Holy Cow! Why I Choose A Cow Halloween Costume This Year

image

This Halloween, I will be a cow. Supposedly a slutty nurse, a zombie bride, a playful bunny, all invoke the wrath of testosterone on me. Cow forbid, I wouldn’t want to tempt a poor, innocent, unassuming Indian boy. But to be a cow, ah, that’s another story all together. If I dressed as a cow, I would be worshipped, protected, given privileges. So why not? In a country where a cow is protected more than it’s women, it seems like a fitting costume. (Or wait…am I going to be beaten up for celebrating Halloween? Tough call. Well, I guess as a cow, I should be quite safe anyway.)

Now, don’t get me wrong. I have nothing against cows – I love them, as I love all animals. And if indeed the beef ban is meant to be for environmental benefits, you will see me raising my hand in support. But when it takes the dangerously imposing turn that the ban has, I cry foul. So why not, I ask, place a restriction on killing snakes too? Why not let them roam freely around – after all, they are considered holy and worshipped too? Why the hypocrisy?

It is obvious where this extreme imposition comes from – and that has nothing to do with the holy cow. It is about the show of power – of who is in charge, from people who someone has convinced, “rightly” hold that power. Those who are from different faiths protest – some in the name of retaining the sovereignty of the state, others, simply because it is affordable meat. Those who never consumed beef, remain silent, most turning a blind eye to the events that do not concern them in the first place. When one finds himself on the side of the power holder, one chooses not to speak up. That’s the law of CYA (Cover Your Ass).

From the brutal murder of the Muslim man who allegedly consumed beef, to the attack on the parliament member who served beef at a party, to the raiding of the Kerala government quarters in Delhi, the atrocities in the name of the animal continues. And several jobless, impressionable thugs that exist here in India, jump at the opportunity to exercise power. A Saudi official is said to have brutally raped a maid in his quarters, but the Delhi police had the power only to raid the Kerala government quarters, so they did. This warped sense of power and how to exert that power in any given circumstance is quickly making India a laughing stock the world over. Who cares about larger issues like power shortages, poverty, inequality? At least our cows are protected. What a massive step towards development!

So anyway, this Halloween, I will be a cow. Because in some twisted way, I might find myself powerful too.

Written by Divya Susan Varkey, Intercultural Communications Trainer and Practictioner

Holy Cow! Why I Choose A Cow Halloween Costume This Year

Holding Your Breath in Bangalore: Garden to Garbage City

image

On our way to the bus stop and back, where my kids are dropped off after school, there is a portion of the road where we stop breathing. Yes, you read right. We stop breathing. I keep my eye out for that now familiar milestone that signals the urgent requirement to stunt our nasal function amongst the endless chattering of my little girls or otherwise, their energetic, sometimes out-of-tune singing. Ok girls, take a deep breath, I say. And there is quiet – for the next minute or till one of them loses their breath and gasps that she can’t do it anymore. I stay quiet, eyes out ahead of me, not daring to breathe, till the next familiar milestone comes along. I then exhale and we go on with the chattering and the singing. This is our routine, every single day, on our way to and from the bus stop.

On our way there, there is a small bridge over a canal, the old army airport on our right and small houses on our left. It would have, no doubt, been a quaint, beautiful sight once upon a time. For some reason, it is now the favourite dumping place for garbage amongst the locals in that area. Along the curved, uphill and then downhill bridge, on our right, lie piles of garbage, some wrapped in plastic, some just strewn across the side of the road, the unbearable stench pervading almost a kilometre around the area. Why do people do this, mama, the girls ask me. They don’t know any better, I distractedly tell them, a thousand reasons flooding my mind, which is for the millionth time, desperately thinking of possible solutions to the problem.

The garbage crisis seems to be on the rise in the once beautiful Indian “Garden City” of Bangalore. While there are several logistical explanations to the problem, which environmentalists, politicians, et al discuss and debate to no immediate avail, there is a cultural reason too. And any solution to the garbage crisis needs to take into consideration the cultural mentality too. India, as we all probably know, is a relationship oriented culture. In Intercultural communications terms, a Collectivistic one. What this means is that there is greater focus on “us” and who “we” are and the “in-group” rather than on individuals taking up responsibility. From early childhood, individuals are taught to act in accordance with what their group members expect of them, rather than build on an individual conscience and sense of responsibility. And so you see children from well-educated families, who while in their homes throw their candy wrappers in the waste bins, in a public place carelessly throw it down, wherever they like. After all, that is not their place or their responsibility…and nobody in their “in-group” is around to disapprove.

Unlike what the upper middle class of Indian society likes to believe, the garbage problem is not only caused by the uneducated or lower strata of society. I have witnessed educated, otherwise “cultured” people choosing to throw garbage out of their car windows or leave bags of garbage after a picnic at a nice location, simply because it is too inconvenient to carry them to a garbage bin. Everybody does it, they say, what difference does it make that I don’t? So what makes people, who otherwise have clean, hygienic lifestyles and spic and span homes, conduct themselves so crassly in a space that they are not responsible for?

It is, unfortunately, the mentality of the Collectivistic – not our space, so why care? Garbage, if you notice is always a comfortable distance away from one’s living space. When you watch tea vendors on Indian streets, and observe how they clean their space everyday in the mornings, you will see that they carefully clean an imaginary space that is “their own” – the paper cups and other garbage swept a little distance away, which then becomes “not their space” – with no effort to find a better way of disposing off the garbage. I recently, much to my amusement, watched a shop owner sweep the area in front of his shop and manoeuvre the waste carefully onto the middle of the street, where moving vehicles would then take care of it. And you see it at every level of society. The tea vendor, the picnicking family that chooses to leave their garbage behind, the lady who lives upstairs of my apartment, who would comb her long black hair and throw the strays down onto my plants on the balcony. All unknowingly, unconsciously and without meaning to be societal miscreants.

There are several measures that can be taken – introducing garbage bins at regular intervals (those that will be cleared in a timely fashion and not left to spill over), fining defaulters, creating compost pits. I leave the solution to the experts of the field. However, any sustainable solution to the problem can be arrived at only through careful consideration of the cultural mentality of the people who cause it. Else, there will always be road blocks, frustration, and sadly, even more garbage. And I’m afraid, more reasons to hold our breaths.

Written by Divya Susan Varkey, Intercultural Communications Trainer and Practitioner

Holding Your Breath in Bangalore: Garden to Garbage City

Towards (Inter)Cultural Intelligence

image

“If you just learn a single trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view … until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”
–Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee

And that is really the first principle of Intercultural communications. Of course, after adopting an attitude of open-mindedness –towards anything that is different from what one is accustomed to believing, seeing or being. It is almost primal for each of us to adopt a suspicious outlook to anything or anyone different from us. It was, after all, a matter of survival not many years ago. While it is all too sagacious to be cautious and tell our kids not to talk to strangers, in some cases, we may be overstepping a fine line between a healthy caution and a paranoiac outlook towards anybody who is unlike us. Recently, I had the experience, much to my amusement, of a close relative advising me against exposing my children to “foreigners” because she feared their safety. Mind you, the lady in question is a staunch Christian who has been raised to “love others like yourself” and me, an Intercultural communications trainer, with the aim to open people’s minds to “the other”.

All irony aside, the point of this blog is to stress on the importance of acceptance as a key for human survival. I dislike the word “tolerance” and hence, use the word acceptance. The meaning of tolerance (the more commonly used term) is “the ability or willingness to tolerate the existence of opinions or behaviour that one dislikes or disagrees with”. The word, hence, seem to be one that places the subject of the act at a level of contempt, if not beneath the performer of the act. While popularly (and more adequately) used in medical terminology to describe the effects of the administration of an external, intrusive agent that can be potentially harmful, when it comes to people, I prefer acceptance. And the key for our survival is acceptance. Because as long as there are human beings, there will be differences, if not linguistic or religious, ideological or aspirational. The greatest fallacy is to expect that another understand our way of being, without attempting to do it the other way around.

How does one reach the cognitive level of being able to accept someone or something that is different? As psychologists explain, it takes a certain level of cognitive complexity to give someone else a chance. To go beyond “if A is right and B is the opposite of A, then B must be wrong”. Cognitive simplicity, is unfortunately, one of the results of fundamentalism of any form – a frame of mind that refuses to see beyond one’s own world view. And we are all (including yours truly) victims of that easy way of thinking that we vehemently protect for fear of changing our world views. After all, it is much easier to stick to our beliefs than to put our poor brains through all those different ways of thinking!

How does this affect communicating beyond cultural boundaries?

Take the following case: Three men enter a mall at the same time. One is a Caucasian man, dressed in a suave black suit and silver tie. He is short, with a round belly and carries a leather attaché case and talks on his expensive mobile phone. The second is Hispanic, with tattoos down his muscular arm, which he shows off in his sleeveless t-shirt. His torn jeans and piercings combine with his dreadlocks and tall, athletic build to give a formidable presence. The third is a native African man – tall, lean and with a baseball cap turned back to front. He wears jeans and a t-shirt that says “Fuck y’all”. He has a grimace on his face and looks lost. Within half an hour of these men entering the mall, one goes to the movies with his son, one to the bar to drink alone and one starts a fight with a group of drunk men outside the bar. Which one of the men do you associate with each activity? Why?

Is there a chance that you could be totally wrong about your perception of what happened?

The biggest challenge to Intercultural communication is prejudice – that caused by family and societal upbringing and of course, the media. So what are the steps to move past these, so that we can better understand and communicate with those around us?

Firstly, we need to strive to understand that “different” does not equal “scary”. Secondly, we need to refrain from using polarising words like “bad”, “terrible”, “outrageous”, “uncultured” or any of those that we are predisposed to cough up as soon as we encounter something disagreeable. Thirdly, we need to give plenty of room for interaction with those we consider different. We may just open our minds out to a world completely different from ours, that might just enrich us and let’s face it, improve our cognitive capacity too! Here’s wishing you a multiculturally enriching week…

Written by Divya Susan Varkey, Intercultural Communications Trainer and Practitioner

Towards (Inter)Cultural Intelligence