” — think of all the flowers and vegetables like tomatoes and leafy kale that reach for the sun. It is a time to meet new people and try new things to expand your horizons. On the other end, “Fall is a time to look inward” – think of potatoes and beets and other root vegetables that dig deep into the soil. Think about the leaves that change color and die. It is a time to be introspective about your existing relationships with people and things.

I believe that no person is entirely evil or entirely good, but rather a mix-up of both. In reality, to literally celebrate the triumph of good over evil is naïve. To me, it’s the same as rooting for a comic book hero or your home sports team (the good guys) as they beat an opposing team (the bad guys). “Good” is relative. What we should do instead, is examine ourselves. I am human. I am both good and evil.

So this year to commemorate Durga Puja, instead of celebrating goodness over evil I am going to think about “what good deeds can I do” and “what are some ways people have been hurt by my actions and what can I do to change them?” and just like the trees get rid of the dead leaves to make room for new buds, “what are some things I can let go of?” I’ll answer those questions in upcoming posts.

In the meantime, what about you? What actions will you take today to add more “good” into the universe?

The Setup

Before I could propose to [D] I’d have to get her mother’s permission and blessing. She made it clear to me this was a required part of the process and I was happy to oblige. My brother-in-law had done the same with my Dad; although my father felt a bit awkward when he was given a bouquet of flowers, he was appreciative of the gesture. It was definitely a good precedent for future relations.

Both our situations were slightly atypical since there was only one parent to meet with. For my brother-in-law it was because my parents were divorced and he knew my mom had no need for such formalities. For me it’s because my girlfriend’s father had passed away several years prior.

Traditionally, I guess the father is supposed to grill the potential suitor and make sure he is deserving while the mother waits for her cue to tear up and gush over her future son-in-law. At least that’s what I feel like we’ve been told in movies and TV shows. In situations where there’s only one parent I suppose that person has to play both roles.

When her mother and I set up the evening to meet (surreptitiously by email so [D] wouldn’t find out) I’m sure she knew what was coming. I contemplated taking a swig of whiskey in the parking lot of her building complex but I didn’t want to risk smelling like alcohol. Plus, it seemed important that I should be able to do this sober.

Her mother welcomed me into the house. I gave her flowers which she promptly put in a vase, and she offered me some vegetarian lasagna that she had picked up from the supermarket on her way home from work. The sentiment wasn’t lost on me but I couldn’t feign an appetite. She offered me some tea and we sat on opposite ends of the couch facing each other.

I told her that I loved her daughter and would like her blessing and permission to marry her. She smiled and became quiet. She got a far away look for a few moments and then returned to our conversation. I didn’t see joy or tears on her face – just quiet contemplation.

She asked me what it is that I like about her daughter and how I know that she is the one. These were fair questions, I thought, and although I appreciated the opportunity to talk about our relationship I wasn’t expecting such a calm, measured reaction. I was anticipating more of a TV-crew-at-your-door-you-just-won-a-car-or-the-publishers-clearinghouse-sweepstakes type reaction. You know – lots of screaming, crying, hugging, jumping up and down. Instead we were sitting calmly and talking on the couch.

If her husband was still here I suppose he could have been the reserved, skeptical one while her mother could afford to lose herself in the moment. Instead she had to imagine how her husband might have reacted and channel a bit of that temperament.

I answered her questions – pretty well for the most part – and then she went right into discussing wedding plans.

“We’ll have to have a wedding here in the States … and then another one in India …” her voice trailed off as she got that look again. Did I miss the part where she said, “Yes, you have my permission and my blessing”? We’re already into the logistics? And why was an India wedding such a given?

I had much to learn over the next two years. The journey from engagement to marriage included an ashirbad, a civil ceremony, multiple bridal showers, a 400 person wedding in the States, and multiple receptions in Bangladesh and India before we were finally and completely married almost exactly two years after this meeting.

Maybe that’s why her mother was so contemplative – she knew better than I did what was coming next.

How likely is it for American Hindus to marry one of their own? (And what happens to people who try to marry “out”)

“Ninety-four percent of married Hindus are married to other Hindus” according to a recent statistic from the Pew Research Center. This contrasts with personal experience with my Hindu-American friends, many of whom have married men and women from other faiths. We’ve married Muslims, Christians, Jews, etc. So I was surprised when I discovered that When Latke Met Ladki only represents 6% of married Hindus in America. This is also unexpected juxtaposed with the fact that Hinduism is religiously inclusive, and over 90% of the Hindus surveyed said “many religions can lead to eternal life and that there is more than one way to interpret the teachings of their religion.” I would assume that this inclusiveness would mean that Hindus would be open to marrying people outside their religion. But no.

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It makes sense that I thought the numbers of intermarriages amongst Hindus would be higher because generally, people choose to surround themselves with people like themselves. I’m friends with people who share the same values, likes and dislikes as me. In statistical terms, me and my friends are outliers. When making conclusions, most scientists throw out the outliers. (Except people like Malcolm Gladwell who not only hold on to the outliers, but study them and try to find patterns in them.)

Finding the perfect Hindu priest

It is always eye-opening to read statistical reports that show where you fall in the full spectrum. So yeah, I guess I’m not as normal as I thought. While reading the Pew study, I reflected back to 15 months ago when we were in full wedding planning mode and I started an email exchange with a Hindu priest in New Jersey.

Dear Mr. Ganguly,

I look forward to meeting you next week.  I just wanted to send out an email to share our ideas for integrating Hindu and Jewish traditions for our wedding. I even color-coded it or you. I made the Hindu elements red (to represent the fire god Agni, pretty clever right?) and the Jewish parts blue (the color of the Israeli flag). Secular elements are black.

1. Bor Boron/Baraat - at entrance of ceremony location
2. Bride & Groom’s Processional to wedding canopy
3. Introductions by Rabbi & Hindu priest
4. Mala Badal - exchange of garlands
5. Shehekiyanu - prayer of gratitude
6. Kanya Sampradan (Hand-Over)
7. Granthi Bandhan (Tie the Knot)
8. Sheva Baruchot – 7 blessings
9. Shaath Paak - 7 steps
10. Sindoor Daan
11. Exchange of rings
12. Declaration of Marriage/Breaking of Glass

Please let me know if this works for you. We are looking forward to meeting you.

Best wishes!

About a week and a half later, he figuratively told me to eff off. In email. We never even got to meet. Whatevs, he was my backup officiant anyway.

Is it all even worth it?

Even though it was only about a year ago, wedding planning seems like such a distant memory. I’ve especially tried to forget the stressful parts, like this. Now it makes sense why there is a such a small fraction of mixed Hindu marriages. Because folks, planning an interfaith wedding, and more importantly an interfaith marriage and household, is a giant pain in the paacha (that’s ass, in Bengali in case you were wondering). But if you love your ladka, its totally worth it . . . so read on. It requires lots and lots of conversations between you and your boo, and your respective families. So if you want to make it work, you gotta make sure everyone is clear about the important things and on the same page.

You have to ask yourselves . . .

  1. Are you going to convert? Who?
  2. Are you going to have children?
  3. What religious tradition will you raise them in (if any?)

(Everything else is just details. Handle the most important things first.)


The competitive market of Hindu priests

 

Leading up to our interfaith wedding last year, our original Hindu priest had to have heart surgery. It was a month before our wedding. I was really bummed because not only did he become a friend of our family, but he shared our vision of having one inclusive interfaith ceremony blending both Hindu and Jewish traditions, not two separate ones. We wanted to publicly prove to everyone that two people from two different religious backgrounds can live harmoniously in the same house, and we would do that by having two religious officiants orchestrate our marriage together in one ceremony. Why have two ceremonies if we are not going to be living in two separate houses? To me, your wedding ceremony is a microcosm of your future home. And this Hindu priest met with us and the Jewish rabbi at a centrally-located Panera Bread and everyone hugged as we left behind sandwich remains in our corner booth.

Any bride could tell you that finding an officiant they connect with is a challenge. But if you belong to one of the major religions like Christianity, than at least you have options. Even then, wedding planning sites like The Knot tell you to give yourself a year to book the most “choice” officiants. People who belong to minority religions, like Hinduism, just have a fraction of choices when it comes to officiants. You may think I have many choices living in a metropolitan city in the northeast region of the States, but pair that with the fact that these regions also have a large population of desis, and summer is a popular time to get married, and all of a sudden you are competing with the Boses and Choudhurys for the same priest. The supply doesn’t meet the demand.

Anyways, after learning about the Hindu priest’s heart condition my mom and I went on a frantic search for an understudy and a family friend connected us to this other priest who later condemned what we were doing.

 

“Integration of two different religious rituals is totally absurd, unacceptable and unethical”

 

He wrote in an email,

“Your idea is that the Hindu and Jewish rituals will be done simultaneously in other words intermingled at the same time. That way the whole process of wedding will be confused. When we meet, we would discuss the impracticalities. The best thing I would suggest as I have done in the past that either the Jewish wedding is done first and then the Hindu wedding or vice-versa. It turns out very easy for both the families.  Integration of two different religious rituals is totally absurd, unacceptable and unethical. We do not celebrate X-Mas in a Temple nor do we do Satyanarayan Puja in a Church. However, it is your wedding and you are at liberty to choreograph in your own way.  Religion is a personal choice.”  


Our collective prayers get answered

 

We let our rabbi know about the health of his co-officiant and he wrote that he would pray for him every day. Something magical must have happened because our original Hindu priest (the one we connected with) healed wonderfully from an open-heart surgery and was able to officiate our wedding after all. We couldn’t have asked for a smoother integrated wedding ceremony. Our guests, which included people of all different faiths, commented on how seamlessly our officiants worked together. It just felt very normal and natural.

 

As for how my side of the family felt about me marrying outside my religion, they were very supportive. That part does mirror another statistic from the Pew study that states, among Asian-American Hindus 34% say they are very comfortable with a child marrying outside of their faith.

 

After a year of marriage, I realize that even though our union may only represent a small fraction of a fraction, in many ways we are just like other couples. We share the joys and connect with family and friends during holidays, we sit together and support each other when a family member passes away, we sing together (mostly off-key), we fast, we prepare special foods (how about egg curry for Passover?), we light candles on special occasions, we can dance bhangra, the horah and the Cha Cha slide at weddings, and we fight about whose turn it is to take the dog for a walk. As far as I’m concerned, we’re as American as coconut kugel pie.

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