Posted on April 28, 2013
A few months ago an Indian woman that I didn’t know asked to be my friend on Facebook. This was on my personal profile, not Amor y Sabor’s Facebook page. This happens a lot actually because of the blog and I usually accept because I consider all Facebook to be public anyway. So I accepted her friend request and she began a conversation with me. She asked if I was Indian, which I replied that I was not but married to one. She then asked if it was a “love marriage”. I had heard this term before but only on the periphery so I had to think a minute as to what she meant before I responded “yes”.
Love marriage is a term used in India to indicate a marriage formed because of love, versus the more traditional arranged marriage which is formed for a variety of reasons: economic, benefit, family ambitions, astrological compatibility and necessity. The term love marriage may seem strange, redundant and archaic to a Westerner because it is our assumption that all marriage is a result of love, or at least the fantasy of love. But this is not the case in India. Except for Mumbai and some of New Dehli where India has become Westernized, arranged marriages are the norm, they are the expected outcome. In fact, arranged marriages are such the norm that many Indians who migrate to the West still go back to India for an arranged marriage.
In Indian cultures, families sacrifice everything for their children, far greater than in Western culture. It is as if the parent’s purpose is only to ensure a good life for their offspring and nothing more. Traditional Indian culture, especially where my husband Karan is from, is very strict. There are clear definitions of good and bad, what you can and can’t do. The result is that most parents feel it is not only expected, but 100% necessary, that marriages are arranged and their offspring comply with their choice.
But times are changing and more and more couples are joining because of love, often with dangerous results. It is the dark underbelly of Indian culture which, although it celebrates love through its gods and goddesses, considers duty to be more important than life itself. It is called honor killings and it is a brutal response to a betrayal of the expected duty. This duty can be to a parent or a husband. Most common it is for choosing who you love.
In India, or at least in Karan’s part of India, women marry only once. Divorce is not allowed even if the husband is abusing them. Even a woman who is widowed is not allowed to remarry. This burden of marriage falls solely on the shoulders of women because the same rules do not apply to men. Men can remarry after their wife’s death without rebuke. They can even have multiple wives. It is an unfair double standard where a woman can not even be considered worthy of marriage if another man has touched her sexually, never mind have the right to leave an abusive relationship.
This double standard for women in India was brought to international attention after several brutal rapes of women in India. Even in the case of rape, the woman is considered tainted and not worthy of marriage. No other man will have her so it is common for the rape victims to be pressured to marry their attackers as this is their only option of marriage in India’s traditional culture.
It is hard for us in the Western World to understand this aspect of Indian culture which is so obviously unfair. I do not defend or agree with it but I have come to understand it. In traditional India, marriage is the goal of all women. Not being married is not an option. But in the midst of this traditional, even ancient culture, a new mindset is starting to seep in and more and more people are demanding change — change for a culture that rewards men and punishes the victims of rape and change to stop the honor killings.
Enter a group called the Love Commandos — funny name but important work.
I first became aware of them through a news article. They have received a fair amount of press for the good work they do. When a couple comes together for love, against the wishes of their parents, they can not publicly express their love, they can not be together and they need to marry in secret. This is because their families will do everything to prevent their union, from forcing them to marry someone else to beating up them or their loved one and worse. But even when they are finally married, the danger is not over. The anger over their defiance familial duty forces them into hiding as one or both of their families can hunt them down and kill them.
The Love Commandos provides a network of safe passages and safe houses to protect the lovers, much in the same way that the Underground Railroad provided safety to the slaves fleeing servitude in America’s past. It is a wonderful organization but until there is a cultural shift, many will still die as there is not enough resources to help them all.
Before Karan came to the Dominican Republic, he had garnered some attention in Chennai. A body building champion, he was a favorite at his local gym and appeared in several local television commercials. He caught the eye of one particular girl who stepped forward one day and expressed love for him. In Karan’s culture you do not date or engage in any kind of romantic contact before marriage. Instead to watch and think until you are ready and then you express your love. So Karan, only 18 at the time, thought about whether he could love this girl and after a few days decided that he could.
With a decision clear in his mind, he went to the girl’s father to ask for her hand. Even doing this was outside the norm because the correct protocol would have been to ask his parents first but Karan has always been a bit of a rebel. When he asked the father he was flatly denied. Why you might ask? After all, he was somewhat of a minor celebrity at the time. He was denied because he is Hindu and the girl’s family was Muslim. An interfaith marriage was out of the question.
Karan, who had been considering going to the Dominican Republic to work with a shipping company as an engineer, made up his mind to leave as soon as he was denied by the father. He did feel love for the girl even though he hadn’t known her long and he didn’t care she was Muslim. To Western eyes it is hard to see it as real love, instead of a crush, but for Indians, love comes quickly and is strong and dramatic. Karan knew he was blocked from being with the girl which made him so angry that he left the country that he loves because he felt that it stifled him.
In this context one can see that when this Indian woman on Facebook asked me if we had a love marriage, it was not a light question. When I answered yes, I could feel her envy. I do not know if she was even married but the envy was of freedom — freedom to choose, freedom to love.
Posted on April 7, 2013
The term “Indian English” is a real one. It refers to the adaption of English by Indians but I should have named this post “Karan’s English” because not only does Karan speak Indian English but he has adapted his own version of that. This makes for a comical conversation at times to say the least.
I look at a different pages that listed Indian English terms and selected the ones I hear Karan use. Here they are with their American equivalents:
Because Karan is still learning English overall, he uses the words from Indian English that he is familiar with and simplifies everything else. Plus, he doesn’t talk much anyway. Most verbs he uses are in the “ing” form and he eliminates plural form. Here are some examples of things is known to say:
- When the kids are misbehaving: Coming blood. or Broke the head. = punishment (of course Karan does not do either of these things literally)
- Wash the hand = wash your hands or put the glass = put on your glasses
- I appreciate you = thank you or that was thoughtful
- how to eating = the correct way to eat something
- go to place = put something back in its place
- nothing talking = do not say anything
There are so many more but it is hard for me to remember them all. Then Karan has is own phrases that he called “opposite talking”. He uses this with the kids to play with them. If you ask for a big piece of chicken he gives you the smallest one and says “big meaning small, small meaning big”. This becomes hilarious because the kids don’t know what to say.
Another one is “chocolate” which Karan says “do you want some chocolate?” but it means punishment if they are being naughty. As I said, he never actually does what he says but the kids pay attention and it is quite amusing to see them try to figure out if Karan is really offering chocolate or if they are in trouble.
It’s hard to share in a post how amusing and interesting it can be communicating with Karan but I have tried to share a little.
Of note: Karan will probably object to my choice of photo as it appears that he is drinking beer. It is cider actually and he barely even drank any. Karan is a a body builder and therefore a purist when it comes to what he eats or drinks but I chose the photo because it shows the fun-loving side of Karan that comes out when he talks (a rare occasion).
Posted on January 9, 2013
From the beginning of our relationship, whenever I asked Karan what he wanted to eat, he would invariably say “biryani.” It was a joke, of course, because he knew I was unfamiliar with this dish even though I was fairly familiar with Indian food. So this was a common exchanged between us where I would ask him what he wanted, he would say “biryani” and I would laugh and realize I was not going to get a straight answer.
When Karan described the dish, he always referenced his sister who he said was an even better cook than his mother. He would talk with excitement, his face lighting up as he shared what was so special to him from home. It has been my goal to one day attempt this dish, which has many variations and levels of complexity, but always rice, vegetables and spices cooked together. It is a dish similar to paella from Spain, locrio from the Dominican Republic and risotto from Italy but with its own unique qualities.
Biryani, biriani, buriyani, beryani or beriani is a set of rice-based foods made with spices, rice (usually basmati) and Chicken, mutton, fish, eggs or vegetables. The name is derived from the Persian word beryā(n) (بریان) which means “fried” or “roasted”. In countries of the Indian sub-continent, the recipe of biryani has evolved to its current form but the origin of biryani was in the kitchen of Mughal Emperors. [Source: Wikipedia]
It figures that Karan’s favorite dish derives from one served to Emperors…
So on this New Year’s Day 2013, our first New Year together in the United States, I decide I would make an Indian meal to welcome Karan to his new home. So the menu was to be Mutton (lamb) Biryani, Fried Okra, Cucumber Raita and Gulab Jamon, an Indian sweet.
I did some research on biryani to pick the right recipe. Biryani is served all over India but also in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and more. I had a recipe for a Pakistani biryani from one of my cooking magazines but I decided last minute not to use it. It called for 1 1/2 cups of oil, no way. So I searched for South Indian biryani and found this recipe. The recipe uses a pressure cooker which I have and that makes the process much simpler.
The first step was to cube the lamb, removing any large chunks of fat but still leaving some fat and the bones for flavor.
Then I prepped the spices for the marinade. As usual I alter the recipe slightly. From left to right: 1/4 cup plain yogurt, peeled ginger root, peeled turmeric root, garlic cloves, hot chili powder, salt, coriander powder.
Mash the garlic, grate the ginger and turmeric, mix together with spices and yogurt. Cover and marinate the meat for a couple of hours.
While the meat marinated, I got started on the okra. See the full recipe here. First you slice the okra into thin rounds.
Meanwhile my little ‘helper’ help herself to the okra tops which are sticky…
Then I was ready to bring the dish together. I always prep ahead so left to right: basmati rice that has been washed and soaked, chopped mint and cilantro, chopped onions, chopped tomatoes, minced garlic, minced ginger, fresh green chilis, seeds removed, meat marinated.
First the onions are sauteed and cooked down.
I start cooking the onions for the okra at the same time.
Then I added the meat to the biryani onions and the okra to the other onions.
While those two dishes were cooking I started on the dessert while my son chopped the cucumber for the raita.
I don’t usually use a mix for anything Karan picked it up at the Indian market. I mixed it together and made little balls that are then fried.
Then the biryani was done. All the flavors and spices mixed together.
This is the final meal: Lamb Biryani, Fried Okra, Cucumber Raita.
And the dessert, topped with chopped pistachios and drenched in simple syrup.
It was a day of cooking but the meal was a success. Everyone loved it and Karan felt a little bit like he was back home. I know it wasn’t the same as his sister’s biryani but it still tasted very good and both meals were made with plenty of love. I couldn’t think of a better way to celebrate the new year!
What’s funny is that since I started this post (all my posts take several days to complete because I have to squeeze it in between so many other things), I was contacted on Facebook by an Indian man who has become my online friend as a result of this blog. He knew that I had planned to make biryani and asked me how it went. I told him it went well and he said “Do you know where biryani came from?” and I answered that I had read it came from the Persians. He said flat out that was not true and that biryani came from Spain as paella. I was intrigued because I could not find a single reference to connect the two dishes historically even though they clearly are similar. We went back and forth where I questioned where he came to that conclusion, finding source after source which referenced Persia, Turkey or even an ancient Tamil dish but never Spain. Who knows what really happened but when you study the dishes of different cultures you see so many similarities such as the tortilla in Mexico is basically the same as the chapati in India and the cultures never introduced one to the other. But I realized that for my friend, his adamant assertion that biryani, a much loved dish in India, did not come from the Mugals, was more one of pride that such a dish could not have originated in the Muslim culture. He may be right after all but either way, it is an interesting debate.
Posted on November 4, 2012
My life in the States is like many others who are middle-income and raising children. I wake up early to get my kids on the school bus. I work hard when they are in school. After school I juggle their activities, my remaining work and dinnertime. Bedtime finally comes and after I work a little more. Then finally a little rest before I go to sleep, only to wake and do it all again. It is a long day, 14+ hours before I get any downtime. My ability to do all this, especially as a single parent, which is what I have been while Karan has been waiting for the visa, is because of the efficiency of the United States. As long as the bills are paid, I don’t have to worry about electricity, water or maintenance. The roads are in good condition so I can get to where I want to go quickly. Everything works, simply works.
I live that full, busy life without barely a moment to spare, squeezing in quick calls to Karan here in the Dominican Republic, and then suddenly everything changes. After nearly 3 years of waiting, the moment arrives where all this may change and I may no longer have to do all this on my own. So I pack my bags and fly down to the Dominican Republic within a week. Before I leave it is a mad rush to get everything ready for the visa, to complete all the work that I cannot do remotely, to cook and freeze food for the kids while I’m gone, and to hand off the responsibilities to my mother whom I am so grateful. I hop on that plane and fly away.
When I arrive, I suddenly have the feeling that I’m in a place that only exists for me, a Tim Burton vision as it were, for the cultures in my family have all merged together into something new. Arriving in Santo Domingo, I pass through customs quickly because I am American. I am met by my South Indian husband whose skin is as dark as the average Dominican but with a different hue. In the five days that follow, as we wait for the visa interview date to arrive, it was my American sense of order and double checking that ensures we have our paperwork ready. Next door to our apartment building is a shop that builds, of all things, race cars — just what every residential district needs is the sound of revving engines — and from morning to night they blare American pop music from the 1990s – today. Another apartment blares Salsa music but only on the days after payday, the 15th and 30th of the month. Inside our apartment Karan listens to Tamil music and watchs Tamil comedy shows or movies. The food we eat is a combination of Indian and Dominican: fish curry and white rice with a side of fried plantains for example. At night we often drink cerveza Presidente (beer), a Dominican national treasure, and in the morning we pray to Hindu deities. Talk about culture clash.
One show Karan became particularly enamored with was called Tamil Super Star: Super Singer Junior 3, sponsored by Candyman Double Chocolate Eclairs who’s slogan is “No more waiting for chocolating!” It is basically like American Idol but for the Tamil culture. For a Western viewer like myself it couldn’t be more different. Here is a video of the season’s winner.
For the finale they had a guest judge, A.R. Rahman, a native of Tamil Nadu who has achieve near god-like status in his home region. He is the music director who composed the soundtrack for Slumdog Millionaire and won an Oscar. He is a local boy done his hometown proud.
Over several days Karan watches the show, catching up to the present day. He had been following it online before I arrived but then his laptop had problems and stopped working. So there I was, in the Dominican Republic, waiting for our interview at the American Consulate, listening to Dominican music next door, and watching Tamil Super Star online. Every day it has been this mix, a confusing combination, a combination that at first made no sense but now as the days go by, is starting to seem somewhat normal.
As different as these three cultures are, there are also far more similarities than one would expect. I have been blessed, I feel, with the opportunity to experience these different cultures first hand, and, as a result, see where they cross and where they connect. America is a melting pot with most Americans being a mixture of many heritages. I am an Anglo-Saxon mutt: Scottish, Irish, English, Scandinavian with a dash of German. I can trace my Scottish roots to my clan but that is still just one part of me. I grew up feeling like a ship without a rudder, no real roots to grab on to, just latching onto my Scottish roots like the pick of the litter. I longed to feel a part of a greater history in a clearly traceable way. Now, my personal heritage has not change but my family has. My children have half of my mix and half Dominican, a clearly defined culture. My husband is from the oldest living classical culture, able to trace his roots back thousands of years. Through them I am finally able to steer my ship.
So as these cultures combine, I am able to experience them directly but also step back and see them as an outsider. From this perspective I can see not only how different we are but also how similar. Mother Nature already knows this. She does not distinguish between national borders or cultural differences. Case in point, while Hurricane Sandy was battering New York City, United States — my hometown, Cyclone Nilam was drenching Chennai, India — Karan’s hometown. The same basic weather systems affecting two cultures in my family in two parts of the world at the same time.
Similar weather systems is just one example of how we are all one people, one world, but the parallels don’t stop there. Take food, for example, one of my favorite topics, the empanada is a Dominican turnover filled with meat and cheese, a samosa is an Indian turnover filled with potato and spices — different but the same. Add to this the calzone, knish, perogie, meat pie, all variations of the same basic food. For that is what we are really, as a people, variations — not different, not unique, just the same but with a different flavor, spice, or filling.
I have spent nearly two weeks in Santo Domingo and I expect to be here another two as we await the Consulate to return Karan’s passport with the visa. I don’t have to stay but I want to, even though is a sacrifice, to ensure that we both get to the United States without further problems. So while I wait, I have the gift of time, being far away from my hectic schedule in the United States, and plenty of inspiration to write down as I dance with the combing cultures that surround me.
Posted on October 7, 2012
It is a tradition in India, amongst those of the Hindu faith, to travel long journeys to special temples where they give their hair to God. It is a journey of self sacrifice that young and old make, a sacrifice performed many times in one lifetime.
Because of this tradition, India has become the central source of human hair extensions. The temples sell the hair to hair extension manufacturers and uses the money to support the temples, including giving food to the poor.
Karan had been growing his hair for years and was waiting to return to India to shave it all off. This is his journey. First, he traveled by train with several of his friends to the temple. It was more than a day’s travel.
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Below is a video of Karan getting his hair shaved at the temple. Hair is shaved 24 hours a day and people sometimes wait for days in line.
Head shaved and anointed, Karan cleanses himself in temple waters and then travels with his friends to another temple higher up the mountain.
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