Friday, October 07, 2005


An Encounter with the Subcontinent

I don't know as much as I would like about India. The only updates I've had to my basic, fallacy-filled high school and college instruction has been the articles on India in my faithfully read Economist and certain novels of V.S. Naipaul and Salmon Rushdie (and both writers may be problematic as presenters of Indian culture).

I mention this because of a recent blog exchange I enjoyed over at, a blog devoted to things subcontinent. It started when I posted a comment to an article about a very thin Indian man who painted himself to look like an emaciated ghost and hired himself out for events. I suggested that India's dietary rejection of beef removed "the major source" of protein from their diet, and that this represented a decision to "legislate asceticism." Whoops.

Actually, most of the responses from the obviously more knowledgeable Indian posters were judicious, restrained, informative and offered with goodwill. "The" major source, I was asked? Had I never had Chicken Marsala? And "legislate"? Moreover, whence comes this broad-brush assumption about asceticism, and the implied imputation that a vegetarian military could not be the equal of a meat-filled one?

I should've known better. Still, my interlocutors were probably gentler than Jewish bloggers might have been to a non-Jewish blogger questioning kosher practice. Negotiating these cross-cultural borders is a chancy thing. I may have lived in Japan for 17 years and made friends throughout East Asia, but as far as Indians are concerned, it's hardly enough for me to say, "Honest, I'm not dumb - I'm just dumb about you."

But I do at least have questions. How is the relatively recent Indian expatriate or diaspora culture faring in America, beyond its striking economic success? How are expatriate Indians viewed back in India? What reverse-osmotic influence, if any, are they having there? Why does Gujarat generate such a great percentage of Indian Americans (60% according to one sepiamutineer)? How does the caste system translate outside India, or even within it under the pressure of post-industrial society? (For example, how does a Brahmin employee manage reporting to his lower caste superior?) What are the rates of intermarriage and how is it viewed? And how are each of these questions answered differently for different Indian regions? If an Indian American marries an American Indian, what do you call their children?

I reserve for the future the question I also ask myself of Judaism, and of every civilization and tradition worth preserving. What vision do Hindu Americans have of an enduring American Hindu culture?

Christianity, with its universalist appeal, was well-placed to prosper in America. Of course it also helped that the country started out Christian, but universalism is an advantage in a free society where people are offered a lot to choose from. I think an American Judaism, without becoming evangelical, needs to find the confidence to assert its own universalist message, a message of ethical humanism based on a covenant, a set of mutual obligations, with G-d.

As for Hinduism, I suspect that in an America riven by competing ideologies, a culture that de-emphasizes ideology in favor of non-authoritarian moral guidance and life within a tradition will find an enduring place in a country where, over time (whether due to intermarriage, the secularization of parents or the lure of the new) people must periodically adopt or readopt their traditions.


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