Saturday, September 30, 2006

coffee down south, not chai

There are many serious cultural differences between south and north India. To my mind, the most profound is: coffee. In the north, it's chai. Here, it's coffee. Happily.

I can date with some precision the beginning of my interest in the issue of coffee drinking in India. Before coming to India, I spent several months with my dear friends Karen Derris and Ed Murphy, as I waited for the Fulbright to secure Indian research visas for its scholars. To call Ed a coffee drinker would be woefully inadequate. In fact, Ed has his coffee beans flown in from his favored plantations in Nicaragua and other such places and grinds the beans seconds before brewing his coffee. Coffee in their home was readily available, and Ed was very concerned as to how I would have continued access to coffee once in India. I planned to be in the north where tea (or ‘chai’) is everywhere and coffee nowhere. At one point, Ed was advocating that I learn how to roast my own beans, as unroasted beans keep longer and could be shipped to me green from time to time. I dragged my feet a bit there, and explained that anyway, I take milk in my coffee. Milk means refrigeration, but in Sarnath where I then expected to spend most of my time, there are scheduled power outages from 9 am to 5 pm daily. This led Ed to propose other solutions for me. The suggestions he pitched ranged from carrying a generator with me to India (um, that might be a bit heavy, no?) to procuring a Lister Engine (a what?). In the end, he sent me off to India with a handy one-cup gold filter.

When I first arrived here, I was traveling with my good friend Chela, who is Cuban, as long as we are speaking of avid coffee drinkers…. Chela bought five kilos of excellent coffee at a little shop we found in Delhi. We begged hot water here and there, and used my handy filter to brew ourselves some fine cups of coffee during the month we were together. Some fine cups, yes, but certainly not five kilos’ worth. She carried those bags of coffee with her around the country until she left, and then willed it to me.

But all this was before I knew I’d be in south India, where coffee is very much the caffeinated beverage of choice, taken with warmed milk and, usually, sugar. Which brings me to the supposed point of this blog entry: The material culture of coffee-making in the south.

What you see pictured here is a ‘coffee filter’ a $2 kitchen appliance in the stainless steel that is a staple of Indian kitchen (see the coffee cups as well.) This beautifully simple technology is all you need to make a fine cup of strong coffee. The coffee beans are ground to a fine powder, finer than we might grind for espresso makers, and this powder is then placed in the top half of the coffee maker.

As you see, the holes are tiny, and to compound matters, the other device you see is placed on top of the coffee powder in the filter to tamp it down. On top of that goes boiling water, and then it is covered to allow it to drip down. The first time I tried it, I thought I was doing something wrong, as it took so long to drip down that the coffee had begin to cool off. No, I was told, that is why the milk needs to be very, very hot.

Have you begun yet to wonder why a Buddhist nun is devoting an entire blog entry to coffee? After I first ordained, my youngest brother Dan said, “So now you’ll have to give up coffee, right?” Dan was much more health-conscious than I, never drank coffee or caffeinated tea himself and was clearly pleased at the prospect of my giving up coffee. I was equally pleased to tell him that in fact, Buddhist monks in Japan are sometimes credited with discovering green tea, which they valued greatly for its benefits in supporting alertness during long meditation sessions. Whether or not this is so, the fact remains that Buddhist monastics take no vow against consuming caffeine. Alcohol? Definitely off-limits. Coffee? Coming right up…how do you take it?

Vow or not, coffee is not among the objects we are expected to renounce. Of course, as with anything else, we must take great care not to allow ourselves to become dependent or emotionally attached to the objects we like, eagerly seeking them out and mourning their absence. … The point is not to deprive ourselves of all enjoyment, but to learn to enjoy without becoming attached to the object, or to the experience of it.

As committed Buddhist practitioners, what we strive to renounce is our attachment, not necessarily the objects of pleasure. The difference, you see, is in the mind.

Friday, September 08, 2006

welcoming a new baby: a naming ceremony

When it comes to life-cycle rituals, Hindu culture beats Buddhist culture (or at least Tibetan Buddhist culture), hands down. I attended my third one in two weeks, this time a ceremony to give a newborn child its name, called nāmakarma. Much more than announcing the name, this ritual is a sort of formal introduction of the child to his community, the extended family. Two quite beautiful practices put all the relatives in the role of caregiver to the child – first, men and women alike will have a chance to give the child milk and later rock the child to sleep, allowing all to share in these two central acts of motherly love.

The overall ceremony begins with the offerings of flowers, rice and other substances to the gods and Vedic chanting that form a backbone a staple of these life-cycle rituals (see photo).

After this ritual is completed, each person scoops up a tiny bit of milk with one of the parents’ gold rings and gives a drop or two to the child (see photo). Later, the infant is placed in a cradle and everyone is invited to take a turn rocking the baby to sleep. As the child is being rocked, the women of the family gather to sing a lullaby (see photo, women singing in background.) Unlike the English lullaby in which the cradle is made to fall from a tree, this one tells the infant he or she is lying on the bedrock of the world, held up by the four Vedas and escorted by divine protectors.

After the child has been rocked by the adults in the tradition cradle made of a cloth tied to the ceiling, it is placed in a cradle on the floor and children are invited to join in and help put the child to sleep. The infant’s older sibling has been very much included in each phase of the ritual, sitting on her parents’ laps even during the most complex stages of the ritual, feeding milk to her brother and now rocking him to sleep.

Based on the astrological chart of the infant, this ceremony might also mark the first time that certain male relatives are permitted to see the child’s face, including even the father if the stars suggest he should not. In the case of the baby boy whose naming ritual I attended today, there had been no prohibitions against seeing his face earlier.

Meanwhile, it is at this ceremony that the child’s name is first made public. At this ritual, the child was already three weeks old, but nearly everyone was hearing the child’s name for the first time, including grandparents and his older sister. Here it is the child’s father who decides the name, perhaps in consultation with relatives. In this case, the father had still been weighing options up to the last minute. The name is announced – Madhav Simha and much discussion breaks out as relatives state the name to one another and comment on the choice. The strongest comments come from the infant’s four-year old sister, who greets this proposal a scowl and a vigorous shake of the head. No, she insists, to much laughter, his name is ‘Tamuru’ - the local term for ‘Brother.’

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

moving into a big pink building

Living in a ladies hostel is great, if you are a college freshman, or have very recently been one. Eating the hostel food is not great, no matter how dim one’s memories of home-cooked meals.

That said, I am grateful for the opportunity to learn about the lives of the first generation of young Indian women for whom a college education in engineering or computer science is the obvious choice, virtually regardless of their caste. But now that it is clear I will be here for a while more, the idea of having my own place began to make sense. Very good sense.

Last week, a ‘to let’ sign went up on a big pink building that has been under construction these past months, and within a few days, I had moved in. My new home is a brand new apartment with three bedrooms, three bathrooms, two balconies and excellent cross-breezes. I can see the sea from the rooftop. This is all serious overkill, definitely, but in fact it was the first apartment to come free within walking distance of my Sanskrit teacher’s home. And not only is it within walking distance, but literally across the street. From my front balcony I can look into my teacher’s front yard and see whether he is in or not. We signed a flexible short-term lease, and I will share this vast space with Sangeeta, who will be in and out of town as her research permits.

Did I mention the kitchen? Now to my Sanskrit classes I am adding lessons in cooking south Indian food, the one topic besides Sanskrit culture that I have seen my Sanskrit teacher generate real enthusiasm for. Recipes to follow…

Photos are of my workspace, of the view from my workspace out the door onto the front balcony and of the big pink building itself (our apartment is second floor in front).

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

“let us read” - on translating

My Sanskrit teacher Shastry Garu comments that when he was a boy in high school and eager to learn English, he used to go sometimes to hear Christian missionaries preach, since they were the only native English speakers in the area of Andhra Pradesh, in south India, where he lived. One very charismatic American preacher used to dance, weep and fall to the ground as he preached in English. Now, the missionaries always had a Telugu translator alongside them, and Shastry Garu notes that although he himself could not understand much of what the preacher said, he knew enough to tell that the translator understood even less. But when the American danced and threw his arms in the air as he preached in English, the translator too danced ecstatically as he spoke in Telugu. And when the preacher cried out and fell to the ground, so did the translator. This, Shastry Garu felt, was a valid translation, a translation of emotion. “The translator was not communicating the verbal argument. But the whole content of the speech was conveyed. It was a cogent display of inspiration and emotion,” Shastry Garu noted. “And it worked. It was a working translation.

“Translating each word into another language is not a valid translation. The meaning resides in the whole sentence, whole paragraph, sometimes in the book whole. “So when translating, Shastry Garu said, one should render entire sentences, not words. Translation should go from sentence to sentence. Even then, sometimes going from sentence to sentence is not enough. Sometimes you have to translate paragraph by paragraph to get the meaning into another language properly. Then too sometimes you have to concentrate on translating the emotion of a story. Sometimes that is the content. Changes will be necessitated by that. Then you are translating literature.

“You cannot go from word to word when you are translating. How does a language work? Each one has its own idiom. Idiomatic utterances are what convey meaning. A word alone does not. A word alone is not a valid unit of meaning…Let us read.”

The theory of translation that Shastry Garu is urging is deeply embedded in Sanskritic theories of language and of how meaning is generated. It is also very much at odds with the principles followed by many of the great scholars who translated Sanskrit texts into Tibetan, and of much translation by lesser beings of Tibetan into English. Including, to a far larger degree than Shastry Garu would accept, my own translation of the Sanghatasutra… I have some reflection to do.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

answering the call: cell phone use during rituals

Social life just will not be put on hold, it seems, even during major rituals here. Over the last couple of weeks, I have attended three important rituals, marking the naming of a child and marriages. The families involved were fairly orthodox brahmins, and had chosen their ritual officiants (or purohita) with care, to ensure that all stages of the ritual were performed thoroughly and correctly. Nevertheless, when the ritual officiants’ cell phone rang during the ceremony, they did not hesitate to answer the call. At both weddings I attended, the grooms also took calls on their cell phones as the wedding ceremony went on, but sadly not while my camera was at hand.

If the use of cell phones is any indication, these life-cycle rituals do not interrupt ordinary life, but absorb it, even as they punctuate and transform it. At no time did those talking on their phones while they participated in the ritual appear embarrassed or offer an apology. Nor did I see anyone exchange disapproving glances. Indeed, the only people who seemed to find this noteworthy were my friends Sangeeta, Ma’ayan and I, all three of us students of Indian religions, with all the apparently false assumptions about solemnity of rituals that entails.

The accompanying photos are taken at a wedding and at a naming ceremony, hosted by two different families in two different cities. In each case, the person on the phone is a central participant in the ritual.