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Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Why I do not identify with the word "gori"

"Yeh gori kahaan se mila yaar?"

With a wink and a nudge, this was the first time I'd heard the word 'gori' actually spoken out loud. I'd heard it in songs referring to the color of a pretty Indian girl's cheeks, movie dialogues talking about the village belle, but this time it referred to me, and it wasn't complimentary.

From the tone of voice and the body language, the speaker saw me as his friend's latest fling. I was not his fling at all; simply a platonic friend. But the implication was evident, and I shot him a dirty look while my friend explained that I actually knew Hindi. He didn't say another word to me the entire evening.

So what does gori mean, anyway? Shabdkosh.com says it is an adjective meaning "fair." Even Urban Dictionary describes it as "a word used by Indians to describe white girls...not particularly offensive." And we've all heard it in songs like "Yeh kali kali ankhen, yeh gori gori gaal" to describe a woman's beauty. The male equivalent, gora, I've mostly only heard in relation to white men, not to a fair-skinned South Asian man.

So the denotation isn't too bad. But the connotation can vary. When it's used in a purely South Asian context, to describe a South Asian, it is generally a very positive term, albeit because of the shadeism present in South Asian culture, which is a separate issue. However, from my experiences in India, when the subject of discussion was a white woman, I never heard it used with a positive connotation. Sometimes it would be neutral, albeit objectifying - "Yeah, the gori's coming with us." Sometimes patronizing - "It's so adorable to hear a gori speak Hindi." And certainly negative - "This club is full of goris, you'll definitely get laid tonight." Gora also carries a similar neutral to negative connotation, but without the sexual promiscuity connotation of gori (which merits its own post, but I won't be the one to write it!).

And then there's the reaction of the dadi (grandmother) in this video:


Having experienced all these not-so-glowing connotations of the word when it refers to people who look like me, it is just not a term that I use to refer to myself. It's not something I think I personally can "reclaim" from the onslaught of stereotypes that come along with the term as it refers to a non-South Asian woman. And it also follows that it makes me uncomfortable when I'm referred to as gori as well, by people of South Asian descent or not. It gives me a feeling that I am not being taken seriously by the person referring to me as such, that because of my inherent 'gori-ness,' there is no way I can or should be respected as a person separate from my skin tone and all the baggage that goes along with it. Gori is a term that trivializes me as a woman with ties to an Indian family and community. It gives off wrong impressions to people about who I am. If I was Indian, it would be a different story, but I'm not, and it isn't.

Plus, defining myself via my ethnicity, particularly through the lens of someone else's ethnicity, is not very appealing to me at all. I don't believe in colorblindness and a post-racial society does not exist, but at the same time I don't need to perpetuate divides by labeling myself in ethnic terms. It Otherizes me with white people, assuming to remove privilege that is not actually removed. For South Asians, it serves to underscore my privilege as well as imply everything else about 'gori-ness' - sexual availability, lack of culture, lack of respect for elders, egalitarian to the point of embarrassment, etc. And for everyone else, it signifies nothing anyway. What am I trying to prove, and to whom?

So what should I be referred to as, then? I don't mind referring to myself as a white woman in contexts where race is important. American - sure, why not? It's the term de mode for a United States citizen, which I am. I've used the terms non-Indian and non-Bengali in particular contexts as well. I have certainly taken on some aspects of Bengali culture but I don't consider myself Bengali or Bengali-American; my future kids will be, but I'm not. Does a Punjabi who marries a Bengali take on an entirely new ethnic identity? If not, why should I?

I guess if you want to refer to me as anything, 'that big nerd who writes about culture' is pretty apropos. 

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The eternal quest for the perfectly poofy roti

This post is for Ria of Me and India, as reassurance that you don't have to have the absolutely perfect cooking implements in order to make rotis! Here, I am using a plastic cutting board in place of a marble chakla and a nonstick pan instead of a tawa. Basically you just need a small rolling pin, a flat surface, a nonstick pan of some sort, and a wire rack. You can do wonders with that. 

I'll skip the dough-making part in pictures. You need to make a springy dough that doesn't stick (too much) to your hands when it's all mixed in. Some people add salt to their rotis. I usually forget. I don't make them with oil either - for me, it's just flour (here I am using regular whole wheat flour from any grocery) and water. 

Take a ball of dough about the size of a small lime and roll it in your hands until it becomes round. Then squish it in a little bit of flour. The rounder the squished ball, the rounder the roti will be. Dip the other side in flour too, then place on your rolling surface. 

Don't kill the dough. Roll it gently. You may find it 'spins' underneath your rolling pin; that's good. Try to get it an even thickness. Evenness is more important than thinness. My mother-in-law's rotis are thicker than mine and much tastier. 

Now it's flat.

Pick up and immediately place onto your preheated tawa or nonstick pan. If you have an electric stove, set it at about 7 or 8. You'll know if it's too high. Make sure you also have a second burner turned on and preheated to about 8 or 9. Put your roti rack over it so you remember it's on and don't burn yourself.

Let this sit until a bubble or two starts forming. This will be maybe 10-15 seconds. Then flip it over and let the other side cook for about 15-20 seconds. Not too long. You can use a spatula to flip the roti or use your hands. I always use my hands. Don't burn your wrists on the side of the pan though, like I often do.

 The bubble means it's ready to flip over. 

Once both sides are cooked, take the roti off the pan and place onto the wire rack. Mine has a handle on it, so I'm holding the rack in one hand here. DO NOT set the rack directly onto the burner with the roti on it. I find about 1 cm off the burner is the best place for me to hold it in order to get the heat to puff it.
 A handheld rack also allows you to move the roti to the 'hotspots' on the burner so that it puffs evenly.

Your roti should puff within a second.
 FWOOM

Once it puffs, carefully take it with your hand and flip it to the other side, and puff the other side.
Again, the rack is NOT TOUCHING the burner. You can do that if you like eating burnt rotis. 

Take the roti off the rack, put into your casserole dish, and start on the next one.

If it doesn't puff, don't despair. Just put it in the casserole and start on the next one. It's still edible. Practice makes perfect though, so obviously the only way to get good at this is to make and eat a lot of rotis. Tasty practice. :)

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Hand-Pulled Rickshaws of Kolkata


"You can find every kind of transportation in Kolkata," he said to me proudly, as if I had the Richard Scarry book Cars and Trucks and Things that Go in front of me and was checking off each vehicle inside. If I had, I would have had to make notes in the margins of the ones that Richard Scarry did not include.

Rickety trams. Trains departing Howrah Station. The metro slinking underground; the autorickshaws plying their routes. Ambassador taxis and Maruti 800s and the extremely occasional Mercedes. Three-wheeled cycle rickshaws, bullock carts, and men carrying dozens of chickens suspended upside down on either side of the seat of their bicycles.

And the one you will not find in any other metro area in India, the hand-pulled rickshaw, saved from extinction in this city that clings to its past just as the rickshaw pullers clung to their age-old profession in the face of their possible ban. Whether a ban has actually been put in place I do not know, nor does it matter, since they still fill the Kolkata roads regardless.

I saw many jarring things on my first trip to Kolkata. Having lived in Delhi for nearly a year, the poverty no longer moved me, but the hammer and sickle painted on the side of buildings did. The urgent monsoon sky did. And these men, thin, gaunt, darkened by the sun, often barefoot, certainly did.

Anirban Saha has done a series of photographic sessions of these rickshaw-pullers. He portrays them in black and white, in sharp focus against the blurry sped-up background of modern Kolkata. The images are poignant, but viewing them brings back the same feelings of uneasiness at class distinction that I had when I first encountered them. Intellectually, I understand their importance to the day-to-day life in the city. I understand that they remain in Kolkata by choice and not entirely by compulsion. But for someone who grew up in an egalitarian society, watching one man be beast of burden for another is uncomfortable. Children riding to school does not affect me in the same way as the fat man in a business suit, riding in broad daylight when he could easily walk. And I know I could never sit in one.

Perhaps this is what makes the most uneasy about the entire situation. It is a world I encountered, but not my world. As a foreigner, I cannot enter into that sphere. Availing myself of a ride is an image that smacks of colonialism and flies in the face of my generally-egalitarian nature. And if it were I who were taking the photos, instead of the talented Mr. Saha, it would be nothing more than poverty porn. This has little to do with skin color. He, as a lifelong resident of Kolkata, has interacted with this world from his childhood, perhaps even rode to school with a classmate or two in such a rickshaw. His eyes and his camera lens see as perfect sense what I see as cognitive dissonance. And his photos focus on the task at hand, on how the past and present coexist, not objectifying the bare feet or the wiry bodies. He is able to photograph these men and their occupation in a way a disturbed or impartial foreign eye cannot.

I encourage you to go take a look at his photos and give your own impressions.


Saturday, November 17, 2012

Asymmetrical online relationships as a deterrent to trust

I got a friend request from someone today who is a friend of four other people on my Facebook friends list. This person has a fake name and a profile picture of a flower.

I had never interacted with this person, not even on a friend's wall, nor did they send a message to me saying why they wanted to add me as a friend. So they received the following reply:

I don't accept unsolicited friend requests without some sort of engagement on a friend's wall or at least some way my being able to know more and find out about you. 
I respect your need for privacy and understand that you may need to keep a false name and non-identifying profile picture. But these things also do not allow for communication between people who do not know each other.  
If your need for privacy is so important, it is probably better that you not send friend requests to unknown persons. For all you know, I could be a nosy auntie who would share information about you to your parents. Likewise, you could be the same for me. I have no way of knowing that. So I am afraid I cannot accept your request. 

I am certainly not against meeting new people online. In fact, I have accepted no fewer than three friend requests this month from people who I have had replied to in friends' comment threads and seemed like intelligent people. I have met people who have given me fresh perspectives to think about and who I have helped out in some way. 

But in order to have this, some sort of transparency is necessary. I do not want to communicate with people who live behind a shadow. You already have lost 90% of communication simply by virtue of the majority of Internet communication's being text-based. There's no body language, no microexpressions, no tone of voice, and emoticons and /s tags barely make up for what gets lost. So hiding behind false names and photos, and responding to queries of "Tell me about yourself" with "What do you want to know?" keeps the obscurity at almost 100%. 

As I mentioned, I understand the need for privacy. I myself have resorted to 'security through obscurity' from time to time, and no, I don't want my entire life published on the Internet. It's not all or nothing. But at the same time, when I post my own name, face, and opinions with a particular level of openness, it seems one-sided to me when others do not offer a similar level in return. A certain amount of honesty and yes, even vulnerability, leads to trust - as long as it is offered and received mutually. There are plenty of people I have met online who I would happily meet up with in real life with because we have built up trust between us. This is the good thing about the Internet - the world is so much smaller and friends can be found anywhere! 

But at the same time, we have a responsibility to keep ourselves safe and to be wary of lopsided communication. We all know to sidestep the nosy lady at parties who keeps asking us question after question about our personal life (ostensibly to gossip about it to others later) but answers questions about her children with "oh, they are fine" or her job with a simple "good" before asking you the next personal question. There are people who do this online too.  Conversely, the work friend at the water cooler who tells you all about her drunken escapades and who she went home with and exactly what she did doesn't remain a "friend" for long. Both of these people exist in the internet as well, often (but not always) under the guise of anonymity. This way, they can gather their information or overshare all their details with no consequence to themselves or their 'offline' reputation. And if their 'online' reputation is tarnished, they can just close down that email or Facebook account, open a new one, and continue where they left off. It's a win-win situation for them, regardless of any difficulty it causes those they encounter. It's parasitic, not symbiotic.

What you give, you should be receiving. If the relationship is unbalanced, it is not a healthy online relationship, just as it would not be a healthy relationship in real life. 

Thursday, November 15, 2012

New York Times India Ink on Bengal, and my insignificant thoughts

The New York Times India Ink blog highlighted Bengal from both sides of the border this week in a duet of well-written articles.

Arnab Ray, otherwise known as Greatbong, gave us a look back at cross-border unity and how the two Bengals have drifted further apart, in his characteristic nostalgic style.

Naeem Mohaiemen paints a picture of the struggle to cross the divide, which despite best intentions, is rewarded with isolation as cultural collaboration seems to threaten the political powers that be.

I had written my impressions here in brief, until I had a few discussions and realized how little I actually know about the situation.

Here's what I do know.

I have been learning Bengali for five years. I have teachers and mentors from both India and Bangladesh. Without their unique perspective, I would not know anything close to what I know now. You cannot learn a language if you separate it from its culture. I had previously only learned from Indian Bengali sources but I was missing something very significant. Only in the last year did I really learn anything about Bangladesh, and since then, my skill level has gone from novice to intermediate. I just feel like I have a fuller picture and I understand much more now that I am getting multiple perspectives.

I know people who have worked cross-border in film, radio, and new media, and yet they remain more influential in their country of origin. I suppose this is natural, but I still admire them for reaching out, particularly when governments don't make this easy.

If you are a student of Bengali, read the articles posted by these talented authors and gain a deeper understanding.

If you are a Bengali, read them and take away what you will; new perspectives or reinforcement of what you have always been saying.

If you are neither, still read and learn a little bit more about a part of the world you may not be familiar with.

I am once again inspired to read, to listen, and to understand. May you find something that inspires you in the same way.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Happy Diwali!

Happy Diwali! It snowed today for the first time this year. At least three inches of snow on the car this morning and the snow fell all day. It's not what you'd expect from Diwali but it is beautiful all the same.
 Here are the lights I put up today, against a backdrop of snow.

These are our 14 diyas. I have more clay ones, but they didn't fit on the plate, so I used tea lights. The two colorful ones were shaped like flowers; I got them from the Asian market. I want to find more of those! They are so pretty.

For dinner today, I made Palong Shaaker Ghonto, courtesy of Bong Mom's blog, without which I would be completely lost in life. I also made masoor dal the way A's old roommate taught me, and gajar ka halwa because, well, it's Diwali!

Tomorrow I will go to Lakshmi Puja at our local temple. Not sure what I'll cook tomorrow. Any ideas?

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Translation: Obak Bhalobasha by Warfaze

I am going to start posting some of my translations of Bengali songs here. First, because if they were already online, I wouldn't be translating them, and second, so that if you are able, you can correct my translation and make it even better.

I'll post transliterated Bengali here in the way I understand it best, and my translation.

And of course, because the songs are so beautiful, I will post them here too.


 (Sorry Bangladeshi readers, I can't find this song/video anywhere but YouTube. :\)

Lyrics and Translation:

অবাক ভালবাসা - ওয়ারফেজ
Obak Bhalobasha - Warfaze
Astonishing Love

shob aalo nibhe jak andhare
let all the light fade to darkness

sudhu jege thak oi durer tarara
so that the only ones awake are those faraway stars

shob shobdo theme jak nistobdhotay
let all the words trail off into utter silence

sudhu jege thak ei shagor amar pashe
so that the only thing I hear is this ocean by my side


shob bedona muche jak sthirotay
let all the pain be erased into stillness

hridoy bhore jak ostitter anonde
let the heart be filled with the bliss of existence

hridoy gobhire obak drishtite, thomke danriyecche mohakaal ekhane
the deepest part of the heart is surprised by a sudden vision of eternity


shubhro balir shoikote
on the white sand beach

elomelo batashe, guitar haate
in a random breeze, guitar in hand

nistobdhota chouchir
the silence is shattered

unmaad jhonkaare kaandi obak shukher kanna
in the mad ringing of a sudden flood of tears of happiness

jeno chuni heera panna
like precious jewels

shagorer buke, alpona enke diye jay
with which a sacred design had been drawn in the heart of the ocean

obak bhalobashay
by an astonishing love




shob aalo nibhe jak andhare
let all the light fade to darkness

sudhu jege thak oi durer tarara
so that the only ones awake are those faraway stars

shob shobdo theme jak nistobdhotay
let all the words trail off into utter silence

sudhu jege thak ei shagor amar pashe
so that the only thing I hear is this ocean by my side




shob koshto boye jak sukher jhor
may all troubles be carried off in a storm of bliss

hridoy bhore jak sahoj neel shopne
and the heart be filled with a simple azure dream

hridoy gobhire obak drishtite, thomke danriyecche mohakaal ekhane
the deepest part of the heart is surprised by a sudden vision of eternity


shubhro balir shoikote
on the white sand beach

elomelo batashe, guitar haate
in a random breeze, guitar in hand

nistobdhota chouchir
the silence is shattered

unmaad jhonkaare kaandi obak shukher kanna
in the mad ringing of a sudden flood of tears of happiness

jeno chuni heera panna
like precious jewels

shagorer buke, alpona enke diye jay
with which a sacred design had been drawn in the heart of the ocean

obak bhalobashay
by an astonishing love