Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Who Speaks for “Teatime’s” Past?

Okay, all joking aside and all comical references to the Chakrabarty article forgotten, it is important to consider that when we sat down to drink tea morning, afternoon, and night while in Kalimpong, we were all thinking to ourselves, ‘Jolly good chap, looks like a fine day for a cup o’ tea, eh?’ (or at least I was).  It just seems so… British.  But it’s not.  Tea came around long before the East India Company brought it to Britain.  Throughout my time in India there were these kind of customs that I saw as being clearly British and other things that were a perfect representation of traditional Indian culture.  The best way I can describe this is in a story about one day I spent in Kalimpong.  It’s a story that shows how Indian history has not been lost, but instead mixed with British culture.

The best experiences I had while at the Gandhi Ashram were those when I got the opportunity to go home with the students.  It let me not only see the culture, but experience it.  One day I was playing basketball with a bunch of the kids when Sanjeeb, a class four boy who I’d been playing with all afternoon asked me to go home with him after school.  I agreed, and when the bell rang at 3:30 that afternoon he came and found me.  We walked down the road to 5th mile and off on a path that took us through the villages scattered through the hills.  Along the way he would point at certain things: a rock, a tree, a bridge, water, and tell me the Nepali equivalent.  In some sort of odd interpretation I’d say it back to him, he would correct me, and somehow I eventually managed to piece together the syllables.  As we walked along the stone path, it eventually turned into a footpath through the trees in time coming to a large open area of terraced rice patties.  Sanjeeb pointed towards a house in the distance and told me it was his grandmother’s.  We made our way farther down the path and eventually came to a rice patty that was a bit larger than the rest.  A group of eight or so boys were playing cricket.  Sanjeeb told me they were his cousins, so we climbed up to the small field and watched for a while.  Eventually, Sanjeeb’s older cousin invited me to play.  With some hesitancy, having never played cricket before, I stepped up to the bowler position.  We played for an hour or so, until the ball got lost down the hill or across the stream.  With his cousins, Sanjeeb brought me to his grandmother’s house, slightly farther down the hill on a path that ran along the edges of the fields.  There I was given tea and fresh bananas while I tried to talk to the family using my nine year-old friend as a translator.  They would laugh at my bollixed attempts at speaking Nepali, but would always try to understand.    After tea, we continued even farther down the path, again with Sanjeeb’s older cousins.  Finally, we got to his house, a small stucco building with low ceilings behind a series of fields.  I quickly his family before his cousins took me to a building near by where I went inside and sat down on a wooden stool.  A woman in the back of the small room was kneeling over a fire oven.  It was hard tell what she was doing as she poured boiling water into a pot and kneaded the contents with her hands.  Eventually, I realized the pot was filled with millet and she was making millet wine.  She poured a few glasses and gave them to us.  Here I sat in a room with Sanjeeb’s non-English speaking cousins with a glass of millet wine in front of me.  As we’ve always said: ‘When in India….’ It quickly became dark and Sanjeeb and his cousins led me back along the path to the Gandhi Ashram.  The afternoon had been an incredible experience.

I bring up this story in such great detail because each part seems to show something about the Indian culture and British influence. With this said, I should also take into account the fact that the culture of the Kalimpong area is dominantly Nepali, not Indian.  Even still, they have traditions and customs that speak for themselves.  In his essay, Chakrabarty says that history has been written by Eurocentrist writers and philosophers using western ideals and western culture as a basis with which to compare the lifestyles and cultures of non-western societies.  His idea may be correct, but does not account for the fact that India’s culture has become a mixture of both traditional and western beliefs and ideals. Chakrabarty might say that Indian and Nepali culture have been lost in history and predominated by English culture and Bourgeoisie.  The reality, however, is that the cultures, just like languages and ethnicities, have intermingled to form one that has not lost native influence, but does represent some level of English impact.  In my afternoon with Sanjeeb and his family, playing cricket and our conversations in English were the only things that were ‘western.’  The genuine hospitality, the conversations we had in Nepali, the buildings, the fields, the lifestyles, the clothing, and the millet wine were all very traditional.  The people of Kalimpong were more welcoming, friendly, and kind than any I’ve ever met.  There is something to be said for that and the fact that their hospitality is something that hasn’t been lost in history.  They have kept their religion, their language, and lifestyles; things Chakrabarty might say have gotten lost in the eyes of history.

Chakrabarty’s point, however, of history’s Eurocentrist misrepresentation of past is certainly exhibited in the afternoon tea I had at Sanjeeb’s grandmother’s house. For whatever reason, tea is viewed predominantly as a British convention.  Chakrabarty might argue that history has written the story of the East India Company to be the beginning of the popularization of tea.  For this reason, we tend to see ‘teatime’ as a British conception.  However, well before the East India Company started importing tea to Britain, the people of India were growing and drinking tea.  The ‘history’ of tea originates long before the British arrived in India, but that part of history has been lost in some way.  As Chakrabarty points out in his article, western history predominates the writings of historians and thus written history has created tea and teatime to be a custom popularized by the western world during the 17th century. 

There’s a lot more to Chakrabarty’s point than tea, but I think this is a nice representation of the concept.  The way people perceive history is a direct result of how historians and philosophers choose to write it.  But there are things that can’t be written in history.  The colorful kurtas, saris, and sarongs, the rice patties and farms, the millet wine, the Nepali language, the hospitality; these are the customs and traditions, the lifestyles that show India’s history, even if it’s not been written down in books.  In response to Chakrabarty’s question: These are the things that speak for the silenced voices of Indian pasts.  These are the things that truly show the history of the place we called home for the month of January.

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